The artificial Australian asylum seeker crisis

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Australia’s so-called asylum seeker ‘crisis’ was the inescapable political issue of 2011 — so with the Federal Parliament open for business in 2012, what are the real facts behind the issue? Peter Thomas investigates.


Looking for a new start: A leaking boat crowded with more than 300 asylum seekers before its interception by the Italian coastguard.


The asylum seeker ‘crisis’ was one of a few issues that dominated political debate in 2011. More boat arrivals, and continued political bickering between Gillard and Abbot, ensured that the issue was constantly discussed by popular media — who largely came to the conclusion that Australia was in the midst of an asylum seeker ‘crisis’. Unfortunately, the Australian popular media can rarely be relied upon to provide the facts behind political issues, especially when discussing such emotive and divisive issues. But what are the facts behind the ‘crisis’? And can the current situation properly be described as a ‘crisis’?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that in 2009-2010 there were sixteen million asylum seekers globally,[i] all of whom had left their home country in search of asylum elsewhere. During this time 11,934 seekers arrived in Australia,[ii] with 47 per cent arriving by boat and 53 per cent arriving by air.[iii] So Australia received 0.07 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers, while continuing to host 0.15 per cent of this group.[iv] If asylum seekers were to be distributed evenly amongst the world’s countries according to per capita population, then Australia would have to host 0.285 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers, meaning Australia is some way off in hosting its fair share.

The asylum seekers ‘issue’ is given further perspective when compared with asylum figures from other countries. There are three countries that host over a million asylum seekers each: Pakistan, with 1.75 million; Iran, with 1.07 million; and Syria, with 1.05 million.[v] When compared with their populations, and the number of asylum seekers globally, these countries unfairly host many times more asylum seekers than any developed, western democracy, such as Australia. These countries can truly be considered to be facing asylum seeker crises, especially as they have numerous human development issues to overcome domestically.

The number of asylum seekers Australia receives in relation to economic capacity is also extremely low. Pakistan is the biggest host of refugees in relation to economic capacity, with 733 asylum seekers per $1,000 GDP per capita (GDPPC). Western democracies barely rank on this scale when receiving asylum seekers — the first being Germany with 18 asylum seekers per $1,000 GDPPC.[vi] Australia receives 17 asylum seekers per $1,000 GDPPC,[vii] meaning that Australia ranks 68th on the scale of asylum seekers in relation to economic capacity.[viii] Considering that the economic burden that asylum seekers place on Pakistan is forty times higher than the burden of asylum seekers on Australia it is impossible to consider Australia as being in the midst of an asylum seeker ‘crisis’.

Some may rebut these facts by arguing that Australia’s situation can indeed be described as a crisis as Australia is far removed from the asylum seeker issues that blight Pakistan, Iran and Syria — which are, predominantly, their geographic proximity to unstable regimes from which asylum seekers flee, and the porous borders which make it easy for asylum seekers to enter their countries. However, countries similar geopolitically and strategically to Australia still receive more asylum seekers than this country. In 2010, Canada received 23,200 asylum claims; in contrast Australia’s received just 8,250 claims.[ix] When taking into account that 85 to 90 per cent of those arriving in Australia without applying for asylum go on to apply for asylum, the number of claims that Australia receives is still small in comparison to other Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries[x] considering its middle power status, and geopolitical position. While Canada has more than twice the number of asylum seeker applications, there is no talk of an asylum crisis in the Canadian media — making talk of an Australian asylum ‘crisis’ even more mystifying.


There are millions of refugees around the world living in squalid UNHCR camps similar to this, largely because the nations of the world are unwilling to cooperate, as they did after WW2, to resettle these unfortunate people.


Using the number of arrivals as a reason for calling the current situation an ‘asylum seeker crisis’ seems unjustified: Australia does not host a fair proportion of asylum seekers, Australia’s asylum seeker economic burden is small, and Australia does not receive as many asylum applications as similar powers, such as Canada. So, is the current asylum seeker ‘crisis’ termed as such because of the expense?

Currently, according to costing calculations by the UNHCR, the cost of keeping asylum seekers in detention centres cost AUD$125 per asylum seeker per day[xi] and, when the additional processing costs are factored in, this figure becomes AUD$110,000 per asylum seeker per year. This cost of detaining and processing of asylum seekers has risen to AUD$1.06 billion in the 2010-2011 financial year. While this figure may sound high, it is important to put it into the perspective of the spending of the Australian Federal Government. For the 2011-2012 Financial Year, the government is projecting that its total expenditure to be AUD$362.1 billion.[xii] As such, spending on the asylum seekers will be around 0.3% of total Federal Government expenditure. This is the same amount the Government is spending to duplicate a 22 kilometre stretch of the Pacific Highway between Ewingsdale and Tintebar in New South Wales.[xiii] It is dubious that people are truly concerned by the cost of asylum seekers when the spending pales in comparison to other projects, such as the duplication of 22 kilometres of the Pacific Highway.

With careful consideration of the facts behind the issue, it is almost impossible to argue that Australia is in the midst of an asylum seeker crisis. The number of asylum seekers Australia receives is low — both when compared to the number of asylum seekers globally and asylum intakes by countries similar to Australia, such as Canada. The economic burden of asylum seekers to the Australian economy continues to be low, especially when contrasted with other nations. Finally, there are several Federal spending projects more costly to the Australian taxpayer than the entire asylum seeker ‘crisis’, indicating that the cost is not as high as it is painted by some sections of the Australian popular media.

Hopefully, 2012 is the year that Australian political leaders finally provide genuine leadership on a political crisis that isn’t really a ‘crisis’ at all.

[EDITORS NOTE: 12/2/12 A previous version of this article had incorrectly put the cost of keeping asylum seekers at $110,000 per day, rather than year, as is correct. This has been corrected today and a hyperlink to the source of this particular piece of information has also been added.]




[i] UNHCR, Statistical & Operational Data, November 2011, UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c4d6.html.



[ii] Janet Phillips and Harriet Spinks, Boat Arrivals in Australia Since 1976, July 2011, Australian Parliamentary Library, http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bn/sp/boatarrivals.htm.



[iii] Ibid.



[iv] Ibid.



[v] Janet Phillips, Asylum Seekers & Refugees: What are the Facts?, July 2011, Australian Parliamentary Library, http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bn/sp/AsylumFacts.pdf.



[vi] Peter Mares, The Fifth Ripple: Australia’s Place in the Global Refugee Crisis, November 2009, Inside Story,http://inside.org.au/the-fifth-ripple-australias-role-in-the-global-refugee-crisis/.



[vii] Refugee Council of Australia, Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program 2011-2012, March 2011, Refugee Council of Australia, http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/resources/intakesub/2011-12_IntakeSub_ExecSummary.pdf.



[viii] Ibid.



[ix] Janet Phillips, Asylum Seekers & Refugees: What are the Facts?, July 2011, Australian Parliamentary Library, http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bn/sp/AsylumFacts.pdf.



[x] Ibid.



[xi] Kirsty Needham, Switch to Onshore Processing Threatens a Budget Blowout, October 2011, Sydney Morning Herald, http://www.smh.com.au/national/switch-to-onshore-processing-threatens-a-budget-blowout-20111014-1lpai.html.



[xii] Federal Government Budget, Australian Government Budget Aggregates, February 2011, Budget.gov,http://www.budget.gov.au/2011-12/content/overview/html/overview_40.htm.



[xiii] Federal Government Budget, Australian Budget at a Glance, February 2011, Budget.gov, http://www.budget.gov.au/2011-12/content/at_a_glance/html/at_a_glance.htm.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License


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