Australia: the truth about asylum seekers

BRISBANE, Australia — In Australia, it's called a "fair go" and it's basically the equivalent to America's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

For Australia, a country that grew from a British penal colony into a viable nation largely thanks to immigration, the concept of a "fair go" rang true. The idea united Australians in their harsh, isolated existence far from Mother England.

But you rarely hear the phrase anymore, despite the fact that asylum seekers regularly dominate parliamentary debate and local media coverage.

Much of the debate centers around what kind of refugees Australia should or should not accept, how many it can afford and how many it is morally obliged to take. On these subjects, Australians tend to be quite divided.

Asylum seekers generally arrive by boat or plane and then apply to stay for reasons that range from fleeing war to extreme poverty, unlike their visa-carrying counterparts or those who arrive with approved refugee status. Their journey is often treacherous — a reality that became horrifyingly apparent last December, when a boat carrying about 200 people sank off East Java, Indonesia.

Some Australians say asylum seekers are a welcome and potentially beneficial addition to the Australian population, while others say they are a threat to the interests of average, hardworking Aussies and must be deterred at all costs.

Some claim Oz's image as a country with space, resources and economic good fortune attracts a disproportionate number of asylum seekers. (After all, who wouldn't want a fair go in a place that refers to itself as the "lucky country"?)

And it does get a lot. In 2009 and 2010, 8,150 people applied for asylum in Australia, and 4,523 got it, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.

But compare that to the situation internationally. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, South Africa was the main country of destination for asylum seekers in 2009, with an estimated 222,000 new asylum claims. The US was second with 47,900, followed by France (42,100), Malaysia (40,100), Ecuador (35,500), Canada (34,000), and the UK (30,700).

The refugee council says there are exactly 20,919 refugees in Australia, which is a tiny fraction of the worldwide total (15.2 million) and less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the Australian population (22 million).

And so you get a taste of how one popular belief about asylum seekers doesn't prove to be entirely true. There are many such beliefs — or "myths," to borrow a term from refugee advocacy groups — and they do mould opinions, informed or otherwise.

These beliefs are as good a place as any to begin the search for facts. Below are the most common "myths" about asylum seekers in Australia, debunked.

MYTH #1: Refugees, asylum seekers … they're all the same

Well, no, not really.

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention defines "refugee" as a person who is outside their own country and is unable or unwilling to return fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, political opinion and the like. They have had their asylum claim approved by a signatory state to the Convention (Australia or the US, for example).

An asylum seeker, according to Australia's peak human-rights body, the Human Rights Commission, is "a person who has fled [his or her] own country and applies to the government of another country for protection as a refugee."

While mind-bogglingly vague, this distinction makes all the difference when it comes to broader public acceptance of asylum seeker claims.

The expectation that a would-be refugee can turn up on the country's doorstep and apply for asylum irks many Australians, according to Clare Conway of Refugee Action.

"Note that most of the anti-refugee rhetoric is aimed at the asylum seekers coming by boat, rather than the refugee intake arriving on humanitarian visas, or coming by plane on other visas," she told GlobalPost, in a reference to visitor and student visas, "whether genuine or fraudulent."

"Boat arrivals are seen as 'queue jumpers' who ought to wait their turn and apply to come by the 'normal' channels — people don't realize that the boat arrivals are among the most desperate of all.

MYTH #2: Asylum seekers are illegal immigrants

Strictly speaking, perhaps. However:

Under Article 14 of the 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

An Australian government fact sheet on asylum seekers states that while "generally speaking 'illegal immigrants' are people who enter a country without meeting the legal requirements for entry (without a valid visa, for example), the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits nations from imposing penalties on those entering 'illegally' who come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened."

The UNHCR emphasizes that a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution should be viewed as a refugee and not be labeled an "illegal immigrant."

The Refugee Council of Australia notes the practical difficulties encountered by asylum seekers in obtaining the documentation before fleeing their home countries:

Applying for a passport and/or an exit visa can be far too dangerous for some refugees; so too can be an approach to an Australian Embassy for a visa. These actions can put their lives, and those of their families, at risk.

MYTH #3: Australia is being swamped by hordes of boat people

Maybe it just seems like that sometimes.

In fact, the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat — the vast majority of them operated by smugglers out of Indonesia — has varied wildly year to year since statistics were first compiled in 1989/90. They range from zero in 2002/03 to 117 carrying 5,315 asylum seekers in 2009/10.

Looking at the overall picture, however, the total number of boats arriving since 1976 stands at 489, with 27,069 souls aboard — which Refugee Action averages out to 677 asylum seekers a year.

The Human Rights Commission says asylum seekers arriving by boat in 2009-10 made up less than 3 percent of Australia’s entire migration intake.

The commission also reports that in 2010, Australia received just 2 percent of the asylum seeker claims made in major industrialized countries.

Europe received 114 times as many, according to comparative figures from the Refugee Council, while North America received 32 times as many.

MYTH #4: Australia accepts its fair share of refugees

The Australian government says it has consistently ranked as one of the top-three resettlement countries in the world, along with the US and Canada.

According to a recent report, successive administrations have, since 2005, resettled an annual quota of about 6,000 refugees under a UNHCR program in which only about 25 countries participate.

However, according to a separate UNHCR report, broadly speaking it is developing countries that bear the brunt of the worldwide problem of displaced persons, hosting as much as four-fifths of the world's refugees.

The 2009 Global Trends report reveals that of the 10.4 million people deemed refugees by UNHCR between 2005 and 2009, the largest numbers were being hosted by Pakistan (1,740,711), Iran (1,070,488), Syria (1,054,466), Germany (593,799), Jordan (450,756).

