Why Do We Demonise Asylum Seekers?
I was recently at a luncheon where a man at the back of the room stood to make a very opinionated statement to the speaker (rather than ask a question) about the evils of illegal immigrants. He threatened to hijack the luncheon and, in the same way as politicians on both sides of parliament currently do, continue a political debate that has seen us as Australians engage in a race to lead the world in some of the most punitive and demonising conditions for refugees and asylum seekers.
Some simple research on government web sites is all that it takes to deal with the myths pedalled by many people who seem threatened by those people who seek asylum in our country. The most common misperceptions are:
1. Our border is porous and we are under risk of invasion by undesirables. Obviously every country has the right to decide who enters its territory. We do not have flocks of people who suddenly appear in our streets, cities, or on our land without authorisation. At airports and sea ports, immigration protocols are strict and well implemented. Our coast watch services to the north of the country are so effective that every small boat entering our territorial waters is intercepted well before it has the chance to arrive on our shores. In fact, our borders are exceptionally watertight.
2. These people who arrive on our shores by boat are illegal immigrants. They are not illegal because under Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum where their life or freedom is threatened. These people are not illegal immigrants; they are asylum seekers. We had about 5000 people arrive in Australia by boat last year seeking asylum, yet we have an estimated 50,000 real illegal immigrants at any one time in the country who came by plane – those who have overstayed visas, or who are working illegally. For some reason, these people get no public attention at all.
3. The people arriving by boat are ‘queue jumpers’. In fact, there is no refugee queue. Australia selects approximately 13,700 refugees each year by application from many refugee centres around the world. The refugees in UNHCR centres (even though they represent only a tiny fraction of the world’s displaced people) are not standing in any form of line.
4. We are being swamped by asylum seekers. It is true that the number of asylum seekers has risen over the last two years (and so has conflict throughout the world). However, since the first boat people arrived in 1975 only 35,000 people have come to Australia by boat to claim refugee status. We have had boat people arriving now for 37 years, and this number would still only fill a third of the capacity of the MCG. That’s hardly a flood, and is significantly lower in number than that experienced by many other countries.
5. These people are not really refugees, they mostly come for economic reasons. If this were true, one would expect a high rejection rate in their application for permanent residency. The truth is that over 90% of boat people (the government call them irregular maritime arrivals) are successful in their application for permanent resident visas. This requires the passing of some of the most stringent investigations and assessments including police checks. In fact, the ratio of successful application by people arriving by boat is actually higher than the other 3500 people who seek asylum each year after arriving by plane.
6. The government provides refugees with more funding than pensioners and other social welfare recipients. Despite many emails that have been circulating to this effect, this is nonsense. David Koch, the financial expert and TV presenter provides this information (July 2011):
When an asylum seeker arrives in Australia, they do not get any Centrelink benefits. While their status is being processed, and if they meet certain criteria, they can be eligible for financial support from the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme, administered through the Red Cross. This amount is 89% of the basic Centrelink allowance. This means approximately $405.84 per fortnight – over $260 less than a pensioner. Once an asylum seeker is recognised as a genuine refugee, after a long and highly scrutinized process, they are given permanent residency and are then entitled to the same Centrelink, schooling and health benefits as anyone else. No more, no less. The normal Centrelink welfare payment is $456 per fortnight, for a refugee with permanent residency and an Australian-born person. A pensioner in Australia receives $671.90. Over $200 more each fortnight. Even with family/parenting benefits, a refugee’s benefits would still be less than a pensioner’s income. For an asylum seeker to qualify for any payment under the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme, they must have lodged an application for a visa 6 months before, not be in detention, and not get any other payment or benefit.
It’s about time that facts like these were used to add objectivity to the asylum seeker debate. Instead we have politicians (on both sides) promoting policies that more xenophobic and proposing solutions that are simply cruel and inhumane. People who feel threatened by those who are different continue to drum up support for their views through emotional and illogical misrepresentation of the facts.
It’s actually hard to argue a humane position on the asylum seeker question. Whenever you propose an alternative view to people like the man at the luncheon, you simply get an argument that is based on bigotry and supported by ignorance!
Perhaps he (and you) should check out this government briefing paper to learn the truth.