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Getting a grip on our asylum seeker whingeing


barbed wireHaving been in international meetings recently as a non-government delegate for the Australian Government with the UNHCR it has been embarrassing when delegates of other countries ask why Australia is so worried about the number of asylum arrivals it is receiving. It is difficult to explain that while, yes, the numbers are nothing compared to those received by many other countries, our nation is not used to it.

There are many and varied reasons why the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by plane or by boat ebb and flow. Looking at the patterns over the last 20 years there are clear periods in which numbers have increased or decreased, and they are not necessarily connected to Australian government policy. Yet it is hard to grasp this in the midst of so much political debate over current asylum arrivals by sea.

But my international colleagues are right. We have not historically had the number of asylum seekers crossing our border compared to many other countries. This is because it is hard to get to Australia as a continent surrounded by sea. For a landlocked country with many entry points such as those in Europe, the chances of 'turning back the boats' or in this case 'turning back the trucks' is almost impossible.

Have we just been lucky in the past being so isolated, or is it really Government policy that affects the number of asylum seekers we receive, as we are led to believe about?

It is hard to answer this question without acknowledging our geography. As Jordan (which, along with Pakistan, is the largest recipient of refugees relative to the size of its economy) debates the challenge of having over 102,000 refugees registered with UNHCR and more arriving every day, we do need to acknowledge that with a different geographical location our political debate over who can 'stop' the flow would be irrelevant.

We would have a regular flow despite political rhetoric from either side of government. We would also need to be more strategic in how we receive and process people applying for protection.

In 2009 I led research on international and domestic models of asylum seeker housing. Travelling to the UK, Sweden and Canada to investigate why they provide resources such as housing and welfare payments to asylum seekers, it was apparent that it was grounded in a desire to manage a large number of asylum arrivals.

Housing stock was sourced through private landlords or large housing coporations, private donors subsidised mortgage arrangements with the state and social housing associations. The provision of housing enabled the UK and Swedish governments to manage the dispersal and flow of the number of asylum seekers arriving.

With the increase of the number of families arriving in Australia the Government has recently announced that families will be placed onto bridging visas and allowed to live in the community. While the opportunity to live in the community compared to a detention centre is a welcome move, families are going to struggle to find affordable housing on the 89 per cent of Centrelink benefits they are provided with.

If it is true that Australia is going to start receiving an increased number of asylum arrivals on par with those that many of our first world neighbours have dealt with for so long, how are we going to better manage these arrivals? Clearly overcrowded detention centres and the potential for community based destitution will not cut it.

We need to take a much broader perspective on this issue than what is often represented in our political debate, and investing more into the why and how of people movement across our region over time, to see if there really is a significant increase, and if so how we can manage this reality together with our neighbouring countries. 

Caz Coleman headshotCaz Coleman is a member of the Ministerial Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention. Opinions expressed are her own.

Image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Caz Coleman, asylum seekers, Nauru, refugees, UNHCR



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Existing comments

Australia! Australia! so fair to behold- While the blue sky is arching above; The stranger should never have need to be told, That the Wattle-bloom means that her heart is of gold. And the Waratah's red with her love. Henry Lawson. God is with those who suffer and not with those who inflict the suffering. He is free only when they are free.

Bernstein | 12 May 2013  

Thanks Caz, a good article that strikes a new practical note. Of course it all has to start with an ethical understanding that asylum-seekers are fellow human beings, and people of value who deserve respect and care. I think that for Caz thus is a point so self-evident that it does not need making. Unfortunately for many Australians - including some in our media and political spheres - the point is not so obvious and needs to be affirmed.

tony kevin | 13 May 2013  

This may be stupid thinking but could not Australia announce that all overseas aid will cease for say two years because as a priority it needs the billions currently spent to build and establish the asylum/refugee housing as a viable free reception area which could then develop as a municipality.

Tony Knight | 13 May 2013  

The one faintly respectable argument that government and Libs put up for being nasty to sea-arriving asylum seekers, is that the sea journey is so dangerous that they need to be put off by whatever means. Many have in fact died, and there must be something in this official case. The Malaysia solution was probably a major way to go, but look what happened to that!

Eugene | 13 May 2013  

One of the problems with temporary protection visas is that recipients are not allowed to work and have to depend on "Charity" in order to exist. one is reminded of the era of post war migration when refugees were welcomed and formed the backbone of the work force that built such projects as the "Snowy mountain scheme".

john ozanne | 13 May 2013  

This story is just bare misinformation. Australia is one of the countries which has taken in more refugees and migrants than most other counties on earth. We have to face the fact that we have a multi-billion dollar people smuggling industry which has its tentacles in many welfare organisations and churches. We know that the people in the people smuggling industry and their well meaning naïve supporters are guilty of causing the death of hundreds if not thousands of people. Whilst open mass killing is condemned by everyone, supporters of the people smuggling industry trying to paint a pictures of themselves as “well meaning good people”.

