In Crikey last week, Bernard Keane made the point that Australia accepts a disproportionately small number of asylum-seekers given our population size. So, where exactly do we rank in the world in terms of generosity towards displaced persons?

The United Nations Refugee Agency provides a wide range of statistics about refugees and asylum-seekers. The latest monthly data gives the number of asylum-seeker applications by country for 2009 up to and including August. The chart below shows a ranking of the 44 countries who reported accepting asylum-seekers over this period. Australia finds itself well down the list in 20th place. Mind you, the United States ranks a few spots behind us and, despite having a better reputation when it comes to taking refugees, New Zealand is even further behind. Malta is by far the most welcoming country for refugees.

So, how many more asylum-seekers should we be taking to be accepting our fair share? Keane approaches the question by considering the relative size of our population to the population of the world. However, there are many countries that are a source of refugees that could not realistically accept asylum-seekers. So, instead the baseline should be an equal share of asylum-seekers based on the relative size of a country’s population to the combined population of the 44 countries who have been taking asylum-seekers (a total of 1.14 billion).

The magic number, shown as a grey line in the chart, is 197 asylum-seekers per million population. This means that Australia’s fair share for 2009 to August should be 4,197 rather than the 3,666 we have taken so far. So, we could easily accept the 255 Sri Lankan boat people currently seeking asylum in Australia, and still have room for more. Mind you, Australia only just falls below the average rate, ranking just behind Germany which takes in slightly more asylum-seekers than average.

Of course, as Keane noted, it’s not just about population, there’s also the question of money. Australia is a rich country and so ranking asylum-seekers count by size of GDP we do even worse, falling down to 24th place. See the graph below. Surely we can afford to do better!

Political debate on the subject refugees if probably inevitable, but it is worth trying to keep a cool head and get some perspective from the numbers. Australia is a long way away from most of the rest of the world, so it should not come as a surprise that we get only a modest number of asylum-seekers by international standards. Unfortunately, this fact is unlikely to penetrate the consciousness of the more hysterical commentators.

Data sources: asylum-seeker application counts from the UNCHR, population and Gross Domestic Product from the CIA World Factbook.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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