Now that we’re in the “let a thousand flowers bloom” stage of the asylum seeker ‘debate’, the queue jumper theme has been getting a good working-over.

Senator Steve Fielding — who busted wide open ‘Macgate’, in which asylum seekers were given access to computers on Christmas Island — yesterday tweeted “Stop the boats by sending boat ppl 2 the back of the queue in refugee camps. Then take 2 from the front of queue for every1 we send.”  On Monday’s Q&A, professional talking head Grahame Morris gave us his insight into the plight of people forced to flee their countries by war and persecution by talking of jumping the queue with impunity at Toy Story 3.

“But we have hundreds of thousands of people around the world who do the right thing. We have embassies. We have high commissioners. They’re talking to mums and dads and cousins of people who want to come to this country. They stay in the queue. They do the right thing. They try and get sponsors. They show that they’re going to be good citizens. These people wait for years. The refugees coming in the boats are jumping those queues and the government, in a sort of a fairness thing, has got to say — change the rhetoric and say to these people, ‘look, come if you’re fair dinkum, but come through the front gate. Don’t kick in the back door’.”

Cheers for the mixed metaphors, Grahame, but we decided to go looking for the queue.

Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre looked up online how to ‘get in the queue’ and found this online message from the Australian Embassy in Kabul.

The Australian Embassy in Kabul operates from a number of locations that are not publicly disclosed due to security reasons. Australians seeking consular assistance should, in the first instance, contact the Consular Emergency Centre in Canberra + 61 2 6261 3305 for assistance to be arranged.

So, Curr told Crikey: “I rang Canberra and after eight minutes and 35 seconds they were unable to find anyone who could tell me where or how to find the queue.”

So in the search for the queue, we went back to basics.

‘The queue’ confuses two issues: who is a refugee, and who is actually resettled?  A ‘refugee’ is someone who is recognised by the UN as a refugee — that is, someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution and who can’t receive the protection of his or her government. But that doesn’t mean they get resettled in a safer country, where they can stop living in fear and start living the rest of their lives.

To have a chance of resettlement, you first have to be registered with the UNHCR. According to a background note recently prepared by the parliamentary library, only a small proportion of asylum seekers are registered by the UN — around 10%, and the proportion grows smaller every year. But if there’s a queue, this is where it is likely to be.

However, under the UN Refugee Convention, there’s no right to be resettled, and no country has an obligation to take people for resettlement. Every year there are about 80,000 resettlement places offered globally by countries like Australia. We offer 13,750 places a year — although it should be noted under Tony Abbott’s proposal yesterday, this could be supplemented by community groups “sponsoring” resettlement.

According to UNHCR figures, that’s slightly more than 10% of the number of new refugees likely to seek resettlement in 2010.

That is, the ‘queue’ doesn’t even meet the number of new refugees each year, let along ones who have been waiting for a long period. In fact, less than 1% of the world’s refugees will be resettled each year.

Meantime, the burden of housing and feeding refugees falls, mostly, on poorer countries. Between 75% and 90% of refugees remain in the countries bordering the lands they’re fleeing.

There’s also the strange Australian twist that the charge of ‘queue jumping’ only ever seems to be levelled at people who arrive by boat. Far more people arrive by air and claim asylum — and they’re far more likely to have their claims rejected than the people who make the dangerous journey by boat.

So the ‘queue’ is one in which your plight is recognised by all accepted standards, but no one does anything about it. Even removing people who aren’t registered with the UNHCR, it’s an ever-expanding pool of millions of desperate people, 1% of whom will ever get a chance to be resettled. If there’s a queue to jump, it’s one from the pages of Kafka.

Peter Fray

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