There are many myths around the issue of asylum seekers in Australia. Yet, when you look at the facts, it’s obvious that asylum seekers aren’t a problem. The problem is Australia’s punitive policies, including mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat, which contravene international law.
Lack of transparency ensures that human rights are abused daily in Australia’s detention centres, creating many mental health problems for people who are already traumatised.
The policy of mandatory detention will cost the taxpayers more than $1 billion dollars over the next four years.
Allowing refugees to live in the community — the policy before 1992 — would cost a tiny fraction of what the current government intends to spend on “border protection” and “offshore processing”, even if settlement services such as English language education and counselling for trauma survivors were provided.
So why do Australian governments spend so much money on persecuting desperate people?
Having a scapegoat is politically useful for mainstream parties hoping to get elected. The media, particular the large part of it owned by Rupert Murdoch, campaigned tirelessly to convince Australians that there is a crisis in “border protection” and a serious threat from “unauthorised boat arrivals”.
Being tough on “boat people” and “people smugglers” is the major parties’ response to the very real economic pain so many Australians feel. The politicians use refugee-bashing to divert attention from the fact neither party is committed to improving living standards, making housing affordable or providing adequate infrastructure such as public transport.
In the recent federal election campaign, the major parties suggested refugees arriving by boat for overcrowded trains in Western Sydney. The Murdoch media allowed them to do so with a straight face.
However, this focus on the issue of asylum seekers does not include a focus on what causes many people to become refugees — wars. A high proportion of refugees are from Iraq and Afghanistan, both victims of Australian military aggression.
Refugees want the same things we all do — a chance at a comfortable life in peace and free from persecution.
The mainstream media and political discourse on the refugee issue is driven by racism.
Racism divides the working class. While we tally the number of boats arriving, the unequal system we live under is not questioned. If the media and government pointed the finger at the real causes of people’s suffering, uncomfortable questions might need to be asked concerned particular vested interests — interests that the mainstream media and parties serve.
To cut through the lies and encourage solidarity, here are some myths and facts about asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers are illegal immigrants.
There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951, which means that a person is able to seek asylum in Australia by boat or plane, with or without documents.
They are breaking no laws under the Refugee Convention of 1951. Moreover, 84% of asylum claimants are found to be genuine refugees. There are 50,000 illegal visa overstayers in Australia every year, most of them from Western countries.
Australia is experiencing an unprecedented increase in the number of people seeking asylum. This is caused by our “soft” stance towards asylum seekers.
Twenty-two industrialised countries had a bigger percentage increase in people seeking asylum than Australia during past three years.
The rise and fall of numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Australia follows the global trend. These global trends are affected by ‘push’ factors such as war and natural disasters.
Punitive asylum policies have no deterrent effect. Many asylum seekers are unaware of Australia’s policies.
The introduction of mandatory detention and Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) did not stop the increase of asylum arrivals. For example, when TPVs were introduced in 1999, boat arrivals rose by 48%. This did not decrease until 2003, corresponding to the global drop in asylum-seeker numbers.
Australia is being inundated by asylum seekers arriving by boat.
In the last 34 years (from January 1, 1976 to April 30, 2010) a total of 23,024 people arrived by boat in Australia seeking asylum. That’s an average of 677.1 asylum seekers a year. At this rate it would take 149 years to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground with asylum seekers coming by boat.
In recent years, about 2-3000 asylum seekers a year have arrived by boat. Only 30% of asylum seekers arrive by boat, the rest by plane.
Asylum seekers who come by boat just don’t want to wait their turn in the “queue”.
In most cases, there is no queue to join. There is no requirement under the Refugee Convention for a person to seek refuge in their first country of arrival.
The Australian government refuses to accept any asylum seekers assessed as refugees by the UNHCR who have arrived after 2007 in Indonesia.
In the past three years, an average of just 52 refugees in Indonesia have been resettled in Australia. The waiting period in the “queue” for a refugee in Indonesia seeking settlement in Australia is, on average, 37 years.
Australia is one of the most generous countries, when it comes to the amount of refugees we accept.
At the end of 2008, there were 42 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Four-fifths of those are hosted in developing countries (e.g. Pakistan 1.8 million, Syria 1.1 million, Iran 1 million).
Australia’s intake of 13,750 a year makes 0.03% of the world total and doesn’t even rank in the top 20 of industrialised countries.
Australia comes in 32nd out of 71 countries resettling refugees — slightly behind Kazakhstan, Guinea, and Djibouti.
Australia takes too many refugees, risking an unsustainable population.
Australia provides 13,750 places to refugee and humanitarian entrants each year. These make up just 6.6% of the places in our overall permanent immigration program in 2010 — the lowest it’s been since 1975.
In 2009, the Department of Immigration granted 4,338,227 permanent and temporary visas. Refugees and humanitarian entrants made up just 0.31% of all visas granted for the year. Clearly, refugees are not a population problem.
What is a sustainable population for Australia is a separate debate, but Australian cities are among the most spread out and least densely populated in the world.
Asylum seekers and refugees get unfair welfare payments.
No asylum seeker is eligible for Centrelink (social security) payments of any kind.
A small percentage of asylum seekers get access to the Red Cross Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme for a limited period of time, which provides for an income that is 89% of the Newstart Allowance (unemployment benefit).
Permanent refugees are eligible to receive Centrelink payments at the same rate as other Australian permanent residents.
It's safe to return asylum seekers to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
Given the increase of occupying soldier numbers in Afghanistan and the extension of the war into Pakistan, it's obvious that it is still a war zone — and war zones create refugees.
Large areas of Afghanistan have no security. A high proportion of Afghan refugees are ethnically Hazara, who are persecuted by members of more powerful ethnic groups, both in Afghanistan and in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
In Sri Lanka, about 45,000 Tamils remain in prison camps. Up to 70,000 civilians were killed in the last months of the civil war that ended last year.
Conditions in the camps are shocking. While food is provided by the UN and other humanitarian agencies, access to medical care remains low.
The Sri Lankan government continues the occupation and expropriation of Tamil lands, and reports of disappearances and human rights abuses continue.