Asylum Seekers in Australia

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines an Asylum Seeker as someone who is seeking international protection. This person seeking protection must undergo certain procedures, paperwork and individualized refugee status determination procedures in different countries to receive refugee status in the country they are seeking protection.

In conjunction with this a refugee is the term used to describe a person who has already been granted protection by the country they are looking to seek protection from. An asylum seeker can become a refugee if the local immigration or authority system deems them fitting in the international definition of a refugee which comes from the 1951 refugee convention that states that refugee status shall apply to any person who is in “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

asylum seekers australia

There are two ways an asylum seeker can make it into Australian territory, by plane or boat. From 2010 to 2011 the top ten countries of people seeking asylum arriving by air were China, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Fiji, Nepal, Iraq, Malaysia and Indonesia. In the same year 5175 requests were made by unauthorised arrivals that came to Australia by boat, without a valid visa. These ‘boat people’ came from Afghanistan, Iran, no country of citizenship (stateless), Iraq and Sri Lanka. Ref: Australian Human Rights Commission publications.

Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia via boat usually do not have a valid visa and have to make the journey through ‘people smugglers’. Boat people are unable to choose to arrive by plane because they are stateless or hold passports Australia will not stamp even with short-term visas. Airlines simply will not carry passengers without visas into Australia because they will have to return them to the country of departure and risk being fined for having brought them here. Between 2001 and 2010 more than 500 asylum seekers died at sea trying to make the voyage to Australia via boat. The people that choose to make this journey are usually trying to escape life-threatening situations for themselves and their family, fear of prosecution, discrimination, having to live in a refugee camps and or do not have the time or the money to wait out the long, competitive application process for a refugee visa to enter Australia. They leave behind their home, friends and family and often turn to people smugglers as their last option as they have exhausted all others.

If an asylum seeker does make it to Australia without a valid visa they are transported to a third country to be processed and resettled. This policy came into place in Australia in August 2012, with the Government confirming that the third party resettlement countries are Papua New Guinea and Nauru, which is part of the South Pacific islands. These offshore centres that asylum seekers are sent to are known as detention centres.

christmas island detention centre

There are a number of detention centres currently scattered around Australia with thousands of asylum seekers detained still waiting to be processed. The system of third country processing was introduced in August 2012 and initially only applied to those asylum seekers who arrived in Australia at an ‘excised offshore place’ (such as Christmas Island). However in May 2013 the system was extended to apply to all asylum seekers who arrive (without authorisation) by boat anywhere in Australia and Australian waters.

In September this year the new Australian Coalition Government introduced ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ a “military-led response to combat people smuggling and to protect our borders” as explained by the current Australian Liberal party. This policy sees the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visa’s (TPV’s), turning back boats, intercepting boats at source and transition countries and automatically denying refugee status to asylum seekers believed to have destroyed their documentation. Lieutenant General Angus Campbell is the Commander of the Joint Agency Task Force for Operation Sovereign Borders and received a promotion which coincided with his appointment.

The Operation Sovereign Borders policy has been labelled as a one step further reaction to the ALP’s third country resettlement policy that was introduced in August 2012. Many have criticised it for removing all chances for anyone to seek asylum in Australia and by appointing a Major General in charge of the policy along with adding “Border Protection” to the Department of Immigration’s portfolio determines boat people as more of a security emergency rather than a humanitarian issue.

protesters immigration australia

scott morrison immigration minister Above: Protesters outside Balmain Town Hall for ALP caucus meeting in July 2013.
Right: Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison.

Recently appointed Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison, who is the head of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, stated a number of times that asylum seekers are in fact ‘illegal’ and are taking the places reserved for genuine refugees who have ‘waited in line’. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Canberra Spokesperson says this use of labelling asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ is not one that UNHCR uses or encourages in relation to refugees or asylum-seekers arriving without a visa.

“Both the Refugee Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledge that, in exercising the basic human right of seeking International protection, asylum-seekers are often forced to arrive at, or enter, a territory in an irregular or illegal manner. Accordingly, the Refugee Convention explicitly notes that penalties should not be imposed on refugees, even in instances where their entry or presence in a territory is illegal.” Explains the UNHCR Canberra spokesperson.

When asked if it is illegal for asylum seekers to arrive by boat UNHCR answered; “In Australia, it is not illegal for a an asylum-seeker to arrive without a visa and the use of the term in this context is unhelpful”.

Mr Morrison defended his use of the term illegal, when he told the ABC it was based on language used in the United Nations Convention on Refugees.

“I’m not going to make any apologies for not using politically correct language to describe something that I’m trying to stop,” Morrison told the ABC in October.

“Let me be clear. I’m trying to stop people illegally entering Australia by boat. That’s our objective.

“I’ve never claimed that it’s illegal to claim asylum. That’s not what the term refers to. It refers to their mode of entry and so I’m going to call a spade a spade.”

In Australia it is a ratio of 1.1 refugees for every 1000 people and only 2% of the annual migration made to Australia is made up of asylum seekers.

In terms of a global prospective Australia ranks 20th in the world for asylum seeker applications and hosting, out of the 2,011,334 asylum seeker hosts and applications that are received worldwide. This figure is a quarter of the amount of asylum seekers in the UK, with Pakistan taking in the most refugees on a global scale in 2012.

Statistics now prove that it’s the poorest countries that are supporting the largest amount of asylum seekers and wealthier countries hosting the least. The amount of people living in ‘limbo’ on bridging visas without being able to work, living in detention centres and refugee camps is increasing worldwide.

By taking a look at Australia’s history we can see that some of the biggest parts of Australia’s multicultural society started with ‘boat people’ arriving from Vietnam in the 1970’s, who now play an integral role in who Australia is today. Five of Australia’s eight billionaires came from family’s who arrived in Australia as refugees. And a study from the UK demonstrates that asylum seekers made a net contribution to the British economy of £2.5 billion in the year 2010.

These factors show that Australia could be jeopardising its international relations, humanitarian responsibilities, economic growth and international responsibilities with its new policies and attitudes towards those seeking asylum in Australia via boat or any means of transport.

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