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Australia: the truth about asylum seekers

Here are the top "myths" debunked that Australians tell themselves about asylum seekers.

right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

An Australian government fact sheet on asylum seekers states that while "generally speaking 'illegal immigrants' are people who enter a country without meeting the legal requirements for entry (without a valid visa, for example), the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits nations from imposing penalties on those entering 'illegally' who come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened."

The UNHCR emphasizes that a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution should be viewed as a refugee and not be labeled an "illegal immigrant."

The Refugee Council of Australia notes the practical difficulties encountered by asylum seekers in obtaining the documentation before fleeing their home countries:

Applying for a passport and/or an exit visa can be far too dangerous for some refugees; so too can be an approach to an Australian Embassy for a visa. These actions can put their lives, and those of their families, at risk.


MYTH #3: Australia is being swamped by hordes of boat people

Maybe it just seems like that sometimes.

In fact, the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat — the vast majority of them operated by smugglers out of Indonesia — has varied wildly year to year since statistics were first compiled in 1989/90. They range from zero in 2002/03 to 117 carrying 5,315 asylum seekers in 2009/10.

Looking at the overall picture, however, the total number of boats arriving since 1976 stands at 489, with 27,069 souls aboard — which Refugee Action averages out to 677 asylum seekers a year.

The Human Rights Commission says asylum seekers arriving by boat in 2009-10 made up less than 3 percent of Australia’s entire migration intake.

The commission also reports that in 2010, Australia received just 2 percent of the asylum seeker claims made in major industrialized countries.

Europe received 114 times as many, according to comparative figures from the Refugee Council, while North America received 32 times as many.


MYTH #4: Australia accepts its fair share of refugees

The Australian government says it has consistently ranked as one of the top-three resettlement countries in the world, along with the US and Canada.

According to a recent report, successive administrations have, since 2005, resettled an annual quota of about 6,000 refugees under a UNHCR program in which only about 25 countries participate.

However, according to a separate UNHCR report, broadly speaking it is developing countries that bear the brunt of the worldwide problem of displaced persons, hosting as much as four-fifths of the world's refugees.

The 2009 Global Trends report reveals that of the 10.4 million people deemed refugees by UNHCR between 2005 and 2009, the largest numbers were being hosted by Pakistan (1,740,711), Iran (1,070,488), Syria (1,054,466), Germany (593,799), Jordan (450,756).

Australia, the report says, ranked 47th, hosting 22,548 refugees between 2005 and 2009 (0.2 percent of the global total).

In terms of the capacities of host countries relative to their intake: 

Pakistan hosted the highest number of refugees — mainly from Afghanistan — compared to its national economy: 745 refugees per 1 USD GDP per capita. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was second, followed by Zimbabwe, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Kenya.

Among developed countries, Germany ranked best in 26th place with 17 refugees per 1 USD GDP per capita.

Australia ranked 68th on a per capita basis and 91st relative to national wealth.


MYTH #5: Asylum seekers are dangerous, perhaps even terrorists

According to the Immigration Department, as of Nov. 1, 2010, all "protection visa" applicants are to provide a digital photograph and fingerprints, in order to "reduce fraud and integrity risks and to improve visa and border checking processes."

The fingerprints are checked against databases in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US.

The Refugee Council of Australia, meantime, uses a common-sense approach to busting this myth, writing that aside from the rigorous security and character checks asylum seekers undergo before being granted protection in Australia:

It is also improbable that a criminal or terrorist choose such a dangerous and difficult method to enter Australia, given that asylum seekers who arrive through unauthorized channels and without valid travel documents are subjected to mandatory detention and undergo more rigorous security checks than any other entrants to Australia.

According to the Council, the majority of