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Feb 15, 2010

Lies, damned lies and asylum seeker statistics

For more than a week, the Coalition has been hawking a story around the press gallery about how UNHCR figures contradict the Government’s figures on asylum seekers. Today, Glenn Milne finally bit.

About the only area where the Government has had its media cycle management together lately has been on border protection. Last week, in a nice one-two, Chris Evans launched a high-profile overhaul of skilled migration to “take back control of our immigration program” and the Prime Minister announced a new set of aviation security measures, the primary impact of which seems to be to make the airport queues of travellers delayed by security checks an even bigger and more tempting target for terrorists.

That’s your Government: vigilant at our borders.

OK, so the whole thing was swamped by the froth-mouthed demands that Peter Garrett, he of the blood-drenched hands, be chucked in prison, but the Government had stolen a march on the Opposition, which has been looking for ways to exploit rising numbers of asylum seekers.  Anne Duffield, former chief of staff to Philip Ruddock, has followed the immigration portfolio from the demoted Sharman Stone to Scott Morrison and is co-ordinating the effort.

So Tony Abbott travelled to Darwin on Saturday to push the issue.  While the ostensible purpose of the trip was to meet ADF personnel involved in border protection, the real point was to lay the groundwork for what the Opposition hopes will be the overflow of the Christmas Island detention facility to Darwin.  As in, oh my God, they’re on the MAINLAND.  That won’t have any impact on the legal status of asylum seekers, but will be an excellent symbol for focusing voter attention on the issue, which has not been quite as obsessive as it was nine years ago.

Inconveniently, Malcolm Turnbull had already committed the coalition to a new type of temporary protection visa last year, despite plentiful evidence that such visas don’t discourage boats and in fact aren’t even temporary.  Abbott has tried to build on that by promising to “turn the boats back”, by what means is not clear, but at least that will make two out of two policies that encourage asylum seekers to endanger themselves.

But just to show that Abbott has learnt from Kevin Rudd’s successful stint as Opposition leader, he didn’t go to Darwin empty handed.  He announced that the coalition was getting to grips with the problem by setting up a committee.  The committee’s membership is Morrison, Julie Bishop, Michael Keenan, Jason Wood and Senators Johnston and Brandis.  The other member is Philip Ruddock, described in the Abbott press release as “ex officio”.  Ex-officio of what is left unsaid, but perhaps it means that if you’re going to have a scare campaign on asylum seekers, then Philip “it” Ruddock is a compulsory presence.

The committee’s strategy will in part focus on “prevention of the problem by minimising the outflows from countries of origin and secondary outflows from countries of first asylum”.  One looks forward to seeing how the coalition, which gleefully joined in the attack on Iraq that sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing that country, will “minimise the outflows” of people driven from their homes by war, persecution and natural calamity.  Assuming we won’t have Julie Bishop becoming the new paragon of shuttle diplomacy and spending her entire time trying to broker ceasefires and peace negotiations around the world, “minimising the outflows” will involve more foreign aid to strife-torn countries and “countries of first asylum”.  That’d be from the foreign aid budget that Barnaby Joyce wants to slash.

Perhaps the committee will give some more oomph to coalition efforts on the issue.  For more than a week the coalition has been hawking a story around the press gallery about how UNHCR figures contradict that Government’s claim that there has been a significant increase in “push” factors driving asylum seekers to Australia.  Today they’ve finally had some luck, because Glenn Milne picked up the story no one else was interested in.

“Figures released at the end of January show there were 279,624 asylum applications in 44 key industrialised countries in the nine months to September, only 5 per cent more than in 2008,” Milne regurgitated. “This undermines the Rudd government’s argument that global “push” factors, such as war and civil unrest, were being experienced by all developed countries, which were also facing increased illegal migration.”

Now doubtless Milne’s very excited about how well Tony Abbott is doing but there’s no excuse for simple innumeracy.  The UNHCR figures actually well demonstrate the push factors at work.  Nearly all of the increased number of asylum seekers coming to Australia in the last year have been from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.  Despite lacking data from several countries for the final quarter of 2009, the figures showed a sharp spike in the number of Sri Lankan asylum seekers in countries within their reach: a 30% jump in France, 14% jump in Germany, increases in Switzerland and Belgium; even Japan had more than double the numbers of Sri Lankan asylum seekers.  Even New Zealand’s numbers went up.  Indeed, New Zealand had a significant overall increase in asylum seekers last year despite the new conservative governments in Wellington.

The figures for asylum seekers from Afghanistan increased by a third (despite several countries missing final quarter data), causing a similar-sized spike all across Europe — Germany faced a five-fold increase and Hungary 10-fold.  Numbers even went up as far afield as the United States.

In short, the global numbers of refugees don’t tell us much.  It’s the numbers from individual trouble spots that are the issue, and two of the biggest, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, are in our region — indeed, we’re one of the few countries in the region that is a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Even then, there are sub-regional factors at work — the big 2009 increase in asylum seekers from China would, two decades ago, have probably seen a spike in arrivals in Australia, but numbers of Chinese asylum seekers coming here actually fell. Instead, they rose in Europe and the United States.

If Milne and co want to talk about global numbers, perhaps he should congratulate the Government on keeping out Serbian refugees.  There was a 20% rise in Serbian refugees last year to more than 18,000, but we cut Serbian arrivals by 100%.  Yep, that’s right, they went from five to zero.  Ditto with Russian refugees, who made up about 20,000 last year.  We went from 21 to seven.

