May 4, 2011

Our shrinking asylum seeker problem

While Australia's asylum seeker numbers fall, Labor is ensuring it will always lose the debate by remaining wedded to mandatory detention.

Bernard Keane ā€” Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

While the focus has been on protesting detainees of late, the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat is significantly down on this time last year. By the end of April 2010, over 2100 people had arrived by boat to claim asylum. To the end of April this year, the total was 940. March and April last year had seen 672 and 727 maritime arrivals; this year it was 170 and 356. The key reason is push factors. According to UNHCR data -- which include all asylum seekers, not just maritime arrivals -- asylum claims peaked in Australia this time last year, and have been falling ever since. However, in Europe the numbers of asylum seekers rose over the course of 2010; outside Europe they were flat or rose only very slightly. Why did Australia defy the European trend? Because the make-up of the world's asylum seekers changed (as it is always changing). There was a big surge in asylum seekers in 2010 from eastern Europe and particularly Serbia -- 28,000 Serbians sought asylum elsewhere in 2010, making that country the world's single biggest source of refugees, even ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq. Plainly, Serbian asylum seekers don't come to Australia -- unlike Afghan refugees, for example, there are plenty of signatories to the UN Refugee Convention nearby. Only five Serbs claimed asylum here in 2010. Instead, they go elsewhere in Europe, which is why Europe's asylum seeker numbers went up while Australia's fell over 2010. The UNHCR numbers also show that China continues to be a big source of asylum seekers for Australia. In 2010, Afghanistan only narrowly edged out China as the main source of asylum seekers for Australia, which China was in 2009. But because nearly all Chinese applicants arrive via airports, they're entirely absent from the asylum seeker debate, blotted out by our weird obsession with maritime arrivals. For the Government, this makes for a difficult story to tell. Emphasising push factors is fine when asylum seeker numbers are rising, but for a government seeking to look proactive, letting push factors get the credit for falling asylum seeker numbers isn't enough. Further, the Government is stuck with the problem of processing last year's surge in numbers, which is driving most of the political problems Chris Bowen has to deal with, including protesters on roofs and providing new detention facilities on the mainland, where it's economic to do so, rather than on islands or in other countries, where it costs a bomb. Meanwhile, as every person and his or her dog has pointed out, Labor remains caught between the send-them-all-home rhetoric of the Coalition and the open-borders rhetoric of the Greens, who were keen to seize on Bowen's flagging of greater options for protection visas for successful asylum claimants who have been convicted of crimes to suggest it was back to Howard-era Temporary Protection Visas. The comparison doesn't stack up and it's dishonest of anyone who knows about TPVs to make the comparison. TPVs were intended to act as a deterrent to coming here at all. They sent a signal that even if you made it to Australia, even if we accepted that you had a legitimate claim to asylum, you'd get short shrift from us -- you'd only be allowed to stay temporarily. The problem of course was that TPVs acted in exactly the opposite manner to that intended. Far from deterring asylum seekers coming by boat, they encouraged more, because successful asylum seekers had no rights to bring their families here, requiring them to make the same treacherous journey. Rarely has there been a clearer policy failure, and rarely a more costly one, in the hundreds of women and children lost on Siev X. The idea that governments shouldn't have the capacity to send home asylum seekers who break Australian laws is nonsensical. There's even a moral argument that breaking Australian law immediately forfeits any claim to asylum whatsoever. But the greater flexibility Bowen flagged doesn't go that far; it merely proposes a mechanism by which successful asylum seekers who break the law can be sent home if the basis on which they've successfully applied for asylum changes. Like TPVs, it's a deterrent, but a deterrent from breaking the law, not from coming here in the first place. The problem for Bowen, and Labor more generally, is that it remains wedded to the logic of mandatory detention, a policy implemented by the Keating Government in response to waves of Chinese asylum seekers in the early 1990s, most of whom were simply economic refugees with no valid claim in Australia under the Refugee Convention. Mandatory detention of those who, contrarily, have a high likelihood of successfully claiming asylum (which, evidence suggests, boat arrivals do) permanently locates the asylum seeker debate on a battlefield where Labor can never win. It will never out-tough the Coalition, it will never please progressives, and detention itself feeds community sentiment that those detained are in some sense criminals, especially when those detained -- whether they have genuine claims or not -- are driven by frustration at processing delays to lash out. It's another example of how this Government is highly effective at ensuring it permanently fights political battles on the turf chosen by its opponents, whether on the Right or on the Left. And why it remains hostage to external push factors in dealing with the political impact of what is, in a global context, an entirely trivial refugee issue.