Australia, the report says, ranked 47th, hosting 22,548 refugees between 2005 and 2009 (0.2 percent of the global total).

In terms of the capacities of host countries relative to their intake: 

Pakistan hosted the highest number of refugees — mainly from Afghanistan — compared to its national economy: 745 refugees per 1 USD GDP per capita. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was second, followed by Zimbabwe, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Kenya.

Among developed countries, Germany ranked best in 26th place with 17 refugees per 1 USD GDP per capita.

Australia ranked 68th on a per capita basis and 91st relative to national wealth.

MYTH #5: Asylum seekers are dangerous, perhaps even terrorists

According to the Immigration Department, as of Nov. 1, 2010, all "protection visa" applicants are to provide a digital photograph and fingerprints, in order to "reduce fraud and integrity risks and to improve visa and border checking processes."

The fingerprints are checked against databases in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US.

The Refugee Council of Australia, meantime, uses a common-sense approach to busting this myth, writing that aside from the rigorous security and character checks asylum seekers undergo before being granted protection in Australia:

It is also improbable that a criminal or terrorist choose such a dangerous and difficult method to enter Australia, given that asylum seekers who arrive through unauthorized channels and without valid travel documents are subjected to mandatory detention and undergo more rigorous security checks than any other entrants to Australia.

According to the Council, the majority of asylum seekers who have reached Australia by boat have been found to be genuine refugees — between 85 and 90 percent, compared with around 40 percent of asylum seekers who arrive via plane with a valid visa.

MYTH #6: Asylum seekers contribute little to the advancement of Australian interests after arrival

Many Australians would be surprised to know that some of the country's highest profile names in the fields of business, sport, science and entertainment are from refugee families or were once asylum seekers themselves.

Czech-born Frank Lowy, Australia's most successful shopping-center magnate who also established one of the country's most-quoted international policy think tanks, the Lowy Institute, was 13 and living in Hungary when the Nazis invaded.

He told The Australian in an interview that he had spared his own family the horror of his experiences and details of his escape, via Israel, to Australia: "Some people never tell the story, they die with it. You live in Australia, a beautiful life, beautiful sunshine, everything you need."

"The Honourable" James Spigelman, lieutenant governor of New South Wales and chief justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, was a Polish-born refugee.

Khoa Do, a Vietnamese-born writer and actor named 2005's "Young Australian of the year" for his "leadership, compassion, and will to inspire and inform Australians on issues that affect our community," arrived in Australia aboard a leaky 25-foot boat in 1980, "crammed in like sardines.”

Huy Truong, one of Australia’s leading entrepreneurs, and the founder and director of more than one multimillion-dollar business, including dot-com company Wishlist, arrived from Vietnam aged 7 with just the clothes on his back.

Tan Le, 1998 "Young Australian of the Year" and once voted one of Australia’s 30 most successful women under 30, arrived from Vietnam as a refugee in 1982.

Majak Daw, the first Sudanese Australian to be drafted into the wildly popular Australian Football League, fled the Sudanese civil war to Egypt, before finally making it to Australia.

MYTH #7: It is now safe to return refugees to Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, among other countries

On Jan. 17, 2011, Australia's Immigration Minister Chris Bowen signed an agreement with the Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation and a UNHCR representative, paving the way for the return from Australia to Afghanistan of unsuccessful Afghan asylum seekers.

The vast majority of those who arrived were Afghan (1,514), with Sri Lankans a distant second (505), followed by Chinese (492), Iraqis (321) and Iranians (282).

Amnesty International responded to news of the agreement by saying that it failed to "acknowledge the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and the real security risks that returnees would face."

According to a UN report released in September 2011, violence in Afghanistan was up nearly 40 percent over 2010. In that year, civilian deaths in the country hit a decade-long high, again according to the UN. The uptick corresponded with US troops stepping up operations against Taliban forces.

Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International:

Schools and health clinics have shut down in many rural areas where communities have been threatened by the Taliban to stop using government services.

Afghans who are returned to these conditions face potential human rights abuses.

In the UK in 2011, meanwhile, the deportation of failed asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka, most of them Tamils, infuriated human rights groups, lawyers and parliamentarians.

The Medical Foundation, which cares for victims of torture, told Channel 4 News that: "The survivors we work with have fled the most unimaginable horror in Sri Lanka. They are at serious risk of their trauma being compounded if they are returned to the very state responsible for their torture."

In Sri Lanka, despite the defeat of the Tamil Tigers last year, the government has extended emergency rule and, according to Refugee Action, "continues to detain thousands of Tamils in overcrowded and dangerous camps."

In far-off Australia in late 2011, a 27-year-old Sri Lankan asylum-seeker who killed himself in Sydney's Villawood detention center had been deemed a genuine refugee but denied permission to live in the community on security grounds.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen described the case of Shooty Vikadan, as he was known, as "long, involved, complex and protracted," confirming to The Australian newspaper that he was still waiting for security clearance when he consumed a poisonous substance at the center and died.

Refugee activist Renee Chan, who had recently visited Vikadan, described him as one of the "stronger individuals" in one of Australia's better known detention facilities for asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their claim.

"He liked to play and joke around," Chan reportedly said. "He was able to be positive about the future; he had already been found to be a refugee so in some senses, he had greater reason to be hopeful than many other people in detention."

Could it be that Vikadan, having asked simply for a "fair go" at proving his status as a genuine refugee, gave up thinking of Australia as a place where such a concept ever existed in the first place?

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