When Foreign Minister Bob Carr calls for “a tougher, more hard-edged assessment” of refugee applications, he sounds remarkably like former immigration minister Philip Ruddock.

Speaking on Lateline, in the Senate, and on ABC Radio’s AM, Carr argued that we needed tighter refugee determination procedures because the flow of asylum seekers to Australia by boat had changed in two fundamental ways. First, he said “100” of asylum seekers travelling by sea were being brought here by people smugglers. He said these asylum seekers hadn’t “cobbled together, in their desperation, money to buy a fishing trawler and set out onto the high seas”; they were people “captured by money-making criminal syndicates”. Second, he said, “these are increasingly not people fleeing persecution”.

These comments underline just how little has changed, particularly in the rhetoric of federal government ministers. Since the late 1970s, the majority of maritime asylum seekers have relied on people smugglers to organise their journeys. Over and over again, however, the payment of money to criminal syndicates has been used to denigrate asylum seekers and to cast doubt on their claims for protection. Compare Carr’s words to those of Philip Ruddock, the Coalition immigration minister from 1996 to 2001, who once described boat people as “those who have the money, those who are prepared to break our law, those who are prepared to deal with people smugglers and criminals”.

On Lateline, Carr also questioned the legitimacy of recently arrived Iranian asylum seekers because they were “middle class”. It’s a familiar refrain: Ruddock used to speak disparagingly of “so-called boat people … flying first class into Indonesia and Malaysia before boarding rickety vessels for Australia”. It need hardly be said that individuals can suffer persecution regardless of their socioeconomic status. Dictators don’t hold back from torturing political dissidents because they are “middle class”; religious autocrats don’t exempt gay people from jail because they come from good families.

Not that being poor would win an asylum seeker any greater legitimacy in the eyes of the government. If the majority of people arriving by boat were landless peasants or unemployed labourers, we can safely assume that government ministers — Labor or Coalition — would accuse them of coming to Australia in search of a better job rather than to escape from persecution.

At the heart of Carr and Ruddock’s arguments is a belief that Australia’s refugee determination procedures are overly generous — that they fail to separate out the pure grain of refugees from the undeserving chaff of “economic migrants”.

Carr told Lateline’s Tony Jones that when asylum seekers arriving by boat were being granted protection under the Refugee Convention at a rate of nine out of every 10, the assessments were obviously “coming up wrong”. He said the situation had arisen “as a result of court and tribunal decisions”.

It sounds familiar. When I interviewed Philip Ruddock for my book Borderline in 2000, he used the same argument. Australia was dealing with an outflow of people with “non–bona fide claims,” he said, and yet their applications for protection from persecution were “generally upheld”. Over time, he said “a judicial gloss” had developed in Australia, and as a result the Refugee Convention was being interpreted more broadly than in other countries.

Just how true is this?

“If the Foreign Minister is confident in his assessment that many recently arrived asylum seekers are really economic migrants, then he should let the refugee determination system do its work.”

It is always difficult to make direct comparisons between refugee determination procedures in different countries with different legal systems, but the most recent figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees suggest that Australia’s asylum record is entirely unremarkable.

The UNHCR Statistical Year Book 2011 lists the outcome of refugee applications in each country of asylum. It shows that 42% of the asylum seekers who sought refugee status in Australia during 2011 were granted protection (by immigration department officials) in the first instance. When rejected applicants sought a review at the Refugee Review Tribunal (and not all of them did), 30% were recognised as refugees.

These numbers are much lower than the 90% approval rates commonly cited for maritime arrivals because they also include asylum seekers who arrive by plane on valid visas and then seek protection. “Plane people” are rejected at much higher rates than “boat people”.

If the decisions made at the primary and appeal stages are combined, then in 2011 Australia granted protection in 39% of cases, which puts Australia close to the average; the UNHCR estimates that, worldwide, 38% of asylum seekers who had their cases determined in 2011 were granted refugee status or some other form of protection.

The UNHCR figures break down refugee status determinations by country of origin and territory of asylum. It shows that 57% of Afghan asylum seekers in Australia were granted protection in 2011, just a bit above the global average of 50^. The proportions of Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers granted protection in Australia were also close to the global average. Protection rates were higher than the global average for asylum seekers from Sri Lanka but lower than the global average for asylum seekers from China.

There is one area of refugee protection where Australia has generally been tougher than other developed nations. In other countries, failed asylum seekers often disappear into the general population and stay; in Australia, they are generally removed from the country.

So if Carr really believes that most of the asylum seekers now arriving by boat are “economic migrants”, he should feel confident that the scale of Australia’s refugee “problem” will soon diminish. As we have seen in the past, with the arrival of people from Vietnam, Cambodia and China, once the flow of people with legitimate claims to protection diminishes, a greater proportion of applicants are refused a refugee visa and returned home. This has the effect of discouraging their compatriots from making the same dangerous journey, unless they have compelling reasons to do so.

As Ruddock once told me: “There is nothing more galling to a people-smuggler than to find his clients back, unsuccessful.” When that happens, he said, the smuggling stops. If the Foreign Minister is confident in his assessment that many recently arrived asylum seekers are really economic migrants, then he should let the refugee determination system do its work.

*Peter Mares is an adjunct fellow at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research and contributing editor of Inside Story, where a longer version of this article appears

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