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Good To Know: Some Key Facts - Refugees, People Smuggling and Australia's Approach

BY AMANDA MOLLER

Contents
THE ISSUE
- Some Key Facts Regarding Refugees
- So is Australia One of the Most Generous Countries Regarding Refugees? 
- What About Australia's Treatment of Asylum Seekers Arriving by Boat?
- But Does Australia's Approach to 'Boat People' Stop People Smuggling?
KEY RESOURCES



THE ISSUE

Some Key Facts Regarding Refugees

  The picture below was published by UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency). You can see more of what they've published here and find out how they conduct their research and obtain their data and statistics here

http://www.unhcr.org/en-au/figures-at-a-glance.html 
(Picture published by UNHCR)

  More data and statistics regarding refugees are available at Amnesty International, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian Red Cross, and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If you're really up for some serious reading here is the 1951 Refugee Convention, the document regarding the treatment of refugees that all signatory countries (including Australia) are obliged to adhere to under international law.

  If reading that much makes you want to punch yourself in the face, here are some key points:
- It is not illegal to seek asylum (whether by boat or not). It is illegal to bypass immigration laws and live in another country without required visas, but it is not illegal to seek refuge from persecution. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines what determines a refugee legally. In short refugees are such when they are forced to flee their homes due to conflict, poverty, etc., and their home government is unable or unwilling to help or protect them.
- There are over 21 million refugees worldwide. That is almost the entire population of Australia. Three times that amount have been forcibly displaced.
- The countries that host the most refugees in the world are Jordan, Ethiopia, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey.
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So is Australia One of the Most Generous Countries Regarding Refugees?

  That is what we're led to believe by the Australian government. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said it, the Coalition have claimed it, they argue that "Australia is one of the three most generous nations when it comes to permanently resettling refugees". And they're technically not wrong. Statistics released by UNHCR do show that Australia is the third highest country that resettles refugees with UNHCR. The following table reflects statistics from 2015.

http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1617/RefugeeResettlement#_Toc461022111
Source: Parliament of Australia - Refugee Resettlement Program - What are the Facts?

  What we need to remember is that firstly, this is based on refugee resettlement. These refugees are already being hosted in another country. The six countries mentioned above still host far more refugees than Australia, what Australia is doing is resettling some of these refugees. Secondly, these statistics are only through the UNHCR resettlement program, they do not take into consideration other refugee resettlement programs operating between governments outside of the UNHCR.

  The Conversation and The Guardian in September 2015 published fact-checking articles on Australia's intake of refugees and put the numbers into perspective. While Australia is one of the most generous countries in the UNHCR resettlement program, not all refugees are processed through the UNHCR, and of the millions who are, less than 1% have been submitted through the particular resettlement program that the government is referring to.

  Putting the government's claims into context is not to discount any generosity that has been shown by them. The resettlement program has no doubt positively changed the lives of many refugees and that matters. It's just that it's important to understand the facts, so as not to conflate the idea that Australia is "the most generous" in the world, and then to use that to engender the fear that we're being inundated by refugees, or to justify deterring other asylum seekers. On that note...
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What About Australia's Treatment of Asylum Seekers Arriving by Boat?

  For more in-depth information of Australia's off-shore processing operations you can read an article published here at G2K. In short the Australian government has come under much criticism for off-shore processing operations on both Manus Island and Nauru. From critics both domestic and international. The Australian government invested millions (and millions) of dollars into financing offshore detention centres that are run by Papua New Guinea and Nauru. These centres have been used to detain asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia by boat. The current Australian government have propagated this program through Operation Sovereign Borders, a move to protect the security of Australian borders and deter people smugglers.

http://www.border.gov.au/about/operation-sovereign-borders/counter-people-smuggling-communication/english/outside-australia

  The detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru have come under fire for many reasons, primarily because of the way in which their detainees are treated, and the secrecy the centres are shrouded in. Many detainees have been kept in detention indefinitely, subject to abuse, kept in inhumane conditions, and treated like prisoners (again, refugees have the legal right under international law to seek asylum. Because they are not breaking the law they should not be kept as prisoners). A thorough report published by a senate committee in August 2015, titled Taking Responsibility: Conditions and Circumstances at Australia's Regional Processing Centre in Nauru, goes into great detail describing the poor conditions detainees are kept in, and concludes that Australia must accept responsibility for this.

  On the 30th October 2016 Turnbull announced that the Coalition would be putting forward legislation to amend the Migrant Act. The amendment would ensure that asylum seekers who attempted to arrive into Australia by boat from July 2013 would receive a lifetime ban from Australia in all capacities, including on tourist visas. Both Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton have argued that this measure is necessary to send a message to people smugglers, that at no time in the future will smugglers' efforts to get people into Australia succeed, even by getting them through a "back door" as a tourist.

