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Asylum seekers: cause or symptom?

By Helen Dehn - posted Monday, 11 January 2010

Emotive reactions in Australia to asylum seekers arriving by boat are a mixture of suspicion and concern about Australia’s ability to support them. They are often viewed as economic immigrants from poorer countries to wealthier countries with the potential to create new tensions and internal turmoil in the latter. Global terrorism under the guise of religion has become widespread, including by naturalised refugees against the country giving them sanctuary, and this has led to calls in Australia for fewer immigrants or for outright rejection of applicants from third world countries and/or Muslim countries. These would seem to be simplistic reactions to a longer term and increasingly urgent dilemma.

Australia's natural population growth is below replacement level. This will have particular impact upon the Australian economy, resulting in fewer workers, more old people and a lower growth of GDP with the attendant difficulty of funding the necessary health and welfare programs. Natural population decline is being offset by immigration: some 300,000 people in 2009, plus a similar number of guest workers. Extrapolating such trends suggests a wider range of resident populations than we have catered for in the past. Were Australia to maintain its share of global population, some 32 million people could be a stable outcome in the medium term.

A major vulnerability of current policies is government reliance on short term expediency, community tolerance and the fluctuating co-operation of neighbouring countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, to improve policing policies at their airports and other points of entry. However, longer term policy should also address what would happen if the numbers arriving by boat or air increased substantially to the point of constituting a strategic threat, or a threat to domestic stability. A shared regional solution appears to be required.


Only six of the 30 or so countries between the Aegean and Arafura seas are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Four of them: Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen and East Timor are more often sources of refugees and conflict than respecters of the Convention. A fifth, Cambodia, was so in the past. The sixth is Israel, probably having the best record of accepting refugees, but which also faces significant problems stemming from the UN’s partition of Palestine in 1947.

Most refugee flows are from other parts of the world and often quite distant ones. Not only are Australia and New Zealand two of the very few signatories to the Refugee Convention’s 1967 Protocol in the whole of the Asia Pacific Region, they are the only countries in that wider region with longstanding mass immigration and refugee resettlement programs. Both countries are also highly attractive to those seeking resettlement on economic, social, political and environmental grounds and because Australia is geographically between New Zealand and the source of the population flows, a regional problem has become very much Australia’s problem alone.

As remarked in an article from Defence Brief, a bulletin published by Australia’s Defence Association in September-October 2009, “offering asylum to refugees is surely either a universal, or at least widely shared, responsibility or it is not. But most countries across the world ... continue to reject the convention ... with little or no incentive to do otherwise. As a consequence it remains foreseeable, if not yet likely, that Australia might one day have to suspend our adherence to the 1951 Convention until it becomes genuinely universal.”

It was the writer’s view that notwithstanding legal, moral and strategic implications of taking such a step, it may yet become “the more sustainable and humane measure rather than risk Australian arrangements breaking down under the pressure of overwhelming numbers of asylum seekers and no decrease in the number of countries exploiting our goodwill and capacity for some immigration”.

It is my view that the UN also exploits Australia’s goodwill in this regard, cloaking its inability to persuade constituent countries of their own responsibilities by mounting rhetorical arguments about the plight of people subject to rising sea levels and expanding deserts, when they’re really talking about long term deficiencies in source-country governance, and are intent on passing the moral, financial and practical buck for it to Australia.

For all that, it remains a moral issue, but the way to resolve it, is not to impoverish ourselves, but to use whatever leverage we may have to insist that the refugee burden be shared among regional countries, with religious affinity being a deciding factor on where asylum seekers, as distinct from legal immigrants, are settled.

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About the Author

Helen W. Dehn is a member of the Liberal Party and a historian with a long term interest in public affairs.

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