It is far too early to do more than speculate about what happened yesterday off Ashmore Reef, apart from recognising what a human tragedy has unfolded there. Unfortunately the whole issue was heavily politicised in the past decade, and it seems it will be again. The Opposition has jumped in.
But we would do well to look carefully at the facts. Minister for Home Affairs Bob Debus rightly counselled that on last night’s 7.30 Report, but did muff some of the stats.
ALI MOORE: This is the fourth boat to arrive in the past fortnight, it’s the sixth to arrive this year. You say you don’t want to politicise it, and the Opposition has said it’s because you’ve relaxed the rules. But how do you explain the increase in asylum seekers coming by boat?
BOB DEBUS: Quite simply, the numbers of displaced and distressed people in the world, and particularly in places like Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, and Pakistan, has been increasing quite sharply and considerably during the last year. And that is the essential pressure which causes people to transit through various countries in Asia, normally to arrive in Indonesia, and seek the services of a people smuggler. That is the essential cause. There are more people coming, and we are going to have to keep all of our procedures and strategies under review.
ALI MOORE: What could you do, what are some of the options?
BOB DEBUS: Can I just say this? Can I just say this; you’ve got to keep this in perspective. Last year we had about 160 asylum seekers; the year before that, about the same, it might have been slightly less. This year, so far, about we’ve had about 250. Back in the year 2000 we had nearly 6,000 asylum seekers reach our shores. During the last year 35,500 asylum seekers have arrived on the shores of Italy, and another 15,000 in Greece. This is a worldwide issue; it will not go away in the foreseeable future. We are going to have to continue to deal with it with all the seriousness, with all the dispatch, that we are able to command.
In fact “Australia received about 4700 of the 383,000 asylum claims lodged [world-wide] in 2008, a 19 per cent increase compared with the year before. Of these, however, only 179 came by boat.” The Sydney Morning Herald continues: “The rest strolled past the passport counters at our airports. Nothing, however, is as visually stimulating as a leaky boat laden with wretched souls. Thanks to yesterday’s explosion, each subsequent arrival is going to be big news.” The Herald is correct. See the latest UNHCR report, which I append below. Richard Towle, the UNHCR representative in Canberra, was interviewed by Peter Mares on Late Night Live last night. You can listen to it here.
In light of the refugee boat tragedy off northern Australia, the UNHCR representative for Australia & the Pacific talks about the global trend in refugee movements. There was a 12% rise in refugee arrivals across the world’s major industrialised nations. Some European nations have had huge increases in refugee numbers. In Australia the numbers rose from 3,980 in 2007 to 4,750 in 2008.
Last year an additional factor was World Youth Day, though the numbers were small: Africa: Pilgrims to 23rd World Youth Day Seek Asylum in Australia.
Richard Towle did point out that most of those arriving by boat tended to come from Afghanistan/Pakistan and Iraq, partly, in the case of Afghanistan, because current events in Pakistan have made former comparatively safe refugee areas much more hazardous. This is especially so for Hazara people, whom the Taliban and Pashtuns generally have little love for. If you have read or seen Kite Runner you will have some idea about that. One of my favourite blogs, MyScribbles: Write-ups of an Afghan, is by a young Hazara now in the USA, but most of the blog was written from refuge in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. He doesn’t update — “I no longer update this weblog due to academic and other preoccupations.” – but the archive is well worth exploring and gives you some idea of what it is like over there. He was when I began reading him an extraordinarily lucid Afghan teenager; he now studies journalism in the US.
So before we descend into panic mode again, let’s pause and think. Richard Towle further pointed out that around 90% of “boat arrivals” turn out to be genuine refugees, compared with “fly-ins” where the figure is around 40%.
Related: Asylum seeker facts by numbers.