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Australia: the truth about asylum seekers

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

Australia asylum seekers 2010 01 20Enlarge
Indonesian fishermen set out to sea from the village of Prigi, while rescuers continue their search for survivors off the coast in East Java province after an overloaded boat carrying about 250 asylum seekers en route to Australia capsized on Dec. 17, 2011. (Juni Kriswanto/AFP/Getty Images)

BRISBANE, Australia — In Australia, it's called a "fair go" and it's basically the equivalent to America's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

For Australia, a country that grew from a British penal colony into a viable nation largely thanks to immigration, the concept of a "fair go" rang true. The idea united Australians in their harsh, isolated existence far from Mother England.

But you rarely hear the phrase anymore, despite the fact that asylum seekers regularly dominate parliamentary debate and local media coverage.

Much of the debate centers around what kind of refugees Australia should or should not accept, how many it can afford and how many it is morally obliged to take. On these subjects, Australians tend to be quite divided.

Asylum seekers generally arrive by boat or plane and then apply to stay for reasons that range from fleeing war to extreme poverty, unlike their visa-carrying counterparts or those who arrive with approved refugee status. Their journey is often treacherous — a reality that became horrifyingly apparent last December, when a boat carrying about 200 people sank off East Java, Indonesia.

Some Australians say asylum seekers are a welcome and potentially beneficial addition to the Australian population, while others say they are a threat to the interests of average, hardworking Aussies and must be deterred at all costs.

Some claim Oz's image as a country with space, resources and economic good fortune attracts a disproportionate number of asylum seekers. (After all, who wouldn't want a fair go in a place that refers to itself as the "lucky country"?)

And it does get a lot. In 2009 and 2010, 8,150 people applied for asylum in Australia, and 4,523 got it, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.

But compare that to the situation internationally. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, South Africa was the main country of destination for asylum seekers in 2009, with an estimated 222,000 new asylum claims. The US was second with 47,900, followed by France (42,100), Malaysia (40,100), Ecuador (35,500), Canada (34,000), and the UK (30,700).

The refugee council says there are exactly 20,919 refugees in Australia, which is a tiny fraction of the worldwide total (15.2 million) and less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the Australian population (22 million).

And so you get a taste of how one popular belief about asylum seekers doesn't prove to be entirely true. There are many such beliefs — or "myths," to borrow a term from refugee advocacy groups — and they do mould opinions, informed or otherwise.

These beliefs are as good a place as any to begin the search for facts. Below are the most common "myths" about asylum seekers in Australia, debunked.

 

MYTH #1: Refugees, asylum seekers … they're all the same

Well, no, not really.

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention defines "refugee" as a person who is outside their own country and is unable or unwilling to return fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, political opinion and the like. They have had their asylum claim approved by a signatory state to the Convention (Australia or the US, for example).

An asylum seeker, according to Australia's peak human-rights body, the Human Rights Commission, is "a person who has fled [his or her] own country and applies to the government of another country for protection as a refugee."

While mind-bogglingly vague, this distinction makes all the difference when it comes to broader public acceptance of asylum seeker claims.

The expectation that a would-be refugee can turn up on the country's doorstep and apply for asylum irks many Australians, according to Clare Conway of Refugee Action.

"Note that most of the anti-refugee rhetoric is aimed at the asylum seekers coming by boat, rather than the refugee intake arriving on humanitarian visas, or coming by plane on other visas," she told GlobalPost, in a reference to visitor and student visas, "whether genuine or fraudulent."

"Boat arrivals are seen as 'queue jumpers' who ought to wait their turn and apply to come by the 'normal' channels — people don't realize that the boat arrivals are among the most desperate of all.

 

MYTH #2: Asylum seekers are illegal immigrants

Strictly speaking, perhaps. However:

Under Article 14 of the 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/120116/asylum-seeker-myths-australia