Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Australia Votes 2010 - Asylum-seekers

Okay. This is an issue that seems to rear its head every time an election is called, so I want to put it to rest once and for all: asylum-seekers and the issue of stopping the boats. It’s an issue surrounded by lies, misunderstandings and hyperbole, and does a very good job of distracting voters from the real issues they should be worrying about. So let’s sort out the facts before everyone goes to the polls on Saturday.

Firstly, there is the idea that these people are illegal immigrants, or ‘queue-jumpers’. It is not illegal to seek asylum, and Australia has signed the UN Refugee Convention which legally obligates it to accept and protect asylum-seekers who arrive here. Furthermore, the oft-cited ‘queue’ that asylum-seekers who arrive by boat are accused of circumventing, does not exist. The standard method of applying for asylum is to leave the country in which you are being oppressed, enter another country and, once there, apply for asylum. Just to be clear - this is exactly what the boat-people are doing. The only queue worth speaking of is the one they get into when they arrive in Australia and wait an inordinately long time to be processed, and they most certainly go to the back of that one. It is possible to apply in a different way - to apply via the UN Human Rights Commissioner or the Australian Embassy - but, of course, in the vast majority of countries that the asylum-seekers come from, there is neither a functioning embassy nor a UNHRC presence, due to the very political climate that necessitates the seeking of asylum.

Next we have the illusion, backed up by the hyperbole of the major political parties, that there is some sort of flood of boats coming, that our population will grow uncontrollably if we don’t stop them, that they’ll take all our jobs, etc. This would be a pretty xenophobic reaction even if there were a flood of asylum-seekers coming in, but again, it’s just not the case. Every year, an average of 677 refugees arrive by boat. By comparison, every year 50 000 people overstay their temporary visas - the majority of which are English-speaking tourists from countries like New Zealand, the US and the UK. Asylum-seekers account for 0.3% of our annual migration intake, and (doing some quick maths based on the latest estimates) around 0.00003% of our total population. In terms of numbers, they are about as significant as a rounding error. Hardly what you’d call a flood.

There is also the idea that a lot of taxpayer money is being spent on asylum-seekers and that it is a contributor to the current government’s (fictionally enormous) debt. Quite frankly, the numbers I’ve shown so far demonstrate that we could buy them all Porsches and it wouldn’t matter much, but let’s look at the statistics of what they actually get. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for any Centrelink payment while their process is being claimed. Once they have been processed, they are occasionally housed in private accommodation for a month or so (ie the government pays for the rental of private houses) until they get on their feet, but after that they are on their own as far as accommodation goes. They are eligible for affordable government housing in the same way that every Australian is, but they get no preferential treatment and certainly do not jump any queue for it.

As far as payment goes, there have been a lot of claims going around about refugees receiving more than pensioners (or various other Centrelink groups), which simply is not the case. The maximum fortnightly payment under Newstart for a single person with no children is $462.80 - for the Aged Pension, the maximum is $644.20 per fortnight. Refugees, however, are only entitled to a maximum of $411.89 per fortnight under the Asylum Seekers Assistance Scheme. Furthermore, these are just maximums - in terms of actual payments, in the 2008-09 financial year, around $2615 per refugee was paid for the entire year; not exactly enough to live off. This adds up to a total of $7.04 million for the year, which for a country with an annual budget of close to $300 billion is a drop in the ocean.

So, economically, legally and population-wise, this is thoroughly a non-issue. This is just paraded in front of voters to distract them, like parents shaking their keys to distract a baby. Voting for Labor or Liberal based on their ‘solution’ to this issue is like voting based on who has the shiniest keyring. That said, the current regime is unacceptable, with such long waits and deplorable conditions, so this is an issue voters need to deal with - but for humanitarian reasons.

Tony Abbott has shown political savvy I didn’t really expect of him - he first promised to stop the boats, largely for economic and closet-xenophobic reasons, and claimed that Julia Gillard doesn’t know how. This is particularly funny since the few attempts he’s made to make a concrete suggestion as to how he would do it have been pretty laughable (ie the bat-signal…I mean boat-phone), but in any case he ensured early on that he had the xenophobe vote, and now, having gotten that, he is trying for the humanitarian vote. Now he’s coming from the angle that he’s trying to protect the asylum-seekers; by making it impossible to come here he hopes to discourage people from risking their lives on the high seas in the first place.

The problem with this is, their prospects are already dire; the asylum-seekers know that it’s an expensive, perilous journey and that when they arrive they will be treated like criminals, and yet still they come. As long as there is persecution to flee, and liberal democracy in Australia, they will come. If Abbott were really serious about protecting these people (and yes, I know he isn’t, but I’m proposing the solution anyway) then he would establish a proper presence in the countries of origin - making the journey to Nauru or any other third-party nation has exactly the same risks for the travellers as coming here. Nothing can be done to stop them wanting to come - all that can be done is to give them a legitimate, safe alternative way of getting here. Ironically enough, the solution to stopping them from jumping the fictional queue is to create an actual queue.

I don’t mean to imply that Gillard’s solution is significantly better - it’s not quite as bad, but it’s still a long way off. If you want a remotely compassionate, logical resolution to this issue (and dozens of others that I haven’t gotten around to writing about yet) then vote wisely - vote Green.

(More information on the issue and citations for my statistics can be found in the PDFs here)

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