In July this year Amnesty International Australia commissioned a Nielsen Poll to assess the nation’s understanding of and attitudes towards asylum seekers in Australia, specifically those arriving by boat. The survey was conducted with 1000 Australians over the age of 18 via the telephone. Questions estimating the percentage of asylum seekers arriving by boat, whether or not these asylum seekers should receive the same legal protection as those arriving by plane, and the participants’ understanding of the costs of processing asylum seekers.

The results of the survey show that whilst many Australians are unclear as to the facts, their attitudes towards asylum seekers arriving by boat are generally positive. In 2008 only 3.4% of all the asylum seekers arriving in Australia came by boat, whilst 96.6% arrived by plane. Of the 1000 participants only one person answered correctly that around 4% arrive by boat. The majority of participants guessed that 80% of asylum seekers arrive in Australia by boat, a figure that is widely off the mark and demonstrates the level of misinformation regarding asylum seekers that has been disseminated throughout the general public.

Despite this, 69% of the participants believed that all asylum seekers should have the same rights regardless of how they entered. At present in Australia, those asylum seekers processed on Christmas Island do not have access to the same legal rights as those on the mainland.

Amnesty International’s position on the rights of all asylum seekers is informed by the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and the Universal Declaration of Rights. The Refugee Convention, which Australia acceded to in 1954, outlines the definition of a refugee and the rights and protection to which they are entitled. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established following WW2 to uphold the ‘inherent dignity’ and, ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. Article 14 of the Declaration of Human Rights states that 'everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. Asylum seekers in Australia, regardless of their means of arrival, should have access to the same rights.

Amnesty International Australia has raised specific concerns regarding the unequal treatment of asylum seekers in Australia, based upon their means of arrival. Australia has excised certain territories, meaning that these areas, including Christmas Island, are considered outside of Australia’s migration zone for those attempting to seek asylum. Any asylum seekers landing in these areas are denied many of the rights offered to other asylum seekers, including the right to appeal decisions made by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) to the Refugee Review Tribunal. It should be noted that around 90 percent of those arriving by boat are granted protection visas.

Asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat using ‘people smugglers’ are often the most desperate. Their level of desperation unfortunately makes them prey to people smugglers who will use this for financial gain. There are reports that those who use people smugglers are often in great debt for many years. Extended family members are often forced to sell their belongings in order to ensure their loved ones are able to flee to safer countries such as Australia.

The plight of asylum seekers is not specific to Australia, it is a global issue with vast numbers of people seeking asylum all over the world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for addressing refugee issues worldwide. Their most recent statistics published in June this year show that at the end of 2008 there were 827,323 pending asylum seeker cases worldwide, Australia had 2,159 of these total cases, that is 0.26%. These numbers contribute to the total of 34,415,751 persons worldwide who were of concern to the UNHCR at the end of 2008, 0.06% of whom were in Australia. These persons of concern include recognised refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (those who are in need of protection yet have not been able to cross the border into another country), and stateless persons (those who are not recognised as a citizen of any state).

The Nielsen poll showed also that the majority of Australians are not aware that processing asylum seekers on Christmas Island costs more than processing on the mainland. Only 31% of participants knew this, and of those that did, 51% did not believe it was justifiable. It cost the government over $400 million to build the detention centre on Christmas Island, and at least $30 million more each year to run.

The results of this poll are promising as they show that in spite of the misconceptions regarding the numbers, Australians still believe that all asylum seekers should access the same rights. Amnesty International calls for the Australian government to stop processing asylum seeker claims on Christmas Island and to put an end to this discriminatory policy.