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.

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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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Peter Fray
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