The big lies of 'border protection'

The big lies of 'border protection'
By Malcolm Fraser
March 27 2002

We now know that many of the things we have been told about asylum seekers and boat people are untrue.

1. The most notorious claim was repeated many times: that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard. We were told these were not the sort of people who should be allowed to find a home in Australia.

In a most tortuous fashion the truth emerged and that claim is now known to be false. We know many people in the defence machine and in government departments knew it to be false. We know the then defence minister knew it to be false.

How is it that the truth did not emerge? Quite apart from the blatant and unseemly deception, it represents an extraordinary breakdown in government administration.

2. We were told people sewed together the lips of their children. Then we were told that was not true.

3. We are told boat people are queue jumpers. That is not true - there is no queue. There is no standard refugee process where people wait in line to have their applications considered. People fleeing terror have to flee to other countries to find protection.

4. We are told "queue jumpers" take places away from other refugees in other parts of the world. That is not true. The Australian Government's quota of 12,000 has not always been filled. Even if it were filled, would it be such a tragedy if the government allowed some additional refugees into the country?

5. We are told asylum seekers are illegal. That is not true. Under international law, to which we have committed ourselves, a person is entitled to make application for refugee asylum in another country when they allege they are escaping persecution. They cannot be penalised for their means of arrival in a country, however irregular that arrival may be. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." The 1951 Refugee Convention makes clear governments should not discriminate against asylum seekers.

All asylum seekers should be treated in the same manner, no matter how they arrived in Australia. Those who come without documentation are not illegal, they are simply asylum seekers, with a legal status under international law. Oppressive authorities often prevent asylum seekers gaining documentation.

There are illegal people in Australia. They are not boat people, they are people who have had a visa and overstay. Most have come to Australia by air. They include 5000 from Britain.

6. We are told Australia has been one of the most generous countries in accepting refugees. That is not true. In 2002 Australia's quota is 12,000. That number has been static for three years. In the early 1980s we took 20,000 or more for a number of years. Tanzania hosts one refugee for every 76 Tanzanians. Britain hosts one for every 530 Britons. Australia hosts one refugee for every 1583 Australians.

7. It has been claimed Australia is second only to Canada in the number of refugees it takes. This is untrue. Many countries accept refugees without an official quota. Seventy-one countries accept refugees and asylum seekers. Of the 71, Australia is ranked 32nd. On a per capita basis, we are ranked 38th. Of 29 developed countries, Australia is ranked 14th. Per capita, the US takes twice as many refugees as Australia.

8. It has been claimed we are being swamped by hordes of boat people. That is not true. More than 300,000 refugees arrived in Europe to seek asylum last year. By contrast, 4174 reached Australia by boat or plane. In 2000, Iran and Pakistan each hosted more than one million refugees. The real burden of assisting refugees is often borne by developing countries - certainly not by Australia.

9. We have been told they are not refugees. That is not true. In 1999, 97 per cent of applicants from Iraq and 93 per cent from Afghanistan who sought asylum without valid visas in Australia were recognised as genuine refugees. Under Australian law, they were eligible to stay here.

10. We are told they are wealthy enough to pay people smugglers and, therefore, could not be genuine refugees. That is not true. Payments made to people smugglers range between $4000 and $5000. Many families spend their last cent and communities pool resources to try to send relatives to safety. People smuggling is a crime and it needs to be combated - but it does not negate the legitimacy of asylum seekers' claims.

11. We are told there is no alternative to mandatory detention. That is not true. Australia is the only Western country that mandatorily and without appeal detains all asylum seekers, including women and children, while their claims are heard. Mandatory detention is very expensive, at $120 a day per refugee. Community-based alternatives are found internationally and within the Australian parole system. In Sweden, which takes as many asylum seekers as Australia despite a population half our size, detention is used only to establish a person's identity and to conduct criminal screening.

12. We were told, after September 11, that there would or could be terrorists among boat people. That is quite untrue. Eleven of more than 13,000 people who sought asylum in Australia in 2000 were rejected on character grounds. Only one was regarded as a security risk. He came by air. Terrorists would not risk the dangerous journey in boats, or more than two years in an Australian detention prison.

13. We are told refugees should stay in the first country they get to. That is not correct. There is no international requirement for refugees to seek asylum in that country.

14. We are told that getting tough on refugees does not affect Australia's international reputation. That is not true. Government policy has attracted international condemnation. I have experienced serious criticism at first hand, and long before the Tampa incident. Current policy represents a significant change from Australia's earlier practice. It now seems this government has put Pauline Hanson's policies into effect.

15. We are told it is easier to get refugee status in Australia than overseas. That is not true. According to the UNHCR, the total acceptance rate for asylum seekers in Australia is equivalent to other Western countries.

16. It is claimed people who destroy their identification can't be genuine refugees. That is incorrect. Refugees generally can't travel through conventional channels because they can't get a passport from the persecuting government.

These false claims about asylum seekers have been made over a number of years. They have created an uncharitable and harsh view of asylum seekers in the minds of many Australians. They have not been challenged, because the ALP has agreed with the policy. As more Australians understand the reality of what has happened, more will demand a change of policy.

The few thousand refugees who have tried to come here have never offered a threat to the sovereignty of Australia. The suggestion that they might is ridiculous. The rhetoric of border protection is rhetoric unrelated to the reality.

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser writes regularly for this page.

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