EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
How to address the boat people crisis
, February 18, 2012
The sympathy which most Australians feel for refugees has been sorely tried by revelations that around 99 per cent of asylum-seekers who flew to Indonesia with passports had no identity documents when they arrived by boat off north-western Australia (The Australian, January 30, 2012).
For genuine refugees, identity documents, including passports, are their most valuable possession. The fact that IDs have been routinely destroyed prior to arrival in Australia is clear evidence that chances of being classified as refugees — that is, people who are escaping persecution — are enhanced by having no documents on arrival.
It would be a mistake to blame this on people-smugglers alone. Many asylum-seekers already have relatives in Australia, and arrival without documents is also apparently encouraged by those who previously arrived by boat and gained refugee status.
The sad fact is that Australia’s refugee law is being manipulated to let relatively wealthy people who can afford flights from the Middle East to Indonesia, then the extortionate costs of people-smugglers, to get into Australia.
Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of refugees, who have applied for entry into Australia through UN refugee agencies, and Australia’s many embassies, high commissions and consulates around the world, are left at the back of the refugee queue.
Claims by the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, that people are granted protection visas only after their claims have been thoroughly tested and they are found to have a genuine fear of persecution, are laughable.
The reason why Australia is a target country for asylum-seekers is that Australia is a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, unlike many countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Pakistan, which refuse to accept the convention’s obligation to accept and care for refugees.
Australia is also one of only about 20 nations worldwide that participate formally in the UNHCR’s resettlement program and accepts an annual quota of refugees.
In 2008, under this program, Australia accepted the third largest number of refugees (including refugees and other humanitarian entrants) for resettlement in the world (8,742) after the United States (60,191) and Canada (10,804). On a per capita basis, Australia is far ahead of either the US or Canada.
The UN Refugee Convention was drawn up after World War II, following the terrible experiences of millions of people who fled the Nazi onslaught, and then the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe which caused tens of millions of people to flee to the West.
It envisaged that people who had fled persecution would never be able to return home, and that the places of exile would be adjacent to the countries from which they fled. This is clearly not the situation today.
A paper prepared for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library in 2000 by Adrienne Millbank, a researcher from Monash University’s Centre for Population and Urban Research, recorded acceptance rates for asylum-seekers in different countries.
She wrote: “In the mid-1990s Canada accepted 70 per cent of on-shore asylum claims, compared with Finland’s 0.2 per cent. In 1996 Canada accepted 81 per cent of Somalis and 82 per cent of Sri Lankans as refugees; the UK accepted 0.4 per cent of Somalis and 0.2 per cent of claims from Sri Lankans. Overall acceptance rates in EU countries in the 1990s have been in the order of 10-15 per cent, compared with Australia’s 30 per cent. The rate of acceptance of Afghani asylum-seekers in August 2000 was about 90 per cent in Australia, and 30 per cent in the UK.”
A Background Note prepared by the Parliamentary Library in 2011 estimated that around 90 per cent of Christmas Island asylum-seekers’ claims to refugee status are accepted, and they are allowed to remain in Australia.
This undoubtedly has contributed to the people-trafficking trade.
While it is unthinkable that Australia would withdraw from the UN Refugee Convention, if the Government was serious about stopping people-traffickers exploiting vulnerable people, it would amend Australian law in ways which prevent asylum-seekers from queue-jumping.
Boat people who have arrived in Australia without documents should routinely be returned to their claimed country of origin, unless they can prove that their documents were lost, confiscated or stolen.
Alternately, boat people who arrive from countries like Indonesia without documents should be returned to Indonesia, in exactly the same way that airline passengers who arrive without the required travel documents are routinely put on the first flight back to their place of departure.
Boat people with documents should remain in detention until their claims for asylum are processed. If accepted, they should be given temporary residence visas until the situation in their homeland improves. Long-term temporary residents could apply for permanent residency. If their claim for asylum fails, they should be returned to their countries of origin as expeditiously as possible.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.