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Recognising the real challenge in refugee protection

By Philip Ruddock - posted Wednesday, 15 December 1999

While it is true that in world terms the influx to Australia has historically been small compared with some other countries, it needs to be recognised that we are dealing with a truly global phenomenon. The European Union and North America experience a greater level of unauthorised arrivals than we do at present, but so also is their population and economic capacity far greater than ours. There is no shortage of people seeking a better life in a developed country and increasingly there are organised rackets aimed at marketing this outcome to those who are willing and able to pay. Some of these people will be refugees, some will not.

There are some 23 million refugees in the world today. For many, return to their homeland may be possible and temporary protection will be the appropriate response. For some, resettlement is the only option and for these people the international community works under the coordination of the UNHCR to identify and provide resettlement to those in most need.

Australia is one of the few countries which has consistently contributed through our 12,000 place annual humanitarian resettlement program to international efforts to address the plight of refugees and others in need. It is not scare-mongering to look to the hard facts about the influx of unauthorised arrivals and how this will impact on our efforts to contribute to international strategies to help those in need.


I have received intelligence information of up to 10,000 people planning to follow the path of the recent boat arrivals to Australia. This information is from sources which also foreshadowed the recent increase in rates of boat arrivals.

Australia has received over 1,600 unauthorised arrivals by boat since the beginning of July. The rate of arrivals has been growing, not easing. The overwhelming majority of these people are claiming to be Iraqis and Afghans. They are being smuggled to Australia by highly organised criminal elements. Most are young males. On average each has over 3 close family members overseas and they would be eligible to sponsor these family members to Australia if they were to obtain permanent residence as a refugee.

If these recent rates of arrival continue, Australia will not have an offshore humanitarian resettlement program.

The illicit traffic in people responds quickly to word of mouth and perceptions about which destination countries represent the best deal. The increases in unauthorised arrivals by boat and by air reflect the fact that Australia has a growing reputation as a desirable destination. Since 1994, when immediate access to permanent residence was introduced for refugees in Australia, the commercial saleability of Australia as a smuggling destination had been very high. Permanent residence and the family reunion rights that flow from it are clearly a major attraction for choosing Australia as a destination.

The real question we must ask ourselves is whether we are prepared to stand by while smugglers arrange for Australia’s resettlement contribution to be taken up by people who select themselves or should we try to retain those places for those in most need.

The decision to provide unauthorised arrivals found to be refugees with access to temporary residence only in the first instance is fully consistent with our fundamental obligations towards refugees. It provides them with the protection required under the Refugees Convention. They have work rights, access to special benefit and are able to gain access to Medicare. They can apply for protection again, and if found to still need protection after 30 months are eligible for permanent residence at that stage.


For those people who enter lawfully and seek refugee protection, Australia continues to be more generous than the Refugees Convention requires by providing immediate access to permanent residence to those found to be refugees. Treating refugees differently depending on whether they arrive lawfully or unlawfully does not mean that we are penalising unauthorised arrivals. What it does mean is that we are being more generous in cases where people play by the rules of the international protection arrangements and where they comply with Australia’s laws.

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About the Author

Philip Ruddock was attorney-general and minister for immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs in the Howard government, and is the Liberal member for Berowra.

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