Misinformation and the politics of fear: the asylum debate in Australia



Both externally and internally, Australia prides itself on its strong human rights record and its standing as a good global citizen; however, deeper analysis shows a country that has consistently refused to comply with its international human rights obligations in a number of areas, and has at times displayed a tendency towards exceptionalist and relativist arguments as regards these international obligations – this tendency is no more striking than in Australia’s response to those seeking asylum. Much of the focus within Australia, as well as much of the relevant legal reform, has been on asylum seekers that attempt to arrive in Australia by boat, and Australia’s response to this group of asylum seekers is often framed in terms of border protection, punishment and deterrence, not in terms of human rights.

Problematically, the debate within Australia is fuelled by misinformation and political fear mongering. Through the mass media, Australians are confronted with the idea of hoards of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat, by rhetoric that labels such asylum seekers as ‘illegals’, and by false notions of an orderly queue that exists for those that have been recognised as refugees and are awaiting resettlement. The facts paint a vastly different picture:

  1. asylum seekers that arrive in Australia by boat make up less than 2 percent of Australia’s annual immigration intake – just 2,156 of a total migration intake of 140,610 in the 2009-10 financial year (Source: Department of Immigration and Citizenship)
  2. it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, even if arriving by boat (1958 Migration Act)
  3. of all the world’s refugees, as few as 1 percent are likely to ever be granted a place through the UNHCR’s resettlement program – based on the rate of resettlement over the past decade (on average, 81,100 refugees have been resettled per year over the last 10 years) it would take around 188 years to resettle the world’s approximately 15.2 million refugees (Source: UNHCR)

It should also be remembered that industrialised countries such as Australia are home to a relatively small number of refugees when compared to developing countries, which host around 80 percent of the world’s refugees. Even when looked at solely in the context of the numbers of onshore asylum applications made in industrialised countries, Australia ranks relatively low on the list. In 2010, Australia received just 2.2 percent of all onshore asylum applications received across 44 industrialised nations, placing it at 18th on the list of 44 – this relatively small percentage is barely a drop in the ocean when refugee flows are examined in a global, rather than a local, context. (Source: UNHCR)

There is broad agreement among NGOs and academics that the border protection policies of individual states do not stem the flow of asylum seekers. Rather, people continue to flee their countries of origin due to conflict, torture and persecution. The politicisation of the asylum debate in countries such as Australia fails to address the root causes of forced displacement, and plays a dangerous game with the lives of highly vulnerable individuals.

Australia, as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, has a responsibility under international law to provide protection for those to whom it is found to have protection obligations – politics and media-induced public hysteria should not play a part in the process.


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