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Jun 30, 2009

Refugees, asylum seekers and Australia: some cold hard facts

There is no full solution to asylum seekers, short of world peace and an end to poverty globally. But the least we could do is stop pretending we can just block them all out.


The website of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) contains all the statistical data anyone could want on refugees, asylum seekers, returned refugees, internally displaced and stateless people around the world.

There are many different ways to analyse this data, but a few clear-cut aspects are worth emphasising. First, Australia consistently ranks near the top of industrialised nations in receiving refugees who waiting resettlement — often, but not always, in refugee camps.

Second, the reason Australia can appear so generous with offshore resettlement is because Australia consistently ranks near the bottom of industrialised nations when in comes to people arriving and seeking asylum. The controversies that erupt when a few hundred refugees arrive in boats can be seen as all the more irrational when contrasted to the tens of thousands who arrive year after year seeking asylum in some European countries which are far smaller in population and size.

report in October 2008 showed that Iraqis were still by far the top nationality arriving in developed countries seeking asylum. Third on that list is China, which most Australians do not realise is our top source country for asylum seekers, because almost none of them arrive by boat. Instead, they arrive by plane on various temporary visas and apply for asylum later.

But the burden on all industrialised countries is insignificant when placed against poorer countries. 80 percent of the world’s refugees are in developing nations — most of them in insecure, unsafe or tenuous situations. The host countries obviously have far fewer resources to handle these numbers.

The single fact that sticks out most obviously of all is that the numbers of people in these desperate situations is huge and is likely to stay that way. The UNHCR’s global trends report for 2008 estimated “the number of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide stood at 42 million at the end of last year.”

And things have got worse in the first part of 2009 with “substantial new displacements, namely in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia.”

People on the move from Pakistan include many originally from Afghanistan who have already been waiting for years in insecure situations for it to be safe to return. Australia tends to be a destination country for some who originate in Pakistan/Afghanistan or Sri Lanka.

This graph from the Possie in Aussie blog shows clearly that “the main reason why flows of asylum seekers decreased under the Howard government — they decreased around the world.”

Let’s not forget all these stats and trends are before the full effects of climate change start to be felt. A recent story in The Economist quoted the view of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) that there will be 200 million “climate-change induced migrants” by 2050. At the moment, the global community can’t even agree on how best to label such people — with many rejecting the refugee terminology — let alone how to handle them.

The policy dilemmas thrown up by this situation are huge. In one sense, there is no full solution, short of world peace and an end to poverty globally. But the least we could do is stop pretending we can just block them all out.

Policies which try to put up a wall or restrict the ability to seek asylum can work for a while — unlike those who seek to make life unpleasant for people after they arrive, which have no effect other to inflict injustice on the innocent (often at public expense) and impede their long-term ability to integrate. But this quickly becomes a race to the bottom. The worst excesses of the Howard era are now being surpassed by countries like Italy, intercepting and returning refugees to Libya — whose human rights record — including returning refugees to danger — is dismal at best.

Eventually Australia is going to have to engage more directly with the large numbers of displaced people in our region. Spending money in an effort to use Indonesia as a holding pen so refugees don’t risk their lives on boats coming to Australia may work for a while, but it is untenable in the long term if refugees waiting in Indonesia are not able to find safe resettlement within a reasonable period.

An even bigger concern is the horrendous treatment many asylum seekers and displaced people are subjected to in Malaysia. These appalling and systematic human rights abuses have received little attention in Australia until recently, but we can’t continue to turn a blind eye. This post from a Malaysian blog documents some of that terrible treatment. It also notes “There are 171,000 refugees in Malaysia, fleeing persecution in their home countries.”

Australia has recently started taking in some refugees from Burma, including most recently Rohinya people from western Burma. This is very welcome, but it also means public awareness of how many of these refugees are treated by surrounding countries in our region will grow. It will present a diplomatic and human rights challenge for Australia.

A report just released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute — called The Human Tide — reinforces the need for us to stop denying the obvious in the hope we can somehow make it all go away.

The report’s author, Dr Mark Thomson, says:

“The principal cause of people seeking refuge is events which cause them to seek refuge; unrest in one part of the world or another.”

“Will this stop in the future? No. There will always be parts of the world where there are problems and where people will try and seek safety offshore.”

It’s time we ditched the fear and loathing approach that has lain beneath so much of Australia’s political psyche over so many years, and gave a rational approach a go. It wouldn’t hurt us — and it very probably would reduce the hurt suffered by people who are already suffered more than enough. We did it in the Fraser era in respect of refugees from Vietnam and that worked out well.

Andrew Bartlett is a blogger for Crikey and is also a Research Fellow in the Migration Law Practice Program at ANU.


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14 thoughts on “Refugees, asylum seekers and Australia: some cold hard facts

  1. Jenny Morris

    Bravo, Andrew. An excellent piece.
    The media has a significant responsibility to put the recent arrivals in some context, to inform, rather than spread panic. If the government won’t lead on this, the media has to.
    Your article is an excellent start.

  2. pedro

    What a defeatist article by Bartlett, showing us all how the Democrats went the way of the dodo.

    With more time I would happily debunk those myths which he has written (no doubt for the sole purpose of enhancing his own ego in his own mind). If Bartlett wanted to really do some work, he may have pointed out that the real solution to illegal immigrants did not lie in an open-shore policy, but in finding solutions in the homelands of those illegals.

    What a great privelege Bartlett must enjoy to be able to write populist article espousing populists policies, without ever having the responsibility of having to implement it.

