[UPDATED: Tues 4pm] It would take 20 yrs to fill the MCG at the current rate of refugee boat arrivals.

UPDATE: Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott made announcements about immigration policy today (although why that has become code for refugees when these poor buggers comprise the TEENIEST TINIEST FRACTION of migrants that you can possibly imagine – less than 0.6%).

While JG’s speech (which you can read in full here) was admirably rational, calm and balanced, there are some concerns that the Govt’s decision to resume off-shore processing, this time in Timor instead of Nauru is just another version of Howard’s much criticised ‘Pacific Solution’ there are some key differences including the fact that Timor is an international signatory to the UN’s Refugee convention and Nauru was not.

Meanwhile Tony Abbott seems to be going with the ‘we’ll turn back the boats’ line (you can read their statement in full here) which JG dismantled very effectively in her speech (continuing her approach of stealing all the Coalition’s oxygen and kneecapping them at every turn), pointing out that it was both impractical and inhumane to ‘send back boats’. JG painted a very graphic picture of the human cost of this – sinking boats and drowning children.

But she also called for an end to the extremes in the debate. My view is that instead of telling people it’s OK to be ‘anxious’ about boat arrivals, our political leaders should be educating people that fears about terrorists and stolen jobs are widely unfounded. What do you think?


Doesn’t sound quite so scary when you put it like that now does it? Not something we need to be losing sleep over. Compared to most Western countries, the ‘flow’ of asylum seekers into Australia is a piddle in the ocean. So why is it fast becoming the lynch-pin of the coming election?

Why do Australian politicians – on BOTH sides – have such an appalling history of making big splashy announcements about refugees as soon as an election is a sniff away? Julia Gillard, you’re making me nervous.

As Fairfax political editor Michelle Grattan writes today in The National Times:


BY URGING people to vent their fears about the boats without worrying about political correctness, Julia Gillard is taking a gamble.

She is sanctioning the escalation of a difficult and explosive debate that turned bitter in 2001, and always has the potential to do so again.

Gillard is identifying with those who feel worried about the increase in boats. Of course, she’s also saying people on the other side of the debate should have their say, but it is the fearful she’s mainly addressing.

Gillard obviously believes one essential step is to be seen to be talking about the problem.

// Yes, the subject of refugees is a highly emotive one. I’ve never felt it to be a bleaker time in my living memory of our history than when we were imprisoning already traumatised people – and their CHILDREN – behind razor wire. It seems as though we’re heading back there and fast.


I’ll come clean about my own position. It’s one of compassion. Don’t talk to me about queues because this is not the Qantas terminal. In many war torn countries or places where people are being persecuted, there ARE no queues, no orderly manner of immigration. It’s life and death. And if were YOUR life and death, the life or death of your children, would you take a non-existant number and wait in an orderly fashion, risking the death of your family? I wouldn’t.

I would strap my children to my back and bloody swim if that is what it took to get them out of danger and to safety.

It is not illegal to turn up unannounced and ask for asylum. It is a basic human right. And my belief is that refugees and boat people have been often used as political pawns by governments who have wanted to capitalise on our most base and unattractive xenophobia (fear of foreigners) as a way to draw popular support. At the expense of the people who have the least in the world. The people who most need our compassion and ourhelp.

I originally asked MM contributor Julie Cowdroy to put together a cheat-sheet on refugees some months ago. There is so much emotion around this topic, I thought it was crucial for all of us to have the facts.


These facts are not my opinions nor are they matters for conjecture. They’re just the facts. What you make of them is up to you.


According to the UNHCR, an asylum seeker is “a person who has left their country of origin, has applied for recognition as a refugee in another country, and is awaiting a decision on their application”.



UNHCR offers advice to the Australian government based on the UN Refugee Convention.

According to the UNHCR,

  • Refugees have to be outside their country of origin
  • The reason for their flight has to be a fear of persecution
  • The fear of persecution has to be well-founded
  • The persecution has to result from one or more of the 5 grounds listed in the definition, that is race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion
  • They have to be unwilling or unable to seek the protection of their country

Each person is to be assessed on their individual situation and it is against the Convention to dismiss someone based on their nationality. According to Human Rights Watch, no other country who is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention has ever issued a blanket suspension of applications from nationals of specific countries.


According to the UNHCR, there is no such thing as an economic refugee, only economic migrants. Economic migrants “make a conscious choice to leave their country and could return without a problem”.


An illegal immigrant is someone who “enters a country without meeting legal requirements for entry or residence”. This is in stark contrast with refugees who aren’t able to get hold of the documents needed to travel when they are escaping. That means, even if someone enters a country without documentation but has a well-founded fear of persecution, they are to be seen as a refugee and not to be labeled an illegal immigrant.


