The dedication of the international community to refugee protection is now at a critical crossroads.
In light of the recently published U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Global Trends 2010 report (pdf), a discussion based on fact and reason, not propaganda, is in order. This need is particularly acute given the Gillard government’s touting of the "Malaysian solution" as an effective measure to prevent asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat.
The UNHCR Report highlights that it is poor countries, including Pakistan (1,900,600 refugees), Iran (1,073,400 refugees), Syria (1,005,500 refugees), Jordan (450,900 refugees) and Kenya (402,900 refugees) that provide shelter for four fifths of the world’s 15.4 million refugees — not affluent Western countries such as Australia.
Furthermore, three quarters of refugees seek shelter in neighbouring countries, rather than fleeing on boats to distant lands.
And yet some of the wealthiest countries in the world, including Australia, persistently try to evade and overtly contravene their voluntarily assumed legal responsibilities.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres notes that the fear of refugees is exaggerated in prosperous countries while poorer countries are actually the ones shouldering most of the burden. For example, he explains that "in Libya … about 1 million people … have fled to neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt since the beginning of the violence. Less than 2 per cent of them have reached Europe."
Australia is ranked 46th on the global ranking of nations hosting refugees and asylum seekers. The UNHCR report highlights that Australia has only 20,000 refugees, making up just 0.2 per cent of the global total and just under 0.5 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers.
The report makes clear that the fear — perpetuated by politicians and the mainstream media — that Australia is in danger of receiving thousands upon thousands of asylum seekers on boats, is unfounded and untrue. Geographically, we are distant from the current conflicts, and this also plays a part in keeping down the numbers of refugees accessing Australia by boat.
It is Julia Gillard’s responsibility as Prime Minister to make clear to the Australian people the facts regarding asylum seekers and refugees — and not further to exacerbate an already divisive debate about immigration.
The public and political hysteria has culminated in many misconceptions about the number of asylum seekers and refugees coming to Australia and the UNHCR Report brings some context to this discussion.
As well, the report suggests that the majority of asylum seekers are fleeing countries where grave human rights abuses are widespread. According to the report, people are fleeing mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Congo, Burma, Colombia and Sudan.
It also makes clear that Afghanis and Iraqis account for half of all refugees worldwide. Australia has been, and still is, active in both these wars, yet we struggle to take responsibility for our role in the conflict. A good start would be the provision of more surrogate protection and easier access to the process of refugee determination for persecuted vulnerable groups in these countries.
Given the facts presented in the UNHCR report, it becomes even more difficult to see how the Malaysia Solution can be justified.
The deal is that Australia sends 800 boat arrivals and takes in 4000 Burmese refugees in their place. It is honourable that Australia is accepting 4000 Burmese refugees. This is a case load in desperate need of resettlement. Most have been living in a protracted camp situation along the Thai/Burmese border. Still, a five-for-one swap cannot be depicted as an advantageous deal.
$300 million has been budgeted for the process and Australia will pay all the expenses. Would it not be cheaper — and more humane — to process the limited number of asylum seekers who make it to Australia on Australian soil?
Moreover, the move to send asylum seekers to Malaysia in order to process their asylum applications, rather than process them here in Australia, breaches international law.
Refugee status pursuant to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a party, "arises from the nature of one’s predicament rather than from a formal determination of status". This notion is affirmed in the UNHCR Handbook, which declares that a refugee "does not become a refugee because of recognition, but is recognized because he is a refugee". People who seek refugee protection are entitled to enter and remain in Australia until they are determined not to be genuine refugees.
Australia must demonstrate leadership, which is compatible with its international duties, and increase awareness of the rights owed to refugees and the obligations that states have to protect them. As Amnesty International reveals, "the most compelling contemporary forms of racism and xenophobia are often against migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers coming from countries wracked by armed conflict and/or human rights abuses".
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