How many of you like me watched last Monday’s Australian story “Just call Jamal”.
It was good to see another side of Scott Morrison. I am so used to seeing his poker face telling asylum seekers that there is no hope and to prepare themselves to rot in island detention centres or settle in Cambodia – it was a change seeing him smiling and genuinely relating to Muslim Australians.
The problem is not necessarily that our leaders have no compassion – it is their black and white thinking that pervades the public discourse on asylum seekers and so many other pressing issues of our time. On one side we have the fifteen million “genuine refugees” waiting patiently in refugee camps on the other side of the world and we are constantly being told that their rightful places are being taken by “economic refugees” who employ people smugglers to jump to the front of the queue.
This world view is challenged by a recent publication of the Parliamentary Library “Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?” written by Janet Phillips.
One of the first things addressed in the report is the use of “illegal” when describing asylum seekers. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is cited which states that everyone has the right to seek asylum and goes on to say “…The UNHCR emphasises that a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution should be viewed as a refugee and not be labelled an ‘illegal immigrant’ as the very nature of persecution means that their only means of escape may be via illegal entry and/or the use of false documentation.”
The report reminds us that there is no orderly queue for asylum seekers. Of the sixteen million refugees in the world, the UNHCR estimates that 800,000 currently are in urgent need of resettlement with 80,000 as the maximum number of resettlement places available in any year. This means that only a small percentage of those whose refugee claims are successful in any one year will be successfully resettled.
We are also reminded that the majority of asylum seekers arrive by air. These people arrive on a tourist or business visa and claim refugee status on arrival. Their claims are processed and they are allowed to remain in the community while this happens. If they are found to be genuine refugees they are usually allowed to settle in Australia.
In contrast those who arrive by boat are told that there is no chance of their ever settling in Australia. If found to be genuine refugees the best hope they have is to be sent to Cambodia or possibly allowed to remain on Nauru! Ironically over the past twenty years, the percentage of refugees arriving by boat granted refugee status is much higher than for those arriving by plane.
As for the claim that most of the asylum seekers arriving by boat are economic refugees, in the words of the report “…Past figures show that between 70 and 100 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat at different times have been found to be refugees and granted protection either in Australia or in another country.”
The information presented in the report supports what critics of current policies have been saying for some time – “stopping the boats” might be a political solution but it ignores the plight of those needing to leave their home country to escape persecution, torture and possibly death.