Stop The Asylum Seeker Sloganeering


“Stop the economic migrants”, is Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s new slogan to deal with asylum seekers.

On Friday, Carr described asylum seekers from Iran and Pakistan as economic migrants, rather than genuine refugees fleeing persecution. Carr also met with the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister recently with whom he discussed the prevention of “economic refugees”. Carr used this argument as a basis for toughening up tests for asylum seekers.

“My department is going to produce some hard-edged assessments of the situation in the countries from which asylum seekers come that can guide the bodies making determinations in Australia, the tribunals and the courts, about the real status of conditions in these countries,” he said.

Carr’s department has already produced assessments of these countries. His comments suggest he is either ignorant of their existence, or he believes they are unreliable.

The Country Guidance Note (pdf) on Iran provided by the Departments of Immigration and Foreign Affairs and Trade in June 2013 reports that Iran’s human rights record in its treatment of ethnic, religious, political and sexual minorities has been criticised by the UN, UK, USA and international NGOs.

“A May 2013 report by the Council on Foreign relations commented that most human rights abuses in Iran were political in nature and were closely linked with establishing the regime’s control over its population.”

According to the government's own guidance note:

  • Iran itself hosts close to one million refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. There are many stateless refugees and children.
  • The US reports that minority racial groups are targeted for arbitrary arrest, detention and physical abuse. Human Rights Watch has reported the arrest of Arab protestors. Amnesty has reported that persecution of Baha’is has recently intensified.
  • High levels of property confiscation and government policies have led to poor housing and living conditions for Kurds.
  • The UK, Amnesty and Freedom House have reported restrictions on journalists, bloggers, internet use and political expression with crack-downs on protests.
  • Inflation is at 30 per cent and unemployment is at 14 per cent. The UNHCR has expressed concern about deteriorating living conditions of refugees in Iran due to increased costs of living and lack of access to welfare.

There is similar information already available to the Minister regarding Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq – although these pre-date 2013.

A 2013 Amnesty report makes it clear that some people are still at risk in Sri Lanka:

“State repression has been directed at prominent politicians and journalists, activists, lawyers, influential businessmen and academics … university students, humanitarian workers, parents protesting the enforced disappearance of their children.”

Departmental information on Pakistan is absent, but the UNHCR documents cited in Destination Anywhere, a 2013 parliamentary research paper on factor affecting asylum seekers' choice of destination country, tell us that Pakistan has consistently hosted the most refugees worldwide (1.6 million) – mainly from neighbouring Afghanistan, which has produced the most refugees in recent years.

From October 2012, about 700,000 Pakistanis have become internally displaced due to localised security operations. Since December last year, there has been a surge in asylum seekers (pdf) to Australia from Pakistan.

So, rather embarrassingly for Carr, there is already available to him a wealth of information about asylum seekers from Iran and surrounding areas and the reasons they are seeking refuge in Australia. Much of it points to discriminatory treatment and persecution that leads to economic disadvantage.

It is easy to claim that refugees in dire poverty in Iran and other areas are seeking better economic conditions. Unregistered refugees in Iran are hard-hit by poor economic conditions as they are not protected by welfare measures. Registered refugees fare better with some rights to work and health care.

Being a refugee, particularly in Iran, carries with it economic disadvantage – it is a consequence of persecution.

The new slogan “stop the economic migrants” runs counter to the claim that deterrents such as off-shore processing and “no advantage” are effective: if asylum seekers were economic migrants, they would be the first to be put off by these measures.

The focus on Iranian asylum seekers is the result of a recent increase in boat arrivals (pdf) to Australia: 405 applications in the September 2012 quarter compared to close to 2000 in the March 2013 quarter. Asylum seekers from Sri Lanka have also increased in numbers.

DIAC figures (pdf) show that on average, 80-90 per cent of applications from Iranian asylum seekers arriving by boat have resulted in protection visas – lower than the overall average of 91 per cent. Rates for Pakistan are higher – over 92 per cent. Sri Lanka is lowest at 75 per cent.

Carr has criticised the refugee tribunals in Australia for too lenient. His comments may have been directed at decisions about Pakistan asylum seekers: about 85 per cent of appeals have resulted in asylum seekers being granted visas which represents a high rate of courts over-turning departmental decisions.

Yet, the overall over-turn rate of initial visa refusals has been steadily declining from 83 per cent in 2010 to 70 per cent currently. Iranian and Sri Lankan asylum seekers are least likely to have their refusals overturned.

Carr may well be testing the new slogan with the electorate, but the focus group needs more information. “Stop the economic migrants” is as misleading as “stop the boats”.

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