By Emma Norton of Socialist Alternative. Originally published at

There is a series of myths, tropes and catch phrases about refugees in Australia. They are repeated by politicians and the media to such an extent that they have entered the consciousness of much of the population. The majority are lies and twisted half-truths which serve to justify the inhuman detention regime and further the scapegoating of refugees.

We hear that refugees who arrive by boat do so illegally; that they are selfish queue jumpers; that they are terrorists, not genuine refugees. The government justifies its actions by pointing to Australia’s supposedly “generous” resettlement program, or by shrugging and saying that there is simply no other way to deal with “the problem” than by locking people up indefinitely. Reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Myth #1: Asylum Seekers are illegal

It is in no way illegal to seek asylum under either Australian or International law. The rights of asylum seekers are protected by both the UN declaration of human rights and the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR). In fact, as a signatory to this refugee convention, Australia has an obligation to provide protection to people fleeing persecution regardless of how they get here, boats included. The convention itself states that:

“The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization.”

Refugees are not “illegal” even if they enter Australia with false documentation or have been forced to use “illegal channels” in order to escape persecution. The myth of “illegal boat people” is given more traction by the government’s practice of mandatory imprisonment of anyone who dares arrive in Australia by boat. This helps maintain the idea that people coming from other countries, even those fleeing persecution, are a threat to national security and must be nefarious criminals.

Myth #2: “Boat people” are queue jumpers

Another catchy label that the media like to throw around is “queue jumpers”. But for the vast majority of asylum seekers, particularly those who arrive in Australia by boat, there is no queue. Asylum seekers often have no access to a queue or processing system in their home countries.

For those who flee their home country and end up somewhere else, the prospects aren’t much better: The UNHCR estimates that only 0.5 percent of the world’s refugee population had access to a “queue” in 2011 and that if you piled the world’s refugee population into this “queue”, even though most have no way of physically accessing it, the wait would be almost 200 years.

A tiny percentage of the world’s asylum seekers, particularly those from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka where there are no immigration offices, end up in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. However, very few governments in this region are signatories to the refugee convention and so no resettlement options exist for the asylum seekers who arrive there. Refugees landing in these countries are often subject to neglect, abuse, torture and imprisonment at the hands of the authorities.

In Malaysia, corporal punishment of refugees is legal, and they are afforded very few rights. For many, the safest or the only option is to board a leaky boat to Australia. At no point in this arduous journey, taken by a few thousand refugees each year, was this mystical queue ever seen, let alone “jumped”. In fact, the UNHCR resettlement scheme, what the Australian government would refer to as the queue where the deserving refugees supposedly wait, is incredibly limited. Each year it settles less than 1 percent of the asylum applications it receives, mainly to Europe and Africa, while focusing mainly on voluntary repatriation of refugees to back to the country they have fled.

But the vast majority of the world’s refugee population – over 15 million people – waits indefinitely in refugee camps with no hope of resettlement. Some have no option but to seek protection in countries like Australia that have signed the Refugee Convention.

Myth #3: Australia does more than its fair share

There have been many attempts to paint Australia’s cruel detention system and offshore processing as humanitarian. Along with this distortion is the idea that Australia pulls its weight and generously settles its share of the world’s refugees. The government says that the few thousand people who come here by boat are pushing their luck because we’ve already been so charitable. But the facts, collected by the UNHCR, speak for themselves. In 2011 Australia ranked 71 for refugee intake compared to population size and 77 compared to GDP per capita (both ranks include people arriving by plane).

In 2010 Australia accepted 0.03 percent of the world’s refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people. Eighty percent of the world’s refugees who are actually resettled find themselves in developing nations, not rich countries like Australia.

Even then, America, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Turkey and the UK, along with 14 other industrialised countries, accepted more refugees per capita than Australia. It would take 134 years to fill the MCG with asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat. In the 34 years between 1976 and 2010, remembering that mandatory detention has only been government policy since 1992, only 25,380 people have come to Australia seeking asylum by boat.

As for Australia’s humanitarian intake, the government has a self-imposed annual cap of 13,700 refugees, which it insists must include boat arrivals. The government stokes up racism and border-security hysteria about “boat people” to justify keeping the number so low. This was demonstrated in a recent article in the Weekend Australian, in which Immigration Minister Chris Bowen complained that Labor is unable to increase the intake to 20,000 while boats continue to arrive.

Myth #4: There is no alternative to mandatory detention

With the exception of Israel, Australia is probably the only country in the world which practices mandatory detention of asylum seeker boat arrivals, both adults and children. This policy was only introduced in 1992 by the Keating Labor government.

The cruel detention system comes at a great cost. It results in severe mental and physical health problems, and drives detainees to self-harm and suicide. The economic cost of this torture is around $113,000 per asylum seeker, racking up over $2.5 billion dollars since 2000. A humane alternative exists and always has: Housing asylum seekers in the community where they have proper access to medical treatment and social services; where they are not imprisoned without charge or trial. This would cost a mere 10 percent of the amount currently spent torturing refugees and would involve giving a new start to the world’s most vulnerable people rather than extending their torment.

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