Boat people turn out to be genuine – what a surprise

This is an Australian story, but it’s of broader interest not just because it’s an issue of worldwide importance but also because it’s a good example of the sort of political dissimulation that can happen anywhere.

The topic is refugees, and Bianca Hall has the report in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

More than 90 per cent of asylum seekers who arrived by boat were found to be genuine refugees in the March quarter, figures to be released on Monday show. But those who arrived by plane – despite being eligible for release into the community and not having to face years of detention on Nauru or Manus Island – were almost twice as likely to be rejected as refugees.

So far there’s no sign of the figures on the immigration department’s website, but no doubt they’ll appear in due course. In any case they’re totally consistent with past experience; as Hall says, 91% of boat arrivals in 2011-12 were found to be refugees and 93.5% the previous year. But “Of those who arrived in Australia by plane before lodging an application for protection, 33.2 per cent were given initial approval, rising to 54.7 per cent after appeals.”

Given those numbers, you’d think that a government that was primarily concerned about the welfare of people crossing the Indian Ocean on leaky boats would try to get them onto aeroplanes instead. Conversely, if its priority was to stop people who aren’t genuine refugees from coming here, it would focus on the plane arrivals, either sending them to Nauru or adopting some other draconian measure of deterrence.

Since the government shows not the slightest inclination to do either of these things, it’s reasonable to conclude that its real concerns are something other than what it claims.

If you depended only on the political debate (or on the tabloid media) for your facts, you’d probably assume that Australia was being deluged with asylum seekers with dubious claims – so-called “economic refugees” who are just looking to improve their lives rather than fleeing persecution. The latest figures demonstrate, yet again, that this is simply not true. (The UNHCR provides a wealth of statistical material if you want to explore further.)

Immigration minister Brendan O’Connor has a different approach to the figures. Without saying so in quite so many words, he clearly intends to suggest that too many people are having their refugee status approved, and that more should be knocked back. Last week he promised “a comprehensive review of the refugee status determination process to ensure that we continue to meet our international obligations, but also that our final acceptance rates for comparable cohorts are consistent with other countries.”

Hall quotes him saying that “We accept that we need to abide by the refugee convention,” but that “We don’t believe we should be doing more than that.”

But notice how the government’s rhetoric contradicts itself. If crossing the ocean to come here really is an exceptionally dangerous thing to do, it’s surely not surprising that people only do if they are really desperate: that is, if their claims to be fleeing persecution are absolutely genuine. So a high rate of acceptance of those claims is just what you’d expect – higher, for example, than among those who’ve only crossed the Mediterranean and made landfall in southern Europe.

Australia is in a different position to almost all other refugee destinations; because it’s difficult and dangerous to get here, we attract very few bogus claimants (except, of course, those who are able to get visas to get on a plane). That’s not a sign that our processing is too lax, it’s just a function of our geography.

O’Connor would not dream of making this sort of comparison when it comes to other aspects of the refugee problem. If the test, for example, were to be refugees admitted per square kilometre of arable land, Australia would be close to the bottom of the table. He only wants to resort to international comparison when it might work against accepting refugees.

Refugees are a hot political topic in many places; Australia is by no means unique in that regard. What distinguishes our problem is both how small it is and how effective our geographical position is at winnowing the field of claimants. The huge majority of those who reach our shores are genuinely in need of help.

It reflects poorly on us that we seem so reluctant to give it to them.



22 thoughts on “Boat people turn out to be genuine – what a surprise

  1. So?? You now have a solution? Apart from demeaning most Australians what is your solution to a worldwide refugee population of 40 million.

    Continue with mea culpa or actually face the facts of what Australia is capable of doing.


  2. Hmm, not sure how accurate that is. Following the link to IMMI’s site and looking at their stats shows that in 2011-12 71% of PPV applications were granted from boat arrivals and 25% were granted for non-boat arrivals.

    “Asylum Trends – Australia 2011-2012” shows 7379 protection applications from boat arrivals with a final grant of 4766, or 65%.

    Note: the 71% is a percentage of requests where a decision was made. 65% is percentage of total requests, including those where no decision has yet been made.

    Where are people getting 90% from?


  3. Excellent and timely article – thank you. Sidamo, think the report quoted refers to figures “to be released”, so presumably we will be able to crunch the numbers in due course.


  4. @Harry – you don’t need to have a solution to all the problems in order to want to steer the public conversation back towards reality.


  5. Thanks everyone. Harry: do I have a solution to the world’s refugee problem? No, of course not. Do I have a solution to Australia’s “problem”? Yes – get rid of mandatory detention and go back to the pre-1992 system, which seemed to work much better than any of the recent efforts, and use some of the money saved to invest in faster processing so people who aren’t genuine can be repatriated quickly.

    But even assuming I’m wrong about that, I reject the premise that unless you’ve got your own solution you can’t criticise something else (like locking up innocent people for years on Nauru) that’s obviously bad. It’s perfectly coherent to say “Look, I don’t know what the answer is, but it can’t possibly be this.”

