The World's Most Welcoming Country?

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Kevin Rudd’s new Treasurer Chris Bowen is a former Immigration Minister, so he is well-acquainted with the hard data on refugees. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean he will always present it fairly and in context.

Yesterday at the National Press Club, Bowen was at it again, selectively using statistics about Australia’s refugee intake to give the impression that we are the most welcoming country in the world.

In answering questions about the Rudd Government’s new plans on refugee policy, Bowen said Australia was second to none in “re-settling” refugees.

It is a claim made loud and often by the Government, and many commentators. Yesterday Bowen was repeating the mantra, which was posted on his website on 8 May last year:

“Australia resettles the third largest number of refugees of any country and we resettle more refugees, per capita than any other nation. Australians should be proud of the part we play in providing protection for refugees.”

Bowen was basing his statement on the UN High Commission for Refugees data for re-settlement of refugees and not overall refugee intake. As strange as it seems, there is an important difference. However, he isn’t interested in outlining this difference publicly because it renders his claim a lot more hollow than it sounds.

Bowen is right to say Australia ranks very high as a country of resettlement for refugees, taking 5597, more per head of population than any of the 26 other countries that offered resettlement in 2011 (pdf). However, he is wrong to use this to prove Australia is more receptive to refugees than any other country in the world.

According to the UNHCR, re-settlement is defined as the method by which a third country takes refugees who cannot, for varying reasons, be settled in the country in which they initially seek protection. The most recently-available figures show that in 2011 only 61,231 refugees (pdf) out of 10.5 million “of concern” to the UNHCR were re-settled. It means that re-settlement is but a very small part of the worldwide refugee intake.

“Resettlement must be a complement to – and not a substitute for – the provision of protection where needed to persons who apply for asylum,” the UNHCR says. “Resettlement cannot be viewed in isolation from other protection interventions.”

This is what Bowen is trying to do when he quotes the re-settlement statistics without also presenting the less-flattering figures about Australia’s refugee intake per head of population.

On that score, Australia ranks way down. Of 205 countries listed in the 2011 UNHCR figures, Australia is 70th, taking only 0.98 per 1000.

For comparison, Sweden takes 8.81, Norway 8.24, Germany 7.22, Venezuela 6.95, Luxembourg 6.41, Switzerland 6.37, Canada 4.87, Netherlands 4.51, UK 3.84, and Ireland 2.04. The US is the only other first world country below Australia, taking 0.85.

The UNHCR regional representative, Richard Towle, spoke last month of Australia’s re-settlement program as one of the most effective in the world.

“And yet at the same time this generosity and solidarity for refugees globally has been accompanied by a sharp deterioration in the quality of protection for asylum seekers and refugees coming by boat and a worrying erosion of public support for asylum in Australia,” he said on the UNHCR website.

“UNHCR is concerned by a domestic asylum environment that involves an increasingly negative, and, at times, mean-spirited public debate on how to treat people arriving this way.”

This is the reality Bowen doesn’t want to hear. He much prefers to play with words and figures. Be alert, not alarmed. There will be a lot more of it in the next couple of months.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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