Beat Odermatt | 13 May 2013  

The latest UNHCR report I could find reported an estimate for 2011 of 1500 refugee deaths at sea in the Med and 58000 refugee arrivals in Europe via that route. That 2-3% figure of reported deaths is not far removed from the 5% quoted by the the government last year for Australian boat voyages. According to the Australian Parliament background note of Jan 2013, over 17000 boat arrivals in 2012, not far off our annual Humanitarian Program intake and with no obvious sign of a decline so far in 2013. So how do we prevent the deaths at sea? Any advances on the Malaysian Solution?

chris g | 13 May 2013  

The father is a great benefactor. He is well regarded in the community and is feted in the town hall. He opens his lands and uses his wealth and hires contractors to help those deemed needy settle down. In the meantime he expects his own children to carry their own weight and contribute to his wealth. Some of his children are hungry, some are homeless and some need help in coping with illness and disabilities. Why should I not whinge when I see my siblings in such a situation. Let's get the priorities right. We don't mind helping the disadvantaged; but we only encourage the business of people smuggling by accepting those seeking to circumvent the system by getting onto boats or flying in and throwing away their passports. We ask the question...why don't they settle in Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia? We ask why take in the gatecrashers when productive 457 visa holders are sent back. I am a simple man and I understand only simple things. I don't see the light my more comfortable siblings do.

DonaldD | 13 May 2013  

A timely article from Caz. How many Australians are aware of the asylum policies of countries such as those she and her team have researched? Their humane treatment and care of so many desperate people is a strong lesson for our federal government and opposition, both of which are intent on keeping the boats away or heaping arrived asylum seekers onto other countries far less able to cope. Mainstream newspapers would do well to publish this article also.

Jan Coleman | 13 May 2013  

We need to treat people as per the refugee convention and stop this incessant whining about how to avoid it.

Marilyn | 13 May 2013  

Donaldo, it is not people smuggling and never has been, it is people quite legally paying for transport to a safe country. We are the only country so dumb we use a protection instrument as a tool to punish the innocent.

Marilyn | 13 May 2013  

Beat,our 750,000 over 65 years is almost nothing in the scheme of things. Jordan has taken in 1.2 million Palestinians alone.

Marilyn | 13 May 2013  

It is not only embarrassing but also sad and unjust when there are so many genuine refugees legally waiting in refugee's camps for their turn to be accepted in our country. The problem is that our present government allows the people smugglers business in Indonesia to flourish. All we can do is to be patient, after September 14 things will be back to normal and we will be able to hold our heads high helping genuine refugees, as Australia has done since the end of World War two.

Ron Cini | 13 May 2013  

Thank you, Caz, for this broader perspective. Living in this remote, obsessed place, full of fear stirred by the majority of our politicians, it is hard to imagine the struggle that faces places like Jordan. Australia get people gifted to it but treats them like unwanted presents.

Peter Daughtry | 14 May 2013  

Caz's article is an excellent reality check for those who wish to see it. And 'getting a grip on our asylum seeker whingeing' is far more accurate than 'border protection' to described the asylum seeker issue. Unfortunately this controversy has become such a political football that a dispassionate, coolly developed strategy for a practical and humane resolution based on the examples Caz quotes is just not politically possible in Australia today.

Ian Fraser | 14 May 2013  

To Marilyn: Please don't use figures which are highly incorrect. Australia has taken in refugees and migrants in their Millions over the past 65 years. Australia, Canada and the USA combined have done more for refugees than maybe the rest of the world combined. We are still doing a lot and we could do a lot more if it would not be for the multi-billion dollar people smuggling industry bleeding the goodwill of the people of Australia. I know that people supporting this industry are guilty for the death of many hundreds, maybe thousands. I don't know how these people can sleep at night!

Beat Odermatt | 14 May 2013  

"All we can do is to be patient, after September 14 things will be back to normal. . . ." and such other comments display a complete lack of understanding the reality of the situation described in this article. I prophesy that the promise that he can "turn back the boats" will come back to haunt him for the rest of his life.

PETER | 14 May 2013  

Beat, migrants are not refugees. Ron, there is no right for any refugee in any other country to be resettled here, it is a fiction invented by lazy Australian pollies to hide the fact that we only have an obligation to those who can get here. And there are no people smugglers. Asylum seekers have a 100% legal right to cross borders to get to safety, who they pay and the transport they use has zero to do with it.

Marilyn | 14 May 2013  

And actually Beat the third world does more for refugees than the first world ever will. Taking in a few thousand a year as migrants doesn't help anyone much and thousands, millions a year die of starvation and disease and war because they can't find a so-called smuggler to help them.

Marilyn | 14 May 2013  

Australian taxpayers do not need to be given a lectured rhetoric on what we as Australians should be doing (or letting the Labor Government do with our taxes) to better manage boat arrivals. European countries are suffering all sorts of social issues because of short sighted policies that have failed their own people, culture and way of life. Services to Australians all around the country are being cut while the Asylum Budget explodes out of control. The boats should be stopped and our present failed border security reinstated with powers to stop boats rather than provide a water taxi service to assist them. These boats do not sail to Singapore as Singapore is not stupid enough to fall into the trap of letting people smugglers and like dictate to them as White Anglo Western democratic countries do. What Australia needs is strong Government with strong policies that firstly protect Australian's best interests while providing humanitarian assistance that is controlled and within Australia's financial capacity. Deficits of $6 billion plus is not in Australia's best interests to pay for people to walk around the streets on benefits for 5 years++++. Finally Australia's national security is placed at risk due to the current weak policies that do not effectively deal with and deport all people that pose a risk or have posed a risk. The sooner Labor is voted out the better.

V | 01 June 2013  

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