Busting three asylum seeker myths

July 11, 2013
Australia's “screening out” process is designed to prevent asylum seekers from pleading their case accurately.

The refugee “debate” in Australian media and politics is rarely concerned about facts or evidence. Tony Abbott can call refugees “illegal” and be quoted uncritically in the news. Bob Carr can name himself a “humanitarian” in national media and keep a straight face.

Headlines like “Swamped by boatpeople” are so common that the public eye just glazes over and accepts it as the truth.

So the News.com.au article “Ten myths about asylum seekers” published on July 8 was refreshing in its sincere attempt to address facts and present evidence.

There are even more myths, big and subtle, that are now forming the cornerstone of federal Labor's anti-refugee policy and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's strategy for re-election. Green Left Weekly will progressively counter these in the lead-up to the election.

Myth: Asylum seekers 'destroy' documents to be 'uncooperative' or cheat the system.

Immigration minister Tony Burke's big idea that asylum seekers without documentation are trying to “game” the system and therefore should be “dealt with last” relies on two distinct but interconnected falsehoods.

First, most refugees who arrive by boat — the vast majority — do have some form of identification. Even though many will use a fake passport to cross borders anonymously or stay safe from capture, many will still have some way to identify themselves when they arrive in safe territory.

Of the few who cannot offer papers, most have legitimate and fair reasons why. It is well known that agents or “people smugglers” who arrange unauthorised passage for refugees will confiscate or order identity papers destroyed — this is a consequence of criminalising the movement of displaced people across borders and forcing people underground to flee danger.

Melbourne-based refugee advocate Pamela Curr, who has worked with thousands of refugees, says there are even simpler reasons for why some cannot give Australian immigration authorities the required identity papers.

Many minorities forced into seeking asylum have no rights to birth certificates, marriage certificates or driver's licences, including Failli Kurds, Rohingyas from Burma and many Hazaras from isolated villages.

Alternately, Curr says, “No one has told them that they need documents and they come from cultures where labels, papers, ages and birth dates and documents are not precisely kept and not thought important.”

Further, a refugee's journey is unavoidably dangerous, prolonged and plagued by doubt and difficult decisions. Many can lose any documents they managed to originally flee with because of their transient and hazardous state.

The second lie in this myth is the absurd notion that any asylum seeker wanting protection and safety would be wilfully uncooperative.

Labor is using this new policy to try to paint refugees as belligerent and manipulative. But no one chooses to be an asylum seeker and none wish to “game” the system. They are only seeking safety and security.

Myth: The immigration department's “enhanced screening” process efficiently vets “false” refugees.

In an opinion piece in the Australian, foreign affairs minister Bob Carr defended his “economic migrants” accusations. Specifying “Sri Lankan, Iranian and Vietnamese” refugees, he said that “some boatloads don't even present an argument of persecution [and] their motivations are entirely economic”.

As evidence for this claim he cited the immigration department's recently introduced protocols of “screening out” some asylum seekers after their first interview. The triage-like system means that one immigration interviewer can decide whether someone can even make an asylum claim, and it is usually carried out immediately with no lawyer present. More than 1200 refugees have been forcibly returned under the scheme.

It's an exploitative and vindictive system. For refugees, their arrival in Australian custody is the last stage of a long, traumatising and disorienting experience. Australia's bogus “screening out” process is designed to take advantage of this and prevent asylum seekers from pleading their case accurately.

For example, immigration staff expect asylum seekers to say specifically they have been persecuted by their government, subject to violence because of their religion or are part of an oppressed ethnic minority.

Carr said in his op-ed that in screening interviews: “Most admitted coming here to work.”

But this is an entirely legitimate need for many Tamils, for example, whose livelihoods have been systematically destroyed by the Sri Lankan regime.

Countless Tamils in refugee detention have stories of their family shops being burned to the ground, or of being sacked or violently driven from their jobs. When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were in power in the north and east before 2009, any teacher, nurse, public servant or engineer technically “worked for” the separatist organisation. Consequently, thousands of civil workers were thrown in jail, executed or could never work again after the war ended.

For many, their decision to leave is a result of not being able to make a living, and being at risk of being killed if they try.

Expecting to be able to work and contribute without this fear in a rich country like Australia seems a plausible reason for many of them. But under Australia's system, simply wording their fears wrong will lead to the denial of due process and deportation.

Carr is ignoring the nuance of many people's desperation when they are making a case to an Australian immigration worker. Most will generally trust the first person they speak to, while that person has been directed by the minister's office to find mild technicalities to deny their claim for asylum.

At least one immigration official has resigned over the “enhanced screenings”. He told the ABC the interview method was “very dangerous” and he believed genuine refugees may have been deported to danger.

Myth: Australia should fix its own problems before helping refugees. Australia has too much homelessness and poverty already.

This is an insidious and dishonest argument used by many Australians and media commentators. It twists compassion for impoverished Australians into hatred of “foreigners” while ignoring the real causes of this everyday suffering.

The actual culprits for the social and economic crises this country faces are neoliberal policies, shrinking social security, anti-worker laws, privatisation and a housing crisis caused by greedy developers.

Politicians generally speak about refugees using the language of “border protection and security” and don't openly argue that asylum seekers cause Australian ills. But they will never actively counter it, and use similar divisive tactics to turn people against each other.

A government run by either Rudd or Abbott will promise more of the social and economic policies that really hurt people, and they will use whatever means available to divert criticism and fear elsewhere.

Locking out every asylum seeker will not lead to extra funding for homeless shelters, or provide a living wage for sole parents, or improve the ailing public health and education systems.


It's 200 years too late to stop the boats. Almost everyone of non-Indigenous origin is an economic migrant or a refugee. Greeks left Egypt in the 1950s - 1970s because the government passed laws decreeing that only 15% of any company's wages could be paid to non-Egyptians. The laws were meant to help poorer Arabs get jobs, but they also resulting in one overpaid European company manager pocketing the 15% while refusing to employ any of his fellow Europeans. In those days Australia welcomed such "economic" refugees from Egypt, many of whom were multi-lingual and highly skilled, and went on to become community leaders. If the current immigration laws had been around in the post war era, many of these migrants would not have been able to contribute effectively to Australia. In fact many children of migrants like myself would have been born in immigration detention centres. Green Left Weekly, keep the myth-buster articles coming!

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