Of course we did.  Serb and Russian refugees are on the other side of the globe and don’t come into this region.  Same with the 20,000-plus and rising Somalian refugees, of whom 19 arrived here.  They go to Europe and North America.

When there’s a scare campaign on, there are lies, damned lies and refugee statistics.

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62 thoughts on “Lies, damned lies and asylum seeker statistics

  1. Mark Duffett

    Again I have to ask – how is Afghanistan ‘in our region’? It’s much closer to the UK than it is to Australia. Indeed, parts of Russia are closer to Australia than Afghanistan.

  2. Jenny Haines

    Of course! Scare campaigns rely on lies, damn lies and statistics and it says something about the Federal Opposition and those they influence that they cannot see through the scare campaign or the dodgy statistics. In July 2009, Amnesty International commissioned a Nielsen Poll to assess the Australian people’s understanding and attitudes towards asylum seekers, especially those arriving by boat. In 2008, 3.4% of all asylum seekers arriving in Australia came by boat. 96.6% arrived by plane. The results of the Nielsen Poll showed that of the 1000 participants, only one person answered correctly that around 4% of asylum seekers arrive by boat. Most respondents to the survey guessed that up to 80% of asylum seekers arrive by boat, a figure that no doubt reflects widespread misunderstanding about the means of arrival in this country by refugees and asylum seekers. Surprisingly, 69% of respondents to the poll believed that that all asylum seekers should have the same rights regardless of how they entered. At present in Australia, those asylum seekers processed on Christmas Island do not have access to the same legal rights as those on the mainland. Some facts for you but of course politics is not about facts, but perception!

  3. Simon Rumble

    Mark Duffett: have a look at the number of borders one has to cross and the kinds of countries running them between Afghanistan and Europe vs Afghanistan and Australia. If you get in a boat after crossing the porous border between Afghanistan and head straight to Australia, you’re crossing precisely one border before reaching here. Do that overland to Western Europe and you’d have to cross, what, at least 3 borders to reach Italy. And one of those will be a place like Iran.

  4. surfer

    Who cares where they’re coming from, Rudd needs to slow them down and stop encouraging them.

  5. C@tmomma

    Re Glenn Milne and UNHCR numbers…Maybe they’re “All inumerate now” in the Coalition! I can see Janet A. being tasked with writing the supporting piece now. 🙂

  6. merlot64

    @Surfer – you have obviously missed the point of the article above. 1. How can you expect the government to “slow them down”? Rebuild their societies into model of justice and tolerance? Barnaby wants to eliminate foreign aid.
    and 2, they are not being encouraged, they are the result of “push” factors in their home countries – war, oppression, etc…

  7. Jenny Haines

    Surfer, pull your head out of the sand and take a look at the real world . Australia, and in fact no country can isolate itself from the world. We have legal, ethical, moral, social and political responsibilites. The myth that there is some golden past that we are moving away from, is just that, a myth. There have always been immigrants coming to this country since the days of the First Fleet and we have, since those days been multicultural.

  8. surfer

    Why did they stop making the trip across the ocean in leaky boats when the previous Government were iin office?

  9. CliffG

    In the early 2,000’s the boats didn’t stop. They increased. Under Howard! People fleeing for their lives are prepared to take terrible risks. But there are factors which may direct those who are well informed and they are a distinct minority. Refugees have little access to news and information other than local information about how they can best stayb alive.
    Why have they stopped going to Italy, Surfer? Because the government is so draconian and the people fleeing for their lives are treated so appallingly. So it was too under Howard and Ruddock. The boat arrivals reduced later in the decade as Afghanistan quietened down and Sri Lanka hadn’t erupted. The government of the day simplictically persuaded many it was because of their “hard-line”. But at what human cost to the nation and the refugees? People detained indefinitely. People driven to self harm and madness. People shuffled off to god knows where and forgotten, one with his cat alone on Manus Island for a year at great cost, both personal and financial. And most eventually made their way to Australia anyway. They were used as political pawns by a government which didn’t care at all about them as human beings, but simply as vote catchers.
    But that doesn’t mean the refugees stop fleeing. It just means some vile governments force them to other shores thus totally failing to meet their responsibilities under international agreements they signed. If Australia is to remain true to its international obligations and its humanitarian claims it cannot resume these heinous approaches to dealing with asylum seekers. When 96.6% of asylum seekers coming to Australia arrive by AIR, how big a problem is the remaining 3.4%? Does it really warrant another SIEV X and 435 deaths at sea? Does it warrant brutal and inhumane treatment? Does it warrant a return to international condemnation and disgust?

  10. David

    Surfer..Why did they stop making the trip across the ocean in leaky boats when the previous Government were iin office?…

    Well thats easy even for a Howard hugger like yourself Surfer…Howard would have let them drown, simple. But then obviously you dont object to lives being lost to justify Abbotts policy of keep the bastards out of here, we dont want them, let them swim back where they came from. Its types like you and your mates in the Coalition that show the world what great big strong uncaring bullies you are.Wonder what ever happened to that Christian ethic, suffer the little children to come unto me, and other quotes that the former seminarian would be more familiar with than most. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless as long as they are not asian or arabic.
    Incidently its times someone gave that gutter dwelling Milne a few boxing lessons, minus the gloves. What a pathetic nasty little man.

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