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Getting a grip on our asylum seeker whingeing

  • 13 May 2013

Having 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