Why did the refugees stop coming?

July 13, 2005

Sarah Stephen

July 1 marked two years since the last refugee boat reached Australian waters. The arrival of the Hao Kiet in 2003, carrying 53 Vietnamese asylum seekers, came 18 months after the last boatload of asylum seekers from the Middle East.

PM John Howard has made repeated claims that the federal Coalition government's border protection policy was responsible for stopping the flow of asylum seekers. In an interview on Nine's Sunday program on August 15 last year, Howard declared: "I took a strong position on border protection. And I make no apology for that. But the proof of the pudding's in the eating. The illegal immigration [sic] has stopped."

He repeated the same arguments in June, during a debate about immigration policy within his own party precipitated by Liberal backbenchers Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan. Interviewed on the ABC's 7.30 Report on June 20, Howard argued that "we would never have stopped the flood of boats coming to this country if we had not, amongst other things, had offshore processing. Offshore processing, along with turning the boats back to the north of Australia, mandatory detention and the excision of islands from the migration zone — all of those things taken together stopped the large number of boats coming to this country and effectively provided that protection for our borders."

Is Howard right? For a number of reasons, the answer is no.

It wasn't the suite of harsh measures that asylum seekers were subjected to when they arrived in Australia that acted as a deterrent. In fact, one of those harsh measures designed to deter further arrivals — temporary protection visas — actually did the opposite: it increased the number of people coming to Australia, in particular women and children desperate to be reunited with husbands and fathers who had come here by boat, but whose visas prevented them from applying for family reunion.

There were two linked events that had an immediate effect on the arrival of asylum seeker boats: the sinking of SIEV X, which caused the death of 353 asylum seekers in October 2001; and the government's order that the Navy tow asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia rather than let them enter Australian waters. It was not fear of harsh treatment, but of death, that stopped asylum seekers from coming since 2001.

Making this argument in the June 20 Age, former diplomat and author of A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of SIEV X Tony Kevin explained: "One need only examine the timeline data of arrivals, and ask former boat people why their relatives stopped trying to come here, to get the true answer — that after SIEV X, people rightly feared for their lives in these perilous voyages."

More importantly, the stop in the flow of boats to Australia wasn't an isolated phenomenon; it was part of a global trend of dramatically declining numbers of asylum applications over the past four years.

The number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq has fallen globally. According to UNHCR figures, Afghan asylum applications have fallen by 83% since 2001, while Iraqi asylum requests have dropped by 80% since 2002.

But it's not just applications from these two refugee-producing countries that have dropped. Since 2001, asylum applications in 50 wealthy countries have dropped by 40%. The largest fall was in non-European countries: Canada and the United States received 48% fewer requests in 2004 than in 2001, while asylum claims in Australia and New Zealand fell by 74%.

If asylum applications have dropped, does this mean that world refugee numbers have dropped too?

No. Over the past five years, world refugee numbers have fluctuated between 17 million and 22 million. The UN estimates that in 2004, there were 17.5 million refugees and people of concern in the world, up half a million from 2003.

The refugee crisis facing Iraq and Afghanistan continues. At present, there are 250,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan and 400,000 in Syria — many having fled there during 2004. The corporate media made much of the mass return of 3.4 million Afghan refugees between 2002 and 2004, but the US Committee for Refugees has pointed out that at the end of 2003, some 2.5 million Afghans were still living as refugees in other countries, including more than 1.2 million in Pakistan, 1.1 million in Iran and some 50,000 in India.

At present, most refugees remain close to home, in neighbouring countries, rather than travelling to a First World country to seek asylum. But this doesn't mean that large numbers of those refugees aren't in desperate need of resettlement.

The Refugee Council of Australia estimates that many of the 12 million refugees worldwide are in precarious situations and that 7 million have been in camps for more than 10 years. In the past decade, the average time spent in camps has increased from nine to 17 years. That's a lot of desperate people.

The UNHCR can only guarantee resettlement to around 70,000 refugees every year (the number of places allocated by countries that have resettlement quotas), and it's a lottery as to who gets resettled.

The drop in asylum claims in First World countries doesn't necessarily mean there are fewer people who need asylum. It reflects countries' implementation of deterrence measures aimed at making it more and more difficult for people to make an asylum claim. Fewer asylum seekers are making the journey to Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia — for now.

There is no question that, while asylum seekers have stopped coming to Australia at the moment, this is a temporary lull. Because of growing poverty in the majority Third World, and continuing wars, there will be more boats and there will be more asylum seekers.

The Tampa crisis marked the beginning of this decade, but there may be another crisis over the horizon: a new wave of refugees fleeing human-induced climate change.

Norman Myers of Oxford University estimates there could well be 150 million climate refugees on the move within 50 years, including at least 75 million in the Asia-Pacific region.

Friends of the Earth's Stephanie Long and Cam Walker argue in a June 20 article titled "Climate refugees: the hidden cost of climate change": "Rather than scaring ourselves into a fortress mentality, a civilised humanitarian response would be to acknowledge that over the past 150 years Australia has disproportionately contributed to global warming, and we have a moral obligation to assist people to live in their countries for as long as possible and provide asylum for them when people are forced to leave their homes because of climate change."

It's time for Australia to play a role in alleviating human suffering rather than compounding it.

The burden for the world's refugee crisis continues to fall on poor countries. More than two-thirds of the world's refugees are hosted by nations with per capita incomes of less than $3500.

This disgraceful state of affairs should compel those of us in First World countries to campaign for a massive increase in refugee resettlement quotas.

From Green Left Weekly, July 13, 2005.
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