Shining light on world of boat people

"WHY don't they stop in one of the countries they get to before they come to Australia?"

The caller to talkback radio this week did not understand why genuine asylum seekers needed to come to Australia.

"They are illegal immigrants, people with money who pay people smugglers large sums to get on to our welfare system. What they pay would get them to any Australian embassy," wrote a letter writer to the Sunshine Coast Daily.

The Federal Government's proposed asylum seeker bill this week got people talking - but did they really know what they were talking about?

The words of the caller and the letter writer are what Bronwyn Bell, of the Buddies Refugee Support Group on the Sunshine Coast, considers "regurgitation", a relentless repetition of myths about asylum seekers trying to get to Australia by boat.

"We see them all the time, in the papers," she said, as one of the group prepared to write an email pointing out the erroneous use of the term "illegal immigrants".

Why the myths circulate remain a mystery to her, given the volume of information available at the click of a computer mouse.


Asylum seekers who arrive by boats are illegal immigrants

Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are neither engaging in illegal activity, nor are they illegal immigrants.

The United Nations Refugee Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) recognises that refugees have a right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents.

The Convention stipulates that what would usually be considered as illegal actions (for example, entering a country without a visa) should not be treated as illegal if a person is seeking asylum.

In line with our obligations under the Convention, Australian law also permits unauthorised entry into Australia for the purposes of seeking asylum.

Asylum seekers do not break any Australian laws simply by arriving on boats without authorisation.

- RCoA


Asylum seekers are queue jumpers

Applying for protection onshore is not a means of "jumping the queue" or bypassing the proper processes of applying for protection.

In fact, applying onshore is the standard procedure for seeking protection.

According to the definition in the UN Refugee Convention, refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin.

This means that you cannot apply for refugee status if you are inside your own country.

In order to be recognised as a refugee, you must leave your country and apply for refugee status in another country.

Every refugee in the world - including those who Australia resettles from overseas - has, at some point, entered another country to seek asylum.



Asylum seekers take places away from refugees in overseas camps

The myth asylum seekers take places away from refugees who are resettled from overseas does have some basis in truth.

Australia's refugee program has two components - the onshore component for people who apply for refugee status after arriving in Australia, and the offshore component under which Australia resettles recognises refugees and other people in need of protection and assistance.

The onshore and offshore programs are numerically linked - every time an onshore applicant is granted a protection visa, a place is deducted from the offshore program.

The perception that there is a "queue" which onshore applicants are trying to evade is created by a policy choice which could be changed.

No other country in the world links its onshore and offshore programs in this way.



Asylum seekers who arrive by boat present a security threat to Australia

The majority of asylum seekers who have reached Australia by boat have been found to be genuine refugees.

Between 70-90% have typically been found to be refugees, compared to 40-45% of asylum seekers who arrive with some form of temporary visa (for example, tourist, student or temporary work visa)... According to the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, of the 39,527 security assessments made in 2009-10 relating to visa applications (including protection visa applications), only 19 adverse findings were made across all visa categories.

- RCoA


If someone can afford to pay a people smuggler thousands of dollars to travel to Australia, they cannot be a "genuine" refugee

Economic status has no bearing on refugee status.

A refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

It makes no difference whether a refugee is rich or poor - the point is that they are at risk of, or have experienced, persecution.

Many refugees who come to Australia are educated, middle-class people whose profession or political opinions have drawn them to the attention of the authorities and resulted in their persecution.

- RCoA


Asylum seekers are secondary movers. They could have stopped at safe places along the way

The so-called "safe places" on the way to Australia are largely not signatories to the Refugee Convention or do not have the capacity or will to deal humanely with the large numbers of refugees they receive.

About two-thirds of the world's approximately 10 million refugees remain for years in exile without basic rights or essential economic, social and psychological provisions.

The average stay in such conditions is now approaching 20 years.

The majority of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat come through Indonesia and Malaysia, where they have no legal status and risk arrest, exploitation, torture or being returned to a country where they may be killed.

Under such conditions, it is only natural that asylum seekers will attempt to look elsewhere for adequate protection.



People who destroy their identification can't be genuine

Most refugees are not able to travel through conventional channels because they cannot obtain a passport from the government that is persecuting them, or they are fleeing from.

Identification documents enable not only Australian immigration officials to determine identity but also representatives of the regime people are fleeing.

This places relatives within countries like Afghanistan and Iraq at risk.

Moreover, people fleeing from political persecution are at greater risk within their own country if they can be identified when they are on the move.



Australia takes too many refugees

Tanzania hosts one refugee for every 76 Tanzanian people.

Britain hosts one refugee for every 530 British people. Australia hosts one refugee for every 1583 people.



Australia no longer has children in detention

We no longer have children in detention.

Children with parents are now quickly moved out of the Christmas Island high security detention centre to Inverbrackie, Leonora and "community detention".

Yet at the end of January 2012, there were still 528 children (under 18 years) in immigration detention of some kind, many of them children who came seeking asylum alone.

Most were in "alternative places of detention". People in this form of detention are still locked in secure facilities, kept under guard and have no freedom of movement.

Many 5-15 year olds go to school, but not all of them, and for under-5s they do not go to pre-school and have little recreation.

Apart from leaving a place of detention to go to school or for rare supervised family outings, children spend most of their time behind fences.



Stopping the boats will save lives

The largest factor in driving asylum seekers to risk their lives in leaky boats to reach Australia is the inhumane conditions they are forced to endure while waiting in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

The truth is that whether people make it to Australia or not, they are still compelled to leave their homes and are in need of protection.

Turning back boats to countries which do not recognise refugees and which do not treat them humanely is not a real solution. The much bigger problem of refugees in need of safety remains.



Sources: Refugee Council of Australia (RCoA), Edumund Rice Centre for Justice and Community Education (ERC), Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), Buddies Refugee Support Group (BRSG).


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