Rohingya asylum-seeker Mohammad Zuhar bin Sayed Alam displays pictures of his wife and sister he left behind in Myanmar earlier this year. Rohingyas, persecuted Muslim minorities, flee deadly sectarian violence in Myanmar by boat with many grateful to end up in Indonesia. Picture: AFP/Romeo Gacad Source: AFP
DO you believe that thousands of illegal boat people are swamping our shores in unprecedented numbers and threatening Australian jobs and the economy?
You wouldn’t be the only person to do so – and you’ll be hearing more about it as politicians jockey for your vote ahead of the federal election.
Asylum seekers arriving on boats in Australian waters is likely to be one of the top issues debated throughout the election campaign.
News.com.au explains 10 boat-people myths.
Myth 1: We are being swamped
REALITY: The number of people arriving in Australia to claim asylum jumped by more than a third last year to 15,800 people, driven by an increase in arrivals from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Australia resettles the third largest number of refugees of any country per capita, but actual Australia’s asylum seeker numbers, while politically sensitive, remain numerically small. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says Australia receives about three per cent of the total asylum claims made in industrialised countries around the world and, “by comparison, asylum levels in Australia continue to remain below those recorded by many other industrialised and non-industrialised countries”.
Myth 2: We’re a magnet compared to other countries
REALITY: Nearly half a million – 493,000 – asylum claims were lodged in industrialised countries last year, the second highest number on record after 2003, as war, civil strife, political repression and sectarian violence continue to force movements of populations across borders. Europe received 355,000 asylum seeker claims, while North America had 103,000. In particular, conflict in Syria has prompted a new mass wave of refugees fleeing that country. Afghanistan alone has a diaspora of more than 2.7 million refugees across 71 countries, but more than 95 per cent are in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.
Myth 3: We take more asylum seekers because we’re a rich, First World country
REALITY: According to Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the reverse is true. “The burden of helping the world’s forcibly displaced people is starkly uneven,” he said. “Poor countries host vastly more displaced people than wealthier ones. While anti-refugee sentiment is heard loudest in industrialised countries, developing nations host 80 per cent of the world’s refugees.”
Myth 4: They’re illegal, queue jumping undesirables
REALITY: Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are neither engaging in illegal activity, nor are they immigrants. The UN Refugee Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) recognises that refugees have a right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents. Australian law also permits unauthorised entry into Australia for the purposes of seeking asylum. Asylum seekers do not break any Australian laws simply by arriving on boats or without authorisation. Australia has a proud history of boat people and other asylum seekers becoming good citizens.
Myth 5: Most asylum seekers come by boat
REALITY: Statistics from 2008 showed at least 13 asylum seekers arrive through Australian airports daily, more than 32 times the number of boat people supposedly ”flooding” across our maritime borders in that year. A total of 4768 ”plane people”, more than 96 per cent of applicants for refugee status, arrived in that year on legitimate tourist, business and other visas – compared with 161 who arrived by boat during the same period. While boat numbers have increased, Australian Government statistics from the first quarter of 2013 showed more than 90 per cent of asylum seekers who arrived by boat were found to be genuine refugees. In comparison, those who arrived by plane – despite being eligible for release into the community and not having to face years of detention on Nauru or Manus Island – were almost twice as likely to be rejected as refugees. The figure continued a long-term trend of high approval rates for people arriving by boat, with 93.5 per cent being found to be refugees in 2010-11 and 91 per cent in 2011-12.
Successful refugee: Les Murray is known as both the face and voice of soccer in Australia. As the most prominent commentator and presenter of soccer on Australian television, he is credited with championing the rise in popularity of the sport. He emigrated to Australia from his native Hungary as an 11-year old refugee in 1957. Picture: AP Source: news.com.au
Myth 6: Asylum seekers are taking our jobs
REALITY: The Federal Government released 16,000 asylum seekers into the community as they wait for their refugee claims to be processed. They receive about $220 a week from Centrelink, most of which goes towards rent and food, but they are on bridging visas which stipulate that they’re not allowed to get jobs. Nearly half of those asylum seekers are subject to the government’s “no advantage” rule, which means they could be in this limbo for many years. Most asylum seekers want to work and will take jobs other Australians don’t want to do, report refugee agencies, but their visa conditions make work illegal. Refugee groups say that barring foreign migrants from the workforce could create an underclass, but they also reject the Federal Opposition’s suggestion of a “work for the dole scheme”.
Myth 7: People from war torn countries cause problems
REALITY: According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the number of settlers – people entitled to permanent residence, including people arriving in Australia on humanitarian programs – between July 2010 and June 2011 came from more than 200 countries and totalled 127,460.
Most were born in one of the following four countries:
• New Zealand (20.2 per cent)
• China (11.5 per cent)
• United Kingdom (8.6 per cent)
• India (8.3 per cent)
Asylum-seeker Arzoo Bahram, 13, at Gleneg beach in Adelaide with new friends Brittany Drack, 14, Rhiannon Drack, 16, and Sarah Drack, 11. Picture: Andrea Laube
Myth 8: They don’t assimilate or contribute
REALITY: Refugees have been coming to Australia for decades and the first big wave of boat people, from Vietnam in the 1970s, have proven to be successful migrants who have assimilated and added much to Australian society. After surviving perilous journeys by their courage and strength, these people epitomise the qualities admired and rewarded in Australian society.
Historically, refugees have contributed to the economic, civil and social fabric of Australian life and their success can be found in all fields of endeavour and marked by their presence on the New Year and Queen’s birthday honours lists.
In 2009, Sri Lankan asylum seekers tried to communicate with the media from the deck of the Australian Customs and Immigration Fisheries Patrol vessel anchored off Indonesia’s Riau Island of Tanjung Pinang. Picture: AFP/Roslan Rahman Source: AFP
Myth 9: Numbers are booming because we lack tough border protection policies
REALITY: In 2007, the total population of asylum seekers, refugees and internationally displaced persons of concern to the UNHCR was estimated at 31.7 million people. By the end of 2011, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide exceeded 42 million and the number of asylum applications in 2011 was also the highest for almost a decade. The reason for the increase in numbers represents the upsurge in people affected by affected by war, military and social upheaval and human rights abuses, which is reflected in the fact Afghanistan continues to provide the most asylum seekers of any country in the world, with 36,600 last year, followed by the Syrian Arab Republic, Serbia, China and Pakistan. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, “most people do not wish to leave their homes, families, friends and everything they know and hold dear. They do so as a last resort, to escape persecution and find safety and security for themselves and their families”.
Myth 10: We can just turn the boats back
REALITY: While this is the current subject of political debate between the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, (who says we can’t) and the Federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, (who says we can) the truth is that wherever they come from, most boat people use Indonesia as a launching point for Australian waters. Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has indicated towing boats back into Indonesian waters is not an option and it is likely a regional summit will be held to discuss a joint solution for the issue of the maritime trade of asylum seekers.