  Many have criticized this legislation as being cruel and unnecessary. And by a method of logical deduction it does make little sense:
- It seems unlikely that in forty years time when a former refugee who had arrived by boat travels to Australia on a tourist visa from their new country, that a people smuggler somewhere would be, to use Dutton's words, "rubbing their hands together".
- People could take advantage of the tourist route regardless of having sought asylum by boat. People smugglers could hardly take credit for something that actually does not require their services.
- Punishing people found to be legitimate refugees to "send a message" to people smugglers is like punishing victims of crime to "send a message" to their perpetrators.
- Banning these refugees creates an immigration conflict within the countries they would be resettled in. For example New Zealand Prime Minister John Key doesn't want to accept refugees under these terms, as New Zealand has "no intention of having separate classes of New Zealand citizens"; those who can travel to Australia and those who can't.
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But Does Australia's Approach to 'Boat People' Stop People Smuggling?

  The Coalition does boast 800 days without having had a boat attempting to bring asylum seekers into Australia. People smuggling syndicates do thrive throughout the world. You can find out more on the subject at Australia's Federal Prosecution Service and at the Australian Federal Police. People smugglers have been reported to take advantage of the vulnerability of asylum seekers and manipulate them into attempting to travel to Australia. Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection have gone to great lengths to combat this and have released fact sheets, videos and posters trying to educate people who might attempt to seek asylum in Australia by boat that this way is not an option. And in the wake of all the government's efforts, they have claimed, for a period of 800 days so far, to have stopped the boats.

  Again, just like the Australian government's claims of being amongst the "most generous" when it comes to refugee resettlement, the facts here need to be considered within context. Some key points to consider are:
- The majority of asylum seekers in Australia arrive by air.
- People smugglers use air travel as well as boat travel (they fake documents, etc.).
- Not all smugglers are 'evil criminals'. Some boat crews found to have been smuggling asylum seekers into Australia are from low socio-economic backgrounds, many are poor Indonesian farmers, also desperate to make ends meet. In some cases they have been taken advantage of by criminals higher up within the people smuggling syndicates, and sometimes misled into people smuggling without being made aware that that is what they are doing. And some smugglers think they are doing something noble, that they are getting people out of war-torn areas in search of safety (see more on this here and here).

  And consider the asylum seekers themselves. Many use the people smuggling route not to be complicit, but to escape the conflicts in their home country because that may be the only way out that they know of, or most convenient way out in their moment of desperation. If bombs started dropping near your home would your first instinct be to go online and research "Operation Sovereign Borders" to find out the particular way to get into a safe country? Would you know where to find your local UNHCR office to register as a refugee and 'join the queue'? Would you be fully aware of international law, and confident in your human rights enough to know the countries in which you are legally allowed to seek asylum in, and under the conditions in which you must seek that asylum? People fleeing conflict don't necessarily know all the rules or correct protocol, like most of us, nor do they have the time or resources to find out, and so many do what they can, without knowing whether what they're doing is right or wrong.
  
  The Coalition may have stopped the boats. And they may well have put a dampener on the local people smuggling industry in Indonesia. And again, just as with the refugee resettlement program, the efforts of the Australian government to deter people smuggling should not be discounted. Australia's borders are amongst the most protected borders in the world and people smuggling does need to be addressed. The boats have stopped. But while the poor Indonesian farmer might be less inclined to sail a boat of people to Australia now he is still poor and looking to make money. While refugees may realize there is little chance of boat passage to Australia they still have no homes to go back to and are still vulnerable to the people smuggling syndicates still in operation. 'Stopping the boats' doesn't tell us how we are addressing the much broader problem of people smuggling. It doesn't tell us how Australia both is treating asylum seekers and addressing people smugglers using air travel. It doesn't negate the market for people smuggling, when there are still conflicts around the world causing the largest amount of people displacement since WWII. And it doesn't justify the suffering of those who are in detention on Manus Island and Nauru, nor explain how banning a proven refugee from ever stepping foot in Australia will send a message back through the people smuggling chain, when the people smugglers at the top are unlikely to know the names of said refugees, let alone that of the poor local farmers who took them there, nor care enough to pay attention to the fate of either.
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KEY RESOURCES

Amnesty International - A report on the treatment of detainees in Nauru.

Australian Parliament Research Publications, 'Asylum Seekers and Refugees: What are the Facts?' - Thorough research on the subject published by the Australian Parliament, with links to many more resources, data and statistics.

UNHCR - Facts, figures and trends regarding refugees worldwide.

The 1951 Refugee Convention

Here at G2K, 'The Issue with Australia's Boat People' - Further explanation on asylum seekers arriving into Australia by boat, where they've come from, why they are on Manus Island and Nauru and the treatment they receive there. Links to further resources are included.

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