numbers belie fear of asylum seekers

United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Antonio Guterres

Wait a minute, what was it we were all talking about before the budget? Oh, that’s right: asylum seekers. So, perhaps while we are temporarily distracted by the budget’s outrageous assault on families eking out a living on $150,000 a year, it might be a good time to have a quiet, sensible discussion about the true size of Australia’s asylum seeker “problem”. Let’s try, anyway.


Fear, and misunderstanding of the figures, have long driven the recurring debate about the number of people seeking asylum on Australian shores, either by boat or plane.

I suspect that at the heart of some people’s worst fears is the idea that if we let just one person in the door, we’ll soon be overrun. Viewed in the extreme, there are 6 billion people crawling all over this Earth who could potentially decide to jump on a boat or plane and lodge a bid to live in your backyard. That would be scary indeed.

We are understandably proud of our living standards, political freedoms and way of life. Australians are also well aware that living conditions in many other countries are awful, plagued by war, genocide and oppression. Who wouldn’t want to up sticks and live here?

So it is interesting to note the number of people seeking to flee their home countries to obtain asylum in the developed world has almost halved over the past decade.

According to a snapshot by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of people seeking asylum in 44 industrialised nations has fallen from 620,000 in 2001 to a little more than 350,000 last year – hardly a relentlessly rising tide of people seeking a short cut to a better way of life.

It’s hard to know what is driving this. Perhaps rising standards of living across the developing world and the end of some wars have reduced the “push” factors. Alternatively, it could be stricter policies in the developed world have lessened the “pull” factor. Maybe it’s just uprooting yourself from all you’ve ever known to flee to the other side of the world is not a decision most people take lightly.

Either way, “the global dynamics of asylum are changing”, says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres. “Asylum claims in the industrialised world are much lower than a decade ago, while year-on-year levels are up in only a handful of countries.”

Australia is among the handful of countries where applications have increased, up about 33 per cent last year. About 8000 people lodged applications for asylum in Australia last year, a figure that has risen for six years in a row.

But the report notes that despite this, asylum levels in Australia remain not only below those observed in 2000 (13,100 claims) and 2001 (12,400 claims), but also below those recorded by many other industrialised and non-industrialised countries.

Indeed, Australia ranks below 13 other rich nations for the number of asylum-seeker applications lodged here. We rank even lower – 17th – for the number of applications per population. Australia receives one application for asylum for every 2500 people already living here. Sweden has the highest number of applications per population, with one application per 300 Swedes.

It helps to keep things in perspective.

THE IRVINE INDEX

358,800
Applications for asylum lodged last year in 44 industrialised countries surveyed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

620,000
Asylum applications lodged in those 44 countries in 2001.

42%
Drop in asylum applications in the industrialised world from 2001 to 2010, a near halving.

8250
Applications for asylum in Australia last year, up 31 per cent on applications for 2009.

13,100
Applications for asylum in Australia in 2000.

14th
Australia’s rank among 44 industrialised nations for the number of asylum applications received.

55,530
Applications for asylum in the US last year, up 13 per cent on the previous year.

47,800
Applications for asylum in France last year, the second-biggest destination for asylum seekers; followed by Germany with 41,330.

4
Number of asylum seeker applications last year for every 10,000 Australians already
living here.

Sources: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialised Countries, 2010.

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