It is not surprising that many Australians believe we are being swamped by asylum seeking boat people. This fear is easily laid to rest by the facts but the Government and Opposition see political advantage in keeping the myth alive. Why? Because fear and the promise to alleviate it can be turned into votes. Fear is a winner for the news networks too. Nothing, except perhaps sport, is more effective in attracting an audience.
If the politicians and pundits told the truth everyone would know that Australia receives only a minute fraction of the world’s refugees and only a tiny fraction of those arrive by boat. History and common sense show they pose no threat. A moment’s reflection should tell us we have far more to fear from the thousands of visitors who enter the country though our airports week after week.
An understanding of the truth begins with an appreciation of the enormity of the refugee tragedy. At the end of 2008 there were 42 million people forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution. 26 million of these were internally displaced persons (IDPs). The other 16 million included 15.2 million people already recognised as refugees and 827,000 asylum seekers still waiting for their claims to be processed. Of the 15.2 million recognised refugees 10.5 million were receiving protection or assistance from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). 4.7 million Palestinian refugees were under the responsibility of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
During 2008 more than 839,000 people applied for asylum. The UNHCR registered only 9% of those claims; the others were registered directly with governments. The UNHCR presented 121,000 refugees for resettlement and 88,800 were actually resettled. The reason only 121,000 people out of the 16 million were offered for resettlement is because that is all the receiving countries were prepared to accept.
So of the 16 million recognised refugees and asylum seekers only 121,000 had any chance of resettlement and only 88,800 – about half of 1% – were actually resettled.
That’s the reality of the so-called “queue”. If it were really a queue it would be more than 16 million people long. If everyone stood about a metre apart the line would stretch from the North Pole to the South Pole. At the rate of 88,800 per year, and assuming no one else ever applied for asylum, it would take 180 years to get to the end of it. But even that millions-long queue does not exist; there is no orderly international system where people can wait patiently until their name is ticked off. The “queue jumper” myth is a cruel and simplistic cop-out.
And as for those refugees wishing to come to Australia, most countries from which they flee have no Australian embassy or UNHCR office and no safe way to apply for a protection visa. In others, people wait years in refugee camps for their claim to be processed (10 years on average in Indonesia). Then they wait years more waiting for resettlement. All the while, most are forbidden from working or sending their children to school. Millions languish hopelessly, year after year, enduring squalid, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. A recent visitor to one Indonesian camp reported that 250 people shared one toilet.
When Australia boasts of its generosity in accepting more refugees for resettlement in per capita terms than any other nation it should be seen in perspective. The real measure of a country’s capacity to absorb refugees is its per capita GDP. By that measure Australia’s generosity falls to 79th, way behind poor countries such as Pakistan, Tanzania and Ethiopia. The number accepted by Australia and other rich nations is pitiful in relation to the need. Of the 88,800 resettled worldwide in 2008, we took in 11,006. That’s 12.4% of the total accepted but only about one tenth of 1% of the 839,000 seeking asylum in 2008 – and about one sixteenth of 1% of the 16 million who suffer in camps year after year.
Less than half of the 11,006 came to Australia directly and sought asylum. And 96% of those did not arrive by boat; they came by air with no media fanfare. Only 4% arrived by boat.
Instead of highlighting these facts, the government, the opposition and the mainstream media focus on demonising people smugglers and by implication, asylum seeking boat people.
Yes, the boat arrivals increased in 2009 but were still nowhere near the 2001 and 2002 levels. And the only harm done to Australia back then resulted from the previous government’s hysterical chest-thumping and fear-mongering and its legislative attack on civil liberties. Fear is a very effective vote-grabbing tactic. That’s why, with a federal election looming, it is re-emerging now, complete with the implied and even overt association between “terrorism” and asylum seekers.
But it takes only a nanosecond’s reflection to realise that sailing straight into ASIO’s mandatory “character” check would not be the brightest way for would-be “evil doers” to enter the country.
The only logical association between asylum seekers and terror is their desperate attempt to escape from it, and in the case of people fleeing from Iraq and Afghanistan, Australia’s shared responsibility for inflaming that terror by our part in invading and occupying their countries. This embarrassing truth is lost in the xenophobic tough talk, as is the fact that Australia is a party to the Refugee Convention, which means that regardless of how they arrive, asylum seekers are not “illegals” as they have been characterised by many including the current Prime Minister. Under the Convention they have the legal right to come here and seek our protection. In fact, about 90% of boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees.
As well as diverting attention from the grossly inadequate international refugee system the tough talk also attempts to justify detaining men, women and children 2600 kilometres offshore at Christmas Island. Here, people seeking our help are incarcerated far from public scrutiny and adequate access to advocacy groups, family and friends, legal advice, religious, health and psychiatric services, and trauma counseling.
Mandatory detention violates international law not only by detaining people who have not been charged with any crime but also by denying them the right to challenge the legality of their detention. The Excised Migration Zone legislation evades Australia’s own immigration laws and our obligations under the Refugee Convention. In fact its unabashed purpose is to deny boat people their legal right to claim refugee status.
Boat people are not criminals. Even the crews – maligned as “people smugglers” – are usually destitute fishermen. The real criminals, Prime Minister Rudd’s “scum of the earth”, more likely wear suits and dine at posh restaurants. There is absolutely no need to detain men, women and children in a maximum security prison-like facility on a remote island. They should be treated in the same way as those arriving by air: after initial identity, health and security checks on the mainland they should be released into the community while their claim for protection is processed.
If Australians really believe in a fair go they will see though the political posturing and join with Amnesty International, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Refugee Council of Australia the UNHCR and numerous other groups in demanding that their government stop discriminating against asylum seekers arriving by boat.
If politicians really believe in a fair go they will replace the tough talk with the truth and devote their energy to helping to create an international refugee system that removes the need for asylum seekers to risk their lives on the open seas.