BORDEAUX — The world is sitting by and watching in a state of disbelief at the “abhorrent” asylum policies of the Australian government, according to one of the world’s leading refugee and migration experts.
Alexander Betts, professor in refugee and forced migration studies at the UK's University of Oxford, says it’s time for the United Nations and Australia’s “silent majority” to speak out against human rights abuses under Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
“At the moment I think there’s almost a sense that because Australia is an otherwise liberal democratic state, somehow there’s a disbelief that its asylum policies can be quite as abhorrent as they are,” he says.
Betts contends that despite Tony Abbott’s anti-asylum seeker propaganda, refugees could actually be good for Australia, because their skills and entrepreneurial spirit could help create jobs and strengthen the economy.
Remarkably, he points to the refugee policy of Uganda — a country whose people on average earn less in a year than Australians do in a week — as a model for what Abbott should do.
The prime minister’s current strategy is one of rejecting and demonizing foreigners in need of shelter. His ongoing campaign to “stop the boats,” however, reached new lows this month with confirmation that Australia had handed asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka — the country from which they had sought refuge and one with a questionable human rights record of its own.
The UN described the move as “deeply disturbing,” while refugee advocacy groups issued a High Court challenge to try to prevent a second boatload from suffering the same fate.
Despite his own unpopularity, a recent poll suggests Abbott’s hardline stance on asylum remains popular among some Australians, with 36 percent approving of the government’s asylum policy.
The role model: Uganda
In contrast to Australia, Uganda gives refugees the right to work and freedom of movement. They have access to public services, including health centers and schools. And the government employs health workers and teachers to assist in settlement.
Betts is the lead author of a new report on Uganda that challenges the myth — perpetuated by Abbott and commonly accepted in Australia — that refugees are an economic burden.
The study, "Refugee Economics: Rethinking Popular Assumptions," found that refugees in Uganda are using economic freedom and social support to become self-sufficient. Rather than taking the jobs of locals, they are actually acting as job creators.
“Over 20 percent of the refugees we spoke to in Kampala were entrepreneurs employing other people, and of those that employed other people, 40 percent of their employees were Ugandan nationals,” says Betts.
“If we give them freedom and opportunities, refugees can make a positive contribution. If we restrict their ability to contribute, then we are likely to create a notion that they are a drain socially, politically, and economically.”
Uganda faces a far greater influx of refugees than Australia; in July 2013 alone, Uganda accepted more than 66,000 refugees fleeing civil unrest in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
By comparison, UN figures show that throughout all of 2013, Australia received just 24,300 applications for asylum.
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“We need to get things in perspective and recognize that the overwhelming majority of refugees — over 80 percent — are in the developing world,” says Betts.
“It is often the countries with the least capacity that actually take on the greatest degree of responsibility to protect and assist refugees. The ability of the Ugandan government to contribute in terms of its economic situation is far lower than Australia’s, but they’ve taken pioneering steps with regard to refugee policy.”
Australian Asylum Seeker Resource Centre CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis agrees.
“We believe that asylum seekers and refugees are among the most resilient, entrepreneurial people on the planet,” he says.
Australia needs to create an infrastructure that allows refugees to overcome barriers to employment and self-reliance so they can thrive, he adds.
“The focus shouldn’t be on charity, but on supporting asylum seekers to use their skills, experiences, resilience and ingenuity,” says Karapanagiotidis.
He says the current Australian system is unfair and discriminates against so-called "boat people."
“While asylum seekers who arrive by plane are able to work while they await the outcome of their refugee application, many asylum seekers living in the community who have come to Australia by boat are not afforded work rights,” he says.
“Asylum seekers in general are not eligible to access Centrelink [employment benefits], and those who are permitted to work can’t access Job Services Australia support to help them find employment, nor can they access apprenticeship and traineeship schemes.”
Betts says the deprivation of the right to work is intended as a deterrent, “but it doesn’t work — it doesn’t stop people arriving.”
“Given how many of these people arriving by boat are refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention definition, the sooner we can enable them to be self-reliant and make contributions through their work and their taxes, the earlier we can enable them to become part of the community.”
He says more research is needed to make an economic case for refugees.
“The kind of data we now have for Uganda just doesn’t exist in the Australian context,” he says. “It’s very rare that economists have done research on refugees and asylum seekers, but it’s very important [because] if we want to challenge the rhetoric of governments, we can show these assumptions and claims to be false with that data and evidence.”
Betts insists that Australians should reject Abbott’s policies. “Politics needs to give voice to the country’s silent majority, and that takes political courage and leadership by elected politicians to ... mobilize that set of people who recognize that it’s not acceptable to have refugees under international law in danger at sea and not having access to the territory of another state when they’re seeking international protection.
“Organizations like UNHCR [the UN’s refugee agency] and international NGOs [need to] make it clear that the policies being adopted by the Abbott government are a violation of human rights and international refugee law.”
He said it was also the responsibility of the country’s allies — including the United States and the United Kingdom — to quietly condemn via diplomatic channels Australia’s “clear violation of the minimum standards of human rights we expect of a civilized country.”