    Sidamo: I think the 65% figure is just the “primary approval” stage, before any appeals. As Hall said, “Many asylum seekers initially given a negative assessment had their case overturned on appeal.”

    Jacob: Thanks, glad you liked it.


  6. Adam K
    I would think my comments highlight reality instead of “confessional box” hypocrisy.

    The world problem has been around ever since man searched for a better life and to escape tyranny. However the real people who assist in these areas are feet on the ground operators and behind the scenes politicians who struggle to share the wealth.


  7. Thanks for reply Charles but you didnt say any of those things in the article.

    Personally I dont think there is a solution just one with less suffering and I am prepared to accept that as most people who just do and not talk,


  8. Thanks Harry. I’m afraid I can’t say everything at once; the key point I was trying to make is that we just don’t have a refugee problem in the same sense that places like Italy or the US do, because our geographical isolation stops most bogus claimants from trying to get here. So our reasons for moving to mandatory detention were fundamentally political, not forced on us by circumstances. Yes it’s true there’ll still be suffering somewhere, and I share very much your respect for those who are working on the ground to do something about it.


  9. Harry, why do you only want to whinge still. 40 million out of a total population of 7,000 million is not many. That is just 1 in every 350 people that could be easily absorbed by the world if they wanted to.

    And Sidamo that is the primary acceptance rate only.

    The December figures show that 80% of the rejected cases are overturned on review without ever getting to a court.

    The fact is hardly any refugees come here and it would make no difference how many did because we have to assess their claims.


  10. to put that another way – I live in a town of 2,000 people. If one in 350 was a refugee that would be 6 people.

    The problem with brainwashed Australian’s is that they think that thinks are different to what they are.

    Here is a fact Harry and co. refuse to understand – we have about 6 or 7 million visitors, migrants, students and Kiwis come here every year.

    IN fact with DIAC acknowledging that 32 million people made crossings in and out last year that is 87,600 in and out every day of the year and no-one notices.

    The question Harry needs to ask is why the world is so vicious to the very tiny number who need greater protection and do so little for the 2 billion who are living on $2 per day.

    The answer is the west and rich nations are just plain mean.


  11. shepherdmarilyn
    Thanks for comment.

    Gee, never thought of that just give a home to 40 million people and thats the end of the refugee problem. Hmmm! Must let the UN know tomorrow.


  12. Don’t be a facetious prat Harry. The world could house every refugee tomorrow and not notice, instead the rich world makes the refugees and then forces the poor world to look after them.

    I reckon though the UNHCR is well aware of that point, it is the rest of the world that has no interest in doing anything other than warehouse refugees.


  13. We are facing the imminent threat of an extreme ultra conservative takeover on 14 September. I wonder what will happen if these “tea party” operatives get into power.
    Does it concern you “sheppy”?
    I wonder, as a well known Gillard hater, do you see any difference between “liberals” and “conservatives”?


  14. Sick of hearing about these illegal frauds. Tear up the refugee convention and blow them out of the water!


  15. I posted this on The Conversation a while back:

    Michael Zwack – UNHCR:

    “Throughout the world we don’t have many situations where a solution has been found and people can either return to their home or settle where they are. Fortunately, Sri Lanka is one country where there’s no more conflict. People ARE able to return voluntarily in safety and in dignity”

    You can see that the approval rate says more about the weakness of our assessment process than it does about the strength of their claims. It’s just stupid and unhelpful for the asylum industry to be encouraging illegal boat people from Sri Lanka when the UNHCR themselves say it is safe for them to return home.


  16. I think the key word in that, Patriot, is “voluntarily”. If things are sufficiently safe that people return voluntarily, great. It’s a much bigger step to say things are so good that we can return them there against their will. There’s also a big difference between conflict having ended and persecution having ended: people who fled the first may be happy to return, but those who fled the second may still be in great danger if they do.


  17. No Patriot, we cannot forcibly return anyone, that is torture under the convention against torture and other cruel and unusual treatment.

    Sri Lanka is not safe for tamils and even many Sinhala and the Rajapaksa family are murderous thugs.


  18. There are 330 people forced out of Australia who are now jailed in Negombo prison, they are not allowed to leave at all and are on watch lists to stop them doing so.

    They are arresting members of families and using them as pawns to stop others leaving.

    We simply have no right to discriminate so brutally against one group of people when we have asylum seekers here from about 50 nations each year.


  19. shepardm

    “The question Harry needs to ask is why the world is so vicious to the very tiny number who need greater protection and do so little for the 2 billion who are living on $2 per day.”

    I feel I must respond to defend the millions of people out there who every day help people in need without the required recognition or a “hobby horse” on which to build their lives.

    You diminish your arguments by your continued vitriol and pubescent attacks. Im sure you consider your actions worthwhile but believe it or not there are thousands in Australia doing good without the need to abuse people who disagree with them. I am always prepared to stand in their defence.

    Now I have work to do.


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