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The facts about Australia’s asylum seeker “problem”

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Australia receives very few asylum seekers compared to other nations — and we could do much more to help these most vulnerable people, says Jai Goulding.

WELCOME to Australia, an island and a continent consisting of two land masses — the mainland and Tasmania. In area, it is the sixth largest country and the smallest continent. It is about the size of the mainland states of the US, excluding Alaska, and approximately 24 times the size of the UK

An asylum seeker is a person who has fled their own country and applied for protection as a refugee, and is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted. The majority of onshore asylum seekers actually arrive in Australia by air with a valid visa. They then apply for onshore protection through Australia’s humanitarian program. Boat people is a term that usually refers to refugees, illegal immigrants, or asylum seekers who emigrate in boats, many of which are sometimes old and crudely made.

The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide has reached 43.7 million people, the highest number in 15 years. Afghanistan continues to be the prime country with the most refugees under UNHCR responsibility across the globe. There are three million Afghan refugees, and they are one out of three of the total worldwide number. Women and girls make up 47 per cent of total refugees. In total, 15,500 individual asylum applications were lodged by unaccompanied or separated children throughout 69 countries.

Countries facing conflict and disruption feature heavily and a big trend seen is the number of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. Developing countries host four fifths of the world's refugees. Pakistan, Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic are the top hosting countries globally for refugees. Australia takes 21,805 people which represent 98 per thousand of population. The public debate on asylum seekers has been focusing on boat arrivals but, as mentioned, government figures show that the large majority of asylum applicants arrive by plane.

In 2010, soon after becoming Prime Minister, Julia Gillard adopted the Howard mantra of  ‘Stopping the boats’ with her unlawful (According to the High Court) policy of offshore processing for unauthorised arrivals. The Pacific Solution was the name given to the Australian Government policy (2001- 2007) of transporting asylum seekers to detention centers on small island nations in the Pacific Ocean, rather than allowing them to land on the Australian mainland. It had bipartisan support from both the Liberal National government and Labor opposition at the time

Mandatory detention in Australia refers to the Australian federal government's policy and system of immigration detention, which has been active from 1992 to date, pursuant to which all persons entering the country without a valid visa are compulsorily detained and sometimes subject to deportation. While the term mandatory detention is used to describe the detention process, there is a voluntary aspect to this detention in one sense. In almost all cases, at any time, they are free to return to their country of origin, and will be assisted by the Australian Government, if they so choose.

Gillards 'Malaysian Solution' to the issue – that is, sending new arrivals by boat to Malaysia –was rejected by the High Court. The plan was ruled invalid, but the decision means the Labor Government has nowhere to send the illegal asylum seekers off shore, and they 'claim' that they now have no deterrent against people smuggling. However, they have proposed to use both Nauru and Malaysia, but the Opposition have rejected this. Many human rights advocates, including the Australian Greens Party disagree, and have proposed an alternative proposal.  Independent MP Rob Oakeshott had an unsuccessful bill debated in an attempt to overturn  the High Court decision on the 28 June this year.

Refugee advocates stress that offshore processing is an appalling waste of taxpayer funds and patently against the national interest. Reestablishing processing on Nauru, for instance, is estimated to cost millions. The Australian Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, said that the Labor Government is picking up where John Howard left off on asylum seekers, but the Greens will remain opposed to offshore processing

Of course, whether it is a Malaysian, Pacific or Timbuktu solution, all are temporary fixes to a comparatively insignificant problem. As The Age columnist Tim Soutphommasane noted, last year Australia received 15,226 boat arrivals, compared with Greece's 56,180, Italy's 91,821 and Spain's 74,317.

Tony Abbott told Gillard that
"if you are serious about stopping the boats you've got to re-open Nauru, saying that she had to reintroduce temporary protection visas"

and claimed she had no other options.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser chastised Tony Abbott saying that his asylum seeker policy was the "closest thing to evil you can get".  Susan Metcalfe, writing in ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, pleaded for Australians to imagine themselves being forced to leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror. Meanwhile another boat capsized near Christmas Island, wih an estimated 150 asylum seekers onboard, 130 were rescued and one person died. A new approach to asylum seekers and refugees is urgently needed now. Refugee advocates might possess a once in a generation opportunity to make asylum seeker policy bipartisan, as onshore processing becomes an unintended consequence of the Canberra stalemate

Both The Greens and Malcolm Fraser say the solution for Australia is to increase refugee intake from about 14,000 now to 25,000 in order to give desperate asylum seekers in Indonesia more hope for immigration without having to resort to a hazardous boat trip. Both Labor and the Coalition are under pressure to reach a compromise on asylum seeker policy in the wake of a fatal boat capsize in which more than 90 people died.

After two weeks of assessing the evidence, discussing policy and reporting on fieldwork, the asylum seeker expert panel has made its findings. They recommend that Australia should negotiate with regional governments for the establishment of asylum claim processing centres in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Malaysia so that asylum seekers do not need to travel further afield in order to access protection.

The panel also recommended that Australia should work with regional governments to find regional solutions to refugee protection. Countries that agree to provide refugee protection, including Australia, should provide air transport from origin and transit countries to destination countries for all persons assessed as being in need of protection. Providing an opportunity for legal and safe passage to Australia could help reduce unauthorized entries. They say that Australia should negotiate with OECD and middle income countries to increase their refugee intake and take diplomatic initiatives to support an embargo on the sales of arms to conflict areas.

Finally, the experts note that it is already within the power of the executive government to ensure that all Australia’s international obligations towards asylum seekers are honored. However, legislation should be passed which expressly incorporates the Refugee Convention and Refugee Protocol and all human rights treaties to which Australia is a party into Australia’s domestic law without change.

As Australia develops long term approaches towards burden sharing and protection obligations, priority should be given to the urgent resettlement of asylum seekers already within our region, particularly populations located in transit countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Prioritizing the resettlement of those already within the region would reduce the regional burden significantly, therefore reducing the number of asylum seekers who take to boats — while also increasing goodwill within the region. This new priority would result in a very significant increase of the relevant populations of concern in Malaysia and Indonesia without affecting the overall refugee intake.

It is important that we continue to be a welcoming nation, because multiculturalism is positive and beneficial. We need to end the politics of fear and division, end the public appeals to our fears and prejudices and call out what is best in the Australian people — our compassion, inclusivity, generosity and ability to welcome the newcomer. Meeting and listening to people’s journeys is the best way for attitude transformations to take place, because people can understand and begin to empathise.

We shouldn't forget that on those leaky unauthorized boats are valuable citizens, who will improve our lives. New Australians include a job creating Burmese entrepreneur, an Iranian researcher working on a cancer cure, or a talented Afghan novelist. There might even be a Tamil public servant destined to implement policy for, shock horror, a future Coalition Government.

(You can read more by Jai Goulding on his website Jai’s World. The version of this article on Jai’s website also includes many other useful links and references.)

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