This is an Australian story, but it’s of broader interest not just because it’s an issue of worldwide importance but also because it’s a good example of the sort of political dissimulation that can happen anywhere.

The topic is refugees, and Bianca Hall has the report in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

More than 90 per cent of asylum seekers who arrived by boat were found to be genuine refugees in the March quarter, figures to be released on Monday show. But those who arrived by plane – despite being eligible for release into the community and not having to face years of detention on Nauru or Manus Island – were almost twice as likely to be rejected as refugees.

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So far there’s no sign of the figures on the immigration department’s website, but no doubt they’ll appear in due course. In any case they’re totally consistent with past experience; as Hall says, 91% of boat arrivals in 2011-12 were found to be refugees and 93.5% the previous year. But “Of those who arrived in Australia by plane before lodging an application for protection, 33.2 per cent were given initial approval, rising to 54.7 per cent after appeals.”

Given those numbers, you’d think that a government that was primarily concerned about the welfare of people crossing the Indian Ocean on leaky boats would try to get them onto aeroplanes instead. Conversely, if its priority was to stop people who aren’t genuine refugees from coming here, it would focus on the plane arrivals, either sending them to Nauru or adopting some other draconian measure of deterrence.

Since the government shows not the slightest inclination to do either of these things, it’s reasonable to conclude that its real concerns are something other than what it claims.

If you depended only on the political debate (or on the tabloid media) for your facts, you’d probably assume that Australia was being deluged with asylum seekers with dubious claims – so-called “economic refugees” who are just looking to improve their lives rather than fleeing persecution. The latest figures demonstrate, yet again, that this is simply not true. (The UNHCR provides a wealth of statistical material if you want to explore further.)

Immigration minister Brendan O’Connor has a different approach to the figures. Without saying so in quite so many words, he clearly intends to suggest that too many people are having their refugee status approved, and that more should be knocked back. Last week he promised “a comprehensive review of the refugee status determination process to ensure that we continue to meet our international obligations, but also that our final acceptance rates for comparable cohorts are consistent with other countries.”

Hall quotes him saying that “We accept that we need to abide by the refugee convention,” but that “We don’t believe we should be doing more than that.”

But notice how the government’s rhetoric contradicts itself. If crossing the ocean to come here really is an exceptionally dangerous thing to do, it’s surely not surprising that people only do if they are really desperate: that is, if their claims to be fleeing persecution are absolutely genuine. So a high rate of acceptance of those claims is just what you’d expect – higher, for example, than among those who’ve only crossed the Mediterranean and made landfall in southern Europe.

Australia is in a different position to almost all other refugee destinations; because it’s difficult and dangerous to get here, we attract very few bogus claimants (except, of course, those who are able to get visas to get on a plane). That’s not a sign that our processing is too lax, it’s just a function of our geography.

O’Connor would not dream of making this sort of comparison when it comes to other aspects of the refugee problem. If the test, for example, were to be refugees admitted per square kilometre of arable land, Australia would be close to the bottom of the table. He only wants to resort to international comparison when it might work against accepting refugees.

Refugees are a hot political topic in many places; Australia is by no means unique in that regard. What distinguishes our problem is both how small it is and how effective our geographical position is at winnowing the field of claimants. The huge majority of those who reach our shores are genuinely in need of help.

It reflects poorly on us that we seem so reluctant to give it to them.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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