    In the mean time he gets all the plaudits and pats on the back from fellow minor party aspirants, those who one day hope to fill that role of minor party vacuum.

    They know they will never have to do any work except be the left wing populist voice of infinite youthful anarchy. Thank god the democrats are now extinct.

    The true

  3. Daniel Ashdown

    Interesting article, Andrew. Thanks for the read.

  4. regteren

    Populism: type of politics that claim to represent the interest of ordinairy people [source: Oxford Dictonary]

    Now, Pedro, tell me which parties and policies really are the populist ones..

  5. pedro

    Regteren, you learned to look up a word. Quick, world leaders – take note, you are debating a 16 year old and he is armed with a dictionary!

  6. Frank v R

    Pedro, I sincerly think someone needed to explain to you what populism means..

    Who’s the 16 year old in this case?

  7. Pamela

    Thankyou Andrew- a whiff of common sense instead of POPULIST scare mongering.

    Is it not time we grew up in this country and realised that we are all here because of people movements for all sorts of reasons.

    We have to move on from an infantile STOP THE BOATS policy to considering how to respect both the human rights of the asylum seekers and our own interests.

    We can do both.

    Warehousing people in Indonesia is both immoral and storing up trouble for the future.

    Give them a break and process their claims fairly and then resettle them here to join the Australian family.

  8. Andrew Bartlett

    You should try arming yourself with a dictionary, Pedro – it might stop you using words when you clearly don’t understand what they mean.

    Apart from obviously not knowing what ‘populist’ means, you also incorrectly use the term ‘illegals’ to describe people who are not.

    You’re understand of the ‘myth’ is obviously faulty, seeing all I have done is outlined (and linked to) many well-established and documented facts, and given some assessments of what this means.

    You also clearly don’t know what an ‘open-shore policy’ is, seeing I haven’t advocated anything of the sort.

    Presumably you are also not aware that I have often had the responsibility of having to make decisions which have influenced the implementation of immigration policy. Some of these decisions are difficult, because this is often an area with no easy answers (although you seem to think you have them).

    Finding solutions in the homelands of displaced people so they are able to return safely is always the best option whenever it is possible. But as I said, unless we can deliver world peace and an end to poverty, then there will be many times when such an option is not possible. If you are saying you have the solutions to bring about world peace and end to poverty (or even just one of them), I’m sure everyone would love to hear them.

  9. coreena

    I’d like that Australia take refugees but, as an ignoramus, I do wonder why so many Muslims want to come here. I’d love to see more women & children taken from the sex trade in SE Asia & be able to settle here. The Vietnamese fitted in well because they are mainly Buddhist so religion was never an issue. Many Vietnamese were also christian from its years as a French colony. As an atheist I think all religions have the potential to create divisiveness. The Muslim school in Sydney is the most recent example. Sure there are Catholic schools but they’re Christian so fit into Australia’s judeo-christian history. There is a real fear of Muslim men in our society & it’s because of the Taliban & the gang rapists in Sydney. The white Australia policy & Australia’s geography put it out of reach of post-WW2 refugees but we’re close to Asia & easier for refugees to reach. I just wish I knew why so many are Muslim men.

  10. Jillian Blackall

    Left wing populism definitely does exist. Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore comes to mind.

    However, I do agree with Andrew that a change in this area is needed.

  11. Andrew Bartlett

    I agree Jillian – populism can be left, right or whatever. But whatever ideological label you want to put on a position which argues for a more realistic and humane approach to asylum seekers, it sure as hell isn’t populist. (NOTE: Some people usually labelled as right-wing, such as PJ O’Rourke also argue for a less restrictive approach to asylum seekers – albeit partly based on different principles to those labelled as ‘left’)

    Coreena – Australia has as much a secular (post-colonisation) history as it does a Christian one (people very rarely used the term ‘judeo’ to also describe Australia’s history until more recent times).

    It is not specifically that Muslims try to come here more than anywhere else – although they have as much right as anyone else does. There have been Muslims in Australia since the early days of European settlement, and mosques around for over a century.

    In any case, the vast majority of asylum seekers from the Middle East (who aren’t just Muslim of course) stay in surrounding countries in their region. Of those that try to go further afield to more secure locations, most go to Europe or North America.

    You have rightly pointed out past refugee flows from Vietnam. I expect we will see more from Burma and Bangladesh, coming through Malaysia (which I should repeat has a very poor record of mistreating asylum seekers in their country). There will probably be more Tamils from Sri-Lanka for a while (who are not Muslim).

    Refugees have a right to protection, regardless of their religion. In as much as there are any problematic issues, as there have been or are with all other components of Australian society, it is far better – for everyone – to work together on having them understood and addressed, rather than suggest they should be kept out. All that will do is increase division, hostility and misunderstanding all round.

  12. Jillian Blackall

    Yes, I wouldn’t describe support for a more realistic and humane approach to asylum seekers as populist – left or right. There was an implication in what some people were saying that populism is usually on the right and I was responding to that.

  13. Jon Hunt

    It is quite interesting reading this and comparing it to what one reads in the general media, or what seems to be propaganda handed out by Governments.

  14. coreena

    Thank you Andrew for your response. I did admit to being an ignoramus. As a checkout the muslims are much more polite than the majority of east asian students and speak better english. Hasim El Masri is an excellent example but in Tassie he’s not well known. Australia was more intolerant of chinese immigrants than the afghan men who led camels thru the outback.


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