It is is déjà vu all over again as multiple wars of words over asylum seekers erupt around Australia following the dramatic incident which has left some refugees dead or battling for their lives

It is obviously too much to hope for such ‘debate’ to be based on facts or on a recognition of the multiple and complex factors involved in forced migration and other movements of people around the globe.  Even putting the debate in the context of our region, let alone the planet as a whole, seems to be asking too much it would seem.

None the less, it is worth taking the opportunity to repeat a few facts.  Perhaps some of them might eventually leak into public awareness, and maybe eventually even into the comments of most politicians and media commentators.  It is always worth remembering that there are actually some media commentators who are interested in facts, rather than just being boosters for their preferred ideological position.

Firstly, if you ask politicians or media commentators which country the greatest number of people to seek asylum in Australia came from, I expect very few would get it correct. It isn’t reasonable to expect the general public to know these things, as they get most of their information from the media and their politicians. 

The answer, by a long way, is China.  Because those people come by plane, and make claims either as individuals or family units, they rarely attract media attention.  In addition, there are understandable diplomatic sensitivities in our politicians drawing too much attention to the fact, which would mainly serve to remind people of how appalling the human rights record of the Chinese government continues to be.  (Although given The Australian’s new apparent interest in whether or not asylum seekers are ‘well dressed’, it’s surprising they don’t have a fashion correspondent going out to assess the dress sense of all the Chinese asylum seekers living in our community.)

Secondly, as Mike Steketee recently pointed out in a good example of responsible journalism, the numbers of asylum seekers globally, including from countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, which tend to be where the tiny number of boat arrivals come from, have rising significantly in recent times.  Not surprisingly, the period where the number of refugees fleeing these countries dropped substantially happened to coincide with the drop in arrivals in Australia in recent years.

Thirdly, the most obvious way to reduce the likelihood of refugees risking their lives through dangerous boat journeys is to provide a viable alternative pathway for them.  Commentary which seeks only to portray refugees arriving in boats as somehow being cheats or fakes or – the favourite falsehood – ‘illegal’ will never consider what alternatives might be feasible, as under this line of ‘reasoning’ the refugees don’t deserve a chance anyway.  This is why the only response usually put forward by those who seek to demonise the refugees usually involves more money being poured into keeping them out – an approach which (a) is very expensive, (b) tends to involve diverting Defence resources from far more important things, and (c) will never work in the long run.

To me, the most obvious way of reducing refugees risking a boat journey to Australia is to provide extra resources to the UNHCR to promptly process asylum applications in Indonesia and other countries in the region, encourage other countries in our regions to improve the basic security and human rights of asylum seekers whilst their claims are assessed so they have less imperative to flee or go underground while their are waiting, and also to ensure that those who are assessed to be refugees do have some prospect of safe resettlement in a reasonable time.  Ironically, this approach was partly pursued by the former Howard government, in amongst all its other more headline grabbing activities.  If they had not skimped by cutting back on overall UNHCR funding, while spending hundreds of millions on detention and using warships to intercept fishing boats, and been so reluctant to accept refugees who had been assessed in Indonesia, this approach would have been much more successful.  Even with all those qualifiers, it still did work to some extent.

To keep the issue in perspective, it is worth getting across the statistics produced by the UNHCR about asylum seeker numbers around the world.  There is a bewildering array of figures, but it is worth making the effort to get across them.  The recent publication “Asylum levels and trends in Industrialised Countries – 2008” shows just how tiny the numbers of asylum claims made in Australia are – and of course the vast majority of those are people who arrive by plane.

Picking just one example, the number of people from Afghanistan who applied for asylum in an industrialised country last year was 18 459. (That of course doesn’t count the millions who are living uncertainly in Pakistan and nearby countries.)  Of that number, the number who applied in Australia was 52.  (Don’t get Australia mixed up with Austria – they received 1365 from Afghanistan alone.)

The number of asylum applications made in Australian by people from China in 2008 was 1226.  No doubt the numbers from Afghanistan applying in Australia will go up to a few hundred in 2009 – if the situation really deteriorates in that country , it might even hit a 1000.

Those sorts of figures really shouldn’t stop us from being able to keep the issue in perspective as we examine the best and most effective ways of dealing with this complex, humanitarian issue.

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