The Guardian November 21, 2001


Debunking the myths about asylum seekers

Myth 1  Boat People are Queue Jumpers

Fact: In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no queues for people to 
jump. Australia has no diplomatic representation in these countries and 
supports the International coalition of nations who continue to oppose 
these regimes and support sanctions against them. Therefore, there is no 
standard refugee process where people wait in line to have their 
applications considered. Few countries between the Middle East and 
Australia are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and as such 
asylum seekers are forced to continue to travel to another country to find 
protection. 

People who are afraid for their lives are fleeing from the world's most 
brutal regimes including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Sadaam Hussein's 
dictatorship in Iraq. Antonio Domini, Head of UN Humanitarian Program in 
Afghanistan, states that Afghanistan is one of the most difficult places in 
the world in which to survive. 

Myth 2  Asylum Seekers are Illegal

Fact: This is untrue. Under Australian Law and International Law a 
person is entitled to make an application for refugee asylum in another 
country when they allege they are escaping persecution. Article 14 of the 
Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right 
to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." 

People who arrive on our shores without prior authorisation from Australia, 
with no documents, or false documents are not illegal. They are asylum 
seekers  a legal status under International Law.

Many Asylum Seekers are forced to leave their countries in haste and are 
unable to access appropriate documentation.

In many cases oppressive authorities actively prevent normal migration 
processes from occurring. "Illegals" are people who overstay their visas. 
The vast majority of these in Australia are from western countries, 
including 5,000 British tourists. 

Myth 3  Australia Already Takes Too Many Refugees 

Fact: Australia receives relatively few refugees by world standards. In 
2001 Australia will receive only 12,000 refugees through its humanitarian 
program. This number has remained static for three years, despite the ever-
increasing numbers of refugees worldwide. Australia accepted 20,000 
refugees each year at the beginning of the 1980s. 

According to Amnesty International one in every 115 people on earth is a 
refugee and a new refugee is created every 21 seconds. Refugees re-settle 
all over the world. However, the distribution of refugees across the world 
is very unequal. 

* Tanzania hosts one refugee for every 76 Tanzanian people (1:76)
* Britain hosts one refugee for every 530 British people. (1:530)
* Australia hosts one refugee for every 1583 Australian people. (1:1583)

Myth 4  We're Being Swamped by Hordes of Boat People

Fact: 300,000 refugees arrived in Europe to seek asylum last year. In 
contrast, 4174 reached Australia by boat or plane. In 2000, Iran and 
Pakistan each hosted over a million Afghan refugees. The real burden of 
assisting refugees is borne in the main by the world's poorest nations.

Myth 5  They're Not Real Refugees Anyway

Fact: 97 per cent of applicants from Iraq and 93 per cent of applicants 
from Afghanistan seeking asylum without valid visas in Australia in 1999 
were recognised as genuine refugees. Therefore, under Australian law they 
were found to be eligible to stay in Australia. Generally, 84 per cent of 
all asylum seekers are found to be legitimate refugees and are able to stay 
in Australia. 

Myth 6  They Must Be "Cashed up" to Pay People Smugglers

Fact: It is alleged that people who have the resources to pay people 
smugglers could not possibly be genuine refugees. The UNHCR disputes claims 
about "cashed up" refugees saying that payments made to people smugglers in 
fact range from A$4000-$5000.

In reality, many families and communities pool their resources in an 
attempt to send their relatives to safety.

People smuggling is a crime that the international community needs to 
combat. However, this does not negate the legitimacy of asylum seekers' 
claims, nor their need to seek refuge.

The international community, in eradicating people smuggling, is also 
required to address the growing numbers of asylum seekers throughout the 
world. As a Western nation, Australia has a role to play. 

Myth 7  There is no Alternative to Mandatory Detention

Fact: Asylum seekers' claims need to be assessed for legitimacy. 
Australia is the only Western country that mandatorily detains asylum 
seekers whilst their claims are being heard. Asylum seekers are not 
criminals and detention should be minimal.

At a cost of $104 a day per head the policy of detention is very expensive. 
Community based alternatives to mandatory detention can be found 
internationally and within the current Australian parole system. 

A select Committee of the NSW Parliament has costed alternatives to 
incarceration including home detention and transitional housing. The 
average cost of community based programs are (per person, per day): Parole: 
$5.39; Probation: $3.94; Home Detention: $58.83. These options are clearly 
more economically efficient, and much more humane. 

Sweden receives similar numbers of asylum seekers as Australia, despite 
having less than half the population. Detention is only used to establish a 
person's identity and to conduct criminal screening.

Most detainees are released within a very short time, particularly if they 
have relatives or friends living in Sweden. Of the 17,000 asylum seekers 
currently in Sweden 10,000 reside outside the detention centres. Children 
are only detained for the minimum possible time (a maximum of six days). 

Myth 8  If We Let Them In, They'll Take Our Benefits

Fact: A common misconception is that refugees arriving in Australia 
will "steal" the entitlements of Australians. The reality is that refugees, 
like migrants, create demand for goods and services, thus stimulating the 
economy and generating growth and employment. A recent UCLA study has shown 
that unauthorised immigration boosts the US economy by $800 billion per 
year.

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Acknowledgements: Edmund Rice Centre for Justice & Community Education and the School of Education of the Australian Catholic University

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