“Today resettlement is offered to less than one percent of the world’s refugees, between 1912 and 1969, nearly 50 million Europeans sought refuge abroad and all of them were resettled. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Australia resettled over 100 000 Indo-Chinese refugees from Southeast Asia under the Fraser Government. In the past, the world has demonstrated that, where there is the political will, vast numbers of people in need can be accommodated.”

The difference here historically is that Australia actively resettled, processed and safely harboured European and Indo-Chinese refugees so they did not need to embark on perilous journeys here.  If we increased or at the very least provided the option of resettlement in the countries that people are fleeing from like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq – which we don’t – they would no longer need to embark on a dangerous boat journey to come here. Statistically speaking, “whilst there were 2567 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia at the end of 2009, Australia resettled only 33 in 2005, 30 in 2006, 86 in 2007, 35 in 2008 and 29 in 2009.”¹ Thus, leaving people with no other choice than to get on a boat.

This correlates with the myth that asylum seekers are coming to Australia because we ‘are a soft touch’ on asylum seekers –  historical trends indicate that the truth could not be more contrary.

The introduction of TPVs under the Howard government was one of the most brutal and inhumane policies to ever be inflicted on asylum seekers. During this time though there was a huge spike in the number of children (and their mothers) on boats as they precluded family reunions. Boatphobes often ask “why is it always single men on the boats” – it was because they didn’t want to risk the lives of their families, and TPVs meant they had to if they wanted to get them out. This is an example of a ‘harsh’ government policy that only resulted in exacerbating the influx of people.

Between the end of the South Vietnamese refugee peak period subsequent to the end of the Vietnam War, and the introduction of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, there was never more than 300 people arriving by boat in any given year (1981-1992). So people weren’t coming even though Australia didn’t have desert prison camps, TPVs and Nauru. It was seven years after the introduction of mandatory detention that numbers cracked 1000 for the first time since 1975. Why? In 1996 the Taliban took Kabul. Three years later, relatively large numbers of Afghans were trying to make it to Australia. The fact that almost 100% of Afghan boat arrivals in that year (1999 – similar rates in 2000 and 2001) were granted asylum suggest that the PUSH factor was far greater than any pull.

2006-2009 fighting in Sri Lanka and the defeat of the LTTE saw a similar response in terms of Tamils trying to reach Australia. People fleeing Iran after the crackdown on the ‘Green Movement’, people fleeing Iraq has increased since the 2003 invasion. People fleeing Burma since the crackdown on the Saffron Revolution. It’s more painting by numbers than it is rocket science. But of course, it is politically convenient to ignore push factors.

On Australia Day 2006 I met three sisters from Afghanistan aged 20, 23 and 24. They were getting their citizenship. They had first applied for asylum in Australia seven years earlier – in 1999, and had waited four years to get out and to get here. Now if three orphaned girls aged 13, 16 and 17 had to wait four years to get out of Afghanistan when the Taliban controlled 90% of the country – you have to ask what is going on with the so-called “proper channels”.

Now in 2011 numbers were down by almost half from 2010. What is more interesting is that while our max cap is 13,750 a year – fewer than 9000 people applied for asylum in Aus in 2011 in total. So where’s the queue? If Australia is such a soft touch, where’s the flood? If there’s such a gap, why aren’t there more boats than there have been? If there’s usually a gap, why do people like those three sisters have to wait several years to get through the system?

If one really wants to get boat arrivals down to 1980s levels (when there was no mandatory detention, let alone TPVs or Pacific prison camps), then you’d do something about the fact people with glaringly obvious claims to asylum have to wait four years to get through the system. The answer is offer resettlement – facilitate peoples journey here.

¹Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (http://www.asrc.org.au/media/documents/myths-facts-solutions-info-apr-2011.pdf)


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