  • 42 million people are uprooted from their homes today
  • 16 million people are refugees and asylum seekers
  • 26 million people are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)


Australia receives refugees in 2 ways:

  • 1. Through it’s offshore Refugee and Special Humanitarian program or
  • 2. As onshore asylum seekers


  • Australia’s Refugee and Special Humanitarian program is amongst the best in the world.
  • People are deemed refugees by the UNHCR offshore and are re-settled in Australia. (E.g., Sudanese community in Blacktown, NSW).
  • Through the program, people are integrated into the Australian community.
  • The UNHCR chief António Guterres praised Australia’s refugee resettlement services when he visited Australia in February 2009.


  • 13,750 refugees will be taken through its offshore humanitarian program in 2009-10
  • 13,500 refugees were taken through offshore program last year


  • Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has been highly criticised by the international community,
  • The use of mandatory detention is highly criticised
  • The nature of war means that not all refugees can be resettled via the offshore humanitarian program. They are forced to flee undertaking desperate measures such as paying people smugglers to escape the perils of their home countries


  • By plane – In 2008, 2291 people came by plane (Over 90% of the total number of asylum seekers). 55% of asylum claims made by people who arrive by aircraft are rejected.
  • By boat – In 2008, 206 people arrived by boat. Only 2-15% of claims made by people arriving by boat are denied. This year, many more have arrived by boat.


  • Australia currently processes asylum seekers offshore in the $370 million mandatory detention facility on Christmas Island just over 350 kilometres south of Indonesia and 1600 kilometres from the Australian mainland
  • People are held within the centre’s electrified 4 metre high razor-wire fences
  • Conditions are overcrowded
  • Lengthy stays result in mental health issues
  • A report from Australia’s Human Rights Commission states that: “The immigration detention facilities on Christmas Island are not appropriate for detaining asylum seekers, particularly those with a background of torture or trauma. The Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) is a high security detention centre that looks like a prison. The construction camp facility is not appropriate for unaccompanied minors or families with children.”
  • Most held there are currently from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka
  • Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan demanded Australia shut down Christmas Island, and for people to be processed on the mainland
  • Australia does NOT process those who arrive by plane in mandatory detention facilities but rather processes them in Australia


In April 2010, the Labor Government suspended all asylum seeker applications from Afghans for six months, and Sri Lankans for three months (due to end 8 July). They adopted this suspension policy on the grounds that there were allegedly improved security situations in both countries.

Remember, under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, asylum seekers have a right to claim refugee status in Australia. Once they are deemed to be a refugee, Australia must offer resettlement.

By freezing applications, the government neglects it’s responsibility to asylum seekers who are highly likely to be legitimate refugees. The suspension affects 772 Afghans and 184 Sri Lankans who are now uncertain of their fate as they wait in detention facilities.

According to Human Rights Watch:

“With their claims for protection suspended, Afghan and Sri Lankan boat people, including children, have been made to endure the hardship of additional months of detention, regardless of the merits of their refugee claims.”
The policy fails to recognise that individuals from both countries are extremely vulnerable to persecution if they are returned. Discriminating in the treatment of refugees also violates Australia’s obligations under international law. According to Human Rights Watch, no other country who is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention has ever issued a blanket suspension of applications from nationals of specific countries.


According to Human Rights Watch: “Research shows that human rights conditions in both Afghanistan and Sri Lanka remain problematic and unstable. In both countries, certain ethnic and religious minorities and individuals who criticise the government continue to face significant threats and lack effective protection”.


TPVs were introduced in 1999 and abolished in May 2008 under the Rudd Government. It is highly likely TPVs will be reintroduced if the Coalition is elected. If someone is issued with a TPV, that person has temporary protection here in Australia but could be sent back once the situation in a country has changed.

TPVs are granted for three years, and after that, the refugee is required to undergo refugee status determination again, to see if he/she can remain in Australia. A TPV does not entitle the holder to apply for one’s family to be reunited with them in Australia, and it doesn’t allow someone the right of re-entry, meaning that TPV holders
cannot travel to a third country to meet with their family and then return to Australia.

TPVs lead to harmful mental health problems. Refugees who have been on TPVs testify to
living with:

  • Fear of being returned to their country at the end of the visas
  • Fear of family members being killed while they await reunion in a third country
  • Fear of being returned to immigration detention centres in Australia

TPVs breach international obligations as Article 1C of the Refugee Convention holds that
a refugee’s previous experiences of persecution can justify refusal to return, even if the
conditions that caused them to flee, no longer apply.

For more information on refugees, head to the Refugee Council of Australia website.

For more information on what happens when people are returned back to volatile countries, check out the Edmund Rice Centre.

Thanks so much Julie for all your hard work putting that together.

Now you know the facts. What do you think? Does this new rhetoric from Julia Gillard concern you? Are you TRULY worried about a few handfuls of asylum seekers storming your workplace and snatching your job?

Why such fear and resentment towards these most tragic people……?

Graph from Chas Liccardello’s tweet