Just the facts: Australia and refugees

Last week, I found myself in a long and heated discussion with a friend about refugees in Australia. The friend was quoting some wild ‘facts’, and I found myself responding along the lines of, ‘That isn’t the case — I’ll send you a link to a website that will show you’. There was then some more discussion about what data would be credible; I was told ‘government information’.

Here is what I sent the friend — just the facts — in response to some of their claims and misinformation.

I have only referred to government/UN data/documents, except in one instance of a link to a Coalition campaign document.

The UN Refugee Convention

Australia is a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention.

The convention 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.

A refugee has the right to be free from penalties pertaining to the illegality of their entry to or presence within a country, if it can be shown that they acted in good faith – that is if the refugee believes that there was ample cause for their illegal entry/presence, i.e. to escape threats upon their life or freedom, and if they swiftly declare their presence. This right is protected in Article 31.

Also, a refugee’s right to be protected against forcible return is set out in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugee, in Article 33(1).

The intake

Australia’s Humanitarian Program in 2012-13 was set at 20,000 places, an increase of 6250 places from 2011-12.

The Australian Government has indicated that in the 2013-14 financial year, it intends to provide 13,750 places in the Humanitarian Program.

(To give context, the number of places in Australia’s migration program is 190,000)

Genuine refugees, arriving by boat

In recent times around 90 per cent of asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat were ultimately found to be refugees and were granted protection visas.

The number of people arriving unauthorised by boat in Australia, is small in comparison to the numbers arriving in other parts of the world such as Europe. Similarly, the number of asylum claims lodged in Australia is small in comparison to the USA, Canada and Europe.

The detention centre numbers

The total onshore regular capacity of detention centres is 8389. For example, Christmas Island has regular capacity of 1094; but this can be increased to a ‘contingency’ level of 2724 people if needed.

On 17 January, Minister Morrison reported there were 1297 on Manus Island, and 942 people currently detained on Nauru.

Where the refugees come from

The top five countries granted humanitarian visa by place of birth (2012-13 data):

Iraq 32.5%; Afghanistan 19.4%; Myanmar 18.8%; Bhutan 8.2%; Dem. Rep. of the Congo 3.9%.

The top five countries granted humanitarian visa by location (usually the ‘second place’ – where they have fled to e.g. many Afghans are in Pakistan) (2012-13 data):

Syria 15.9%; Turkey 10.8%; Malaysia 10.8%; Pakistan 8.4%; Nepal 8.3%.

In 2012–13, visas were granted to 95 different ethnic groups for Refugee visas.

Documentation – Pakistan and Afghanistan

(This information was because my friend said that refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan all have birth certificates, and they destroy them before seeking asylum).

Pakistan does indeed have compulsory ID documentation but this is not arranged until a person reaches the age of 18 years. However, Pakistan does not dominate the groups of the people granted visas. In 2012-13, the top five countries lodging applications by birth were: Iraq 25.0%; Afghanistan 21.4%; Syria 11.2%; Myanmar 8.3%; and Sudan 6.6%.

According to the US Department of State, a report from April 2003 said the ‘availability and reliability of Afghan identity documents is very uncertain because of wartime conditions and the lack of central authority. Moreover, during the 1990s, Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan were generally not registered or issued with identity documents’.

The 30,000

(There was a suggestion from my friend that 30,000 refugees are sitting in offshore detention centres waiting to be processed).

Is this the government document where that figure you mentioned came from?

In any case, the often-referred to 30,000 ‘backlog’ figure is not people on Christmas Island or other detention centres – they are already living here, in the community, with relatives, friends, awaiting a decision of permanent visas. They are most likely on bridging visas. They can’t access social security or public housing, but do have access to Medicare.

There are different classes of bridging visas but in most cases for those applying for humanitarian visas, they are not allowed to work. This is a change under the Coalition — now anyone who arrived after 13 August 2012, can no longer work, or contribute. As this was/is applied retrospectively as part of Coalition policy, it was one of the most controversial parts of their policy.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” 

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