All sides of politics ignore facts of asylum arrivals
Amnesty International flatly rejects the assertion that recent changes to Government policy have led to an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat.
Despite much sensationalist reporting on the issue of boat arrivals, the fact remains that only a tiny percentage of the millions of people seeking asylum choose to seek that protection on Australia’s shores.
Statistics published in June by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international body responsible for addressing refugee issues worldwide, show that at the end of 2008 there were 827,323 pending asylum seeker cases worldwide. Australia was handling 2159 of these – which is substantially less than one per cent.
Australia is not, never will be, nor should be, immune from the global realities of war and crisis. At this very moment there are conflicts raging in more than 30 countries around the world. Australia, as a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and a responsible member of the international community, has an international obligation to provide protection to people fleeing violent conflict and persecution from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
Much has been made in 2009 of the Federal Government’s efforts to make its asylum seeker policy more humane and the alleged impact of this change on the number of boat arrivals. The truth is, however, that the Australian Government is also actively increasing its cooperation with other countries in our region – such as Indonesia and Malaysia - in order to stop asylum seekers already within their borders from making onward journeys to Australia.
Amnesty International welcomes greater regional engagement on the issue of asylum seekers, but only if such cooperation results in durable solutions for vulnerable people fleeing persecution. It should be remembered that neither Indonesia nor Malaysia are signatories to the Refugee Convention, and that those countries do not provide adequate protection for refugees. If Australia is going to cooperate with our regional neighbours, our government needs to ensure that it urges protection for those in need and that it does not become complicit in the turning back of people to countries where they face serious risks of persecution.
The current figure being bandied around is that 10,000 people could potentially seek asylum by boat in Australia each year. This figure is purely speculative and it is Amnesty International’s firm belief that such speculation is dangerous. It is dangerous because it is based on conjecture rather than fact. It is dangerous because it serves to inflame a debate that is already highly charged, both politically and emotionally. And it is dangerous because the only thing it contributes to this important issue is misinformation.
The level of misinformation present in Australia regarding boat arrivals was clearly demonstrated earlier this year in the result of a poll commissioned by Amnesty International. The Nielsen poll conducted in July showed that a large majority of Australians have major misconceptions regarding the percentage of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. On average, Australians believe that about 60 per cent of asylum seekers come to Australia by boat. More than a third of Australians believe that over 80 per cent of asylum seekers arrive by boat. In fact, only 3.4 per cent of people who sought asylum in Australia in 2008 arrived by boat - the other 96.6 per cent arrived by plane.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers arrive in Australia by plane is studiously ignored by all sides of politics and by many influential media commentators.
It is often argued that Australia’s small population means that this country is harder hit than others by increases in the number of asylum seekers. However, UNHCR analysis of levels of asylum applications on both a per-capita and GDP basis indicates that Australia still does not make it into the top 10 affected countries. This fact is also studiously ignored.
Sensationalist reporting and speculative commentary detracts attention from the human dimension of the asylum-seeker issue. Such reporting and commentary fails to acknowledge the severe risks that people take when they embark on dangerous boat journeys in order to escape persecution and human rights abuses in their home countries.
It is the lack of durable solutions and protection available in other parts of our region that forces people to make onward journeys to Australia and other Western countries that do offer such protection. Asylum-seekers are human beings who have been forced to take real risks in their search for safety and security, and they do not take lightly the decision to undertake perilous journeys to Australia.
Rather than arguing over numbers, our leaders should be focusing on finding real and lasting solutions for those in need of protection, and ensuring that all people seeking asylum in Australia are treated equally and humanely – regardless of their method of arrival.
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