1287 asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters this year without first receiving permission from the Australian Government. I say "receiving permission" and not "asking permission" because there is a high chance that at least some of these asylum seekers may have in fact joined that mythical queue we hear so much about and politely requested that the Australian Government protect them.

"So there is in fact a queue?" I hear you ask.

Well, not exactly.

Latest UN figures show that there are over 42 million 'people of concern' in the world, including more that 15 million refugees. The UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) has the capacity to 'recognise' around 850,000, 'refer' around 120,000 and then 'resettle' around 70,000 - making a refugee's chance of ever being resettled less than 1 in 214. Probably not odds I would be willing to settle for if, for example, my family was being threatened.

So this 'queue' doesn't really equate to lining up at the post office in Australia. Sure it is very annoying when you pop down during your lunch break and there are 17 people in the queue and the person in front of you decides to wait until she is at the counter before writing the addresses on her 12 parcels. However, there is very little chance, while you are waiting, that the Taliban will attempt to recruit you. It is equally unlikely that you will be raped, kidnapped, arbitrarily detained or tortured. And, unlike most refugees, you wait with the knowledge that you will definitely reach the end of the queue and get to post your letter, probably even by the end of your lunch break.

Despite the low risks involved in pushing to the front of the post office queue (at worst, some passive aggressive muttering from the others waiting their turn) it's probably in your interest to be polite and wait it out. The same cannot be said for the majority of asylum seekers who are willing to risk being attacked by pirates or drowning in the Pacific Ocean to escape the situation in their home countries.

Sadly the absurd notion of the 'queue jumping' asylum seeker continues to be used by Australian politicians and still resonates with sections of the public. In speeches to the Upper House last week Senators Bernardi and Fielding both denounced asylum seekers who were wiling to 'jump the queue' in order to get to Australia.

This idea of a 'queue' is further discredited by the fact that the majority of recent unauthorised boat arrivals are from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, countries which do not have an UNHCR presence or an Australian embassy. And they generally transit through countries like Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, none of which have signed the UN Refugee Convention and so are not obliged to offer protection to refugees.

In short, the thousands of Sri Lankans and Afghans currently facing severe human rights abuses have very little hope of finding sanctuary through official channels. In most cases, a leaky boat is not the best of several options to seek protection in Australia, but the only option. It is also their right - Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that, "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

The opposition's immigration spokeswoman, Sharman Stone, has continued to ignore this fundamental aspect of international human rights law and instead has used unsubstantiated claims to perpetuate public fear about the arrival of people on our shores. Despite Stone's rhetoric, 1287 is not a number of unauthorised asylum seekers that should be keeping Australians up at night. It is not indicative of a 'soft border policy', it does not constitute a 'flood' of refugees and it does not prove that Australia has become people smuggler's favourite destination.

Amnesty International, the United Nations, the Australian Department of Immigration and many other credible organisations have repeatedly stressed that the numbers of people seeking asylum have increased globally. This international trend is not a result of policy changes by individual countries but due to increased levels of conflict in places like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Australia, by virtue of its geographical isolation, receives a disproportionately small number of asylum seekers. In 2008 France received over 35,000, the UK received over 30,000 and the US received over 49,000 requests for onshore protection.
See what the UN has to say

Stone's claim that Australia is on track to receive 8000 to 10000 unauthorised boat arrivals this year is an unsophisticated and dangerous exaggeration. If arrivals continue as they have since January, less than 2000 will reach Australia in 2009. I cannot see what purpose this approach serves except to feed into the public hysteria around this issue and hope to dent the Government's high approval ratings.

The 'soft-on-border-protection' argument that the opposition keeps pushing is not only overly simplistic but it is also simply not accurate. The Rudd Government has actually built on the former Government's legacy to establish one of the most intense boarder security regimes in the world.

This was highlighted in the 2009/10 budget which included over $300 million dollars to tackle people smuggling, including (but definitely not limited to):

  • $14.3 million to engage with Indonesia, including managing detention facilities and funding the IOM
  • $41.6 million to fund additional AFP officers for the people smuggling strike team, establishing a technical investigation unit in Indonesia, and deploying AFP liaison officers to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand
  • $62.9 million for aerial surveillance over Australia's northern waters to assist in detecting illegal foreign fishing and people smuggling
  • $22.0 million to tow and dispose of intercepted vessels that enter Australian waters illegally as part of people smuggling ventures

This seems like a huge amount of money to protect us from a small group of scared and desperate people, who are fleeing persecution and asking us to please protect them. It makes me wonder if these budget announcements are really proportionate to the actual 'threat'? or are they more in line with the level of fear in the Australian community about asylum seekers and refugees?

Just as worrying as the millions of dollars being spent on this policy is the manner in which it is being carried out. The Home Affairs Minister recently touted as an achievement the fact that the Australian Federal Police have helped Indonesian authorities prevent around 1000 asylum seekers from sailing to Australia.

But where are these people now? Most likely, they have either been sent back to the country they were running away from, or are still waiting to be processed in Indonesian refugee camps. Neither option seems particularly humane or in keeping with the spirit of the Refugees Convention.

Over 95% of asylum seekers who manage to arrive in Australia by boat are ultimately found to be refugees. So Australia is encouraging and helping Indonesia to return people to probable persecution, often without properly assessing their refugee claims.

Earlier this week Julian Burnside claimed that the refugee determination system in place in Indonesia amounted to a "perfunctory [and] superficial appearance of due process". The Government, by denying people protection while they are still in Indonesia, has attempted to side-step its international obligations. However, I think that actions by Australian authorities should always be in line with international human rights standards, both on and off Australian soil.
Read Julian Burnside's article

Those asylum seekers that are not sent back to potentially life threatening conditions are detained in Australian funded camps in Indonesia – a practise known as 'refugee warehousing'. These camps are populated by people from Burma, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other places of similar levels of conflict and human rights violations. Many have been there for years. Most have been recognised as refugees by the UN. However, very few have any chance of being safely resettled in a third country.

It is this lack of hope that leads to the decision to risk the sea journey to Australia. If our politicians are serious about reducing people smuggling, perhaps Australia should begin to process the asylum seekers 'warehoused' in Indonesia and resettle at least some of them in Australia. If we help to create a situation where that are no official channels for people to access their basic human rights, we can hardly be surprised when people who are desperate and fearful try the unofficial channels.