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120 thoughts on “Our shrinking asylum seeker problem

  1. Sir Lunchalot

    You have to laugh at Minister Chris Bowen, this morning he was asked by a home made bomb found at Villawood Detetion Centre in mid March.

    He said he knew nothing about it.

    Gillard was asked and knew nothing about it.

    This would have to be the only example in the past few years of a terrorist attack, by illegal immigrants (or as Marilyn calls them, welcome guests) and Gillard and Bowen knew nothing about it.

    We are indeed in trouble with national security

  2. Marcus Moore

    Sorry to be a pedant – but how did a home made bomb get into the press conference this morning & does a home made bomb ask (actually, what did it ask, too).


  3. michael crook

    The Asylum seeker issue is one that shows Labor has no humane credentials. They have worked themselves in to a corner and see no way out. They need a little bravery, to take back the moral high ground, release the refugees and trumpet that to the roof tops. But they will not, because they are not brave. In fact, sadly, they are not anything.

  4. Sir Lunchalot

    @ Marcus Moore

    Go to Daily Telegraph website, its second story

  5. dsf

    Oh Sir Lunchalot – surely you jest

    “example in the past few years of a terrorist attack” – and I thought Marilyn was prone to exaggeration.

    If a can of fly spray wrapped in a towel is a threat to our “national security” – we are indeed in deep trouble

  6. Andrew Bartlett

    This article outlines the facts well (as many of Bernard’s pieces do)

    His outlining of why “there has rarely been a clearer policy failure” than Temporary Protection Visas is particularly apt. It is extraordinary that a measure that so clearly failed not only still gets promoted as an option, but is regularly described as having been successful. (mind you, I’d argue that Mandatory Detention has been just as clear a failure, and very costly too)

    But I do take issue with Bernard’s statement that

    The idea that governments shouldn’t have the capacity to send home asylum seekers who break Australian laws is nonsensical. There’s even a moral argument that breaking Australian law immediately forfeits any claim to asylum whatsoever.

    We need to remember that returning a person found to be a refugee to their homeland can be tantamount to a death sentence, and would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention. That is why all the political talk about toughening up the so-called ‘character test’ for refugees is nonsense. Denying a visa to refugee is very different to denying any other type of visa to anyone else.

    The only exemptions to this are if the person is reasonably suspected of having been involved in war crimes or other serious crimes against humanity, or if they committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to their admission to that country as a refugee.

  7. Sir Lunchalot

    @ DSF

    It is a threat when its in a federal facility, where firefighters were called to put out a fire. This device could have exploded killing or injuring NSW Fire Brigade firefighters.

    We say a device explode a week or so later when they were in the roof. Was this an oxygen tank, like we were told or a similar home made bomb?

    NSW Police have sent the device to a lab for DNA and fingerprint analysis.

  8. dsf

    @Sir Lunchalot

    No, it is in no way a threat to our national security.
    It is indeed a threat to the safety and wellbeing of the fire fighters and other personnel in the facility, as is every fire (deliberately lit or not). It is probably a criminal act (and if found to be and the offenders can be identified, they should suffer criminal prosecution), but do leap from that to a “threat to our national security” is simply absurd.

    Please try and understand, I don’t condone what has alleged to have been done, but do try and have a sense of perspective

  9. Jack Smit

    CRAVEN GUTTER JOURNALISM dogwhistle on display: “Labor remains caught between the send-them-all-home rhetoric of the Coalition and the open-borders rhetoric of the Greens…”

    Really Bernard Keane? When did the Greens write THAT policy? It’s a disgusting misrepresentation by means of a throw-away line.

  10. Jim Reiher

    Good article, thanks.

    Sir Lunchalot: I have just read the “authoritative” Herald Sun’s report about the “home made bomb” at Villerwood during the recent fire and protests – and even the HS could not say more than a can of flyspray was set up in a room set on fire with some canola oil splashed around on the floor! And it did not go off. And no one seems to have been in the room (because it has been set on fire).

    I dont mean to sound too cyncial about your enthusiastic embrace of the story (as if it proves that all boat people are not to be trusted? – though you did not say that and I am prepared to say I am reading too much into your joy at the story) – but really… once again the media will make a mountain out of a mole hill to beat up a story to its maximum capacity to make ordinary Aussies hate refugees.

    And you seem to be embracing it as if to order.

    You actually really want to call that “a terrorist attack”? If so, then you have reduced that concept to a meaningless gesture of desperation – a can of fly spray in an empty room…

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