Asylum seekers turned off 'hostile and toxic' debate in Australia, UN official says

Rescuers check the wreckage of a people smuggler's boat seen half submerged after being towed near the coast of Puger village in East Java province on Dec. 21, 2011. Indonesian police arrested eight people December 22 in connection with an overloaded boat carrying 250 asylum seekers that capsized en route to Australia, as the confirmed death toll reached 90.

The idea of a trip to Australia has become increasingly unattractive — and it has nothing to do with the high dollar and fact that it's too far from just about everywhere.

Even some of the planet's most-desperate people have been turned off the idea of seeking a better life in the "lucky country," with a 9 percent drop in asylum seeker claims last year, according to the UNHCR.

That's against the global trend of increased asylum seeker claims in such countries as the US, France and Germany.

Worldwide, asylum seeker numbers soared 20 percent worldwide last year to more than 440,000.

However the number arriving in Australia fell to 11,500, mainly due to fewer asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat.

Notable, the UN reported, Australia saw a 45 percent drop in the number of applications from those seeking to escape violence and repression in Afghanistan.

Why so anti-Aussie?

According to a leading UN official, it has to do with the "hostile and toxic" asylum seeker debate of the past few years. 

Richard Towle, the regional representative of the UNHCR, told the Australian Broadcasting corporation that many asylum seekers now had a "negative" view of Australia.

"Overall, people contemplating moving for whatever reason, saw Australia as a less hospitable place to come and claim international refugee protection," he said.

"There are many reasons why they would have reached that conclusion, not least the dangers of the voyage, the costs, and what are perceptions of a pretty negative and sometimes hostile public debate on those issues."

Meanwhile, the UNHCR — while acknowledging that "asylum-seekers by boat and issues related to detention and RSD [refugee status determination] continue to arouse strong public sentiments in Australia, warns that Australia risks breaching the Refugee Convention to which it is a signatory. A statement on its website reads: 

"With Australia pursuing regional approaches to addressing irregular migration by sea, UNHCR has focused on ensuring that the fundamental protection principles and standards set out in the Refugee Convention are upheld in regional arrangements."

More from GlobalPost: Australia: the truth about asylum seekers

Towle said the figures put paid to the misconceptions of many Australians that they were being swamped by boat people: 

"This Report shows clearly that the numbers of asylum-seekers coming to Australia are modest — and certainly manageable _ when compared to many other industrialized countries," he said.

"The recent introduction of a single system to assess refugee claims of both boat and air arrivals is a welcome step towards improving the efficiency, fairness and overall quality of the asylum system in Australia.

"At the same time, UNHCR encourages Australia to maintain its commitment to working constructively and collaboratively with other states in the region under the Regional Cooperation Framework. We are convinced that if people can be made safer and more secure in South East Asia then they will not need to place their lives in the hands of people smugglers and have resort to dangerous boat journeys to Australia.

More from GlobalPost: Australian government blamed in sinking of asylum seeker boat off Indonesia

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