With detention facilities on Christmas Island getting closer and closer to capacity, and a Federal election looming, the issue of desperate people seeking asylum on Australian shores remains a hotbed of cheap political point-scoring at the expense of some of the world’s neediest people.

Disappointingly, the term “queue jumper” is now so deeply entrenched in our nation’s vernacular that some Australian politicians use it interchangeably with the term “asylum seeker”.

Let me be clear and point out that two are not synonymous. In fact, the queue is a myth.

In 1951, Australia became one of the first countries to sign the UN Refugee Convention. The Refugee Convention sets out the basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees. By signing the convention, we signalled our commitment to uphold the fundamental right of people to flee persecution and seek asylum.

Under the convention, Australia has an international legal obligation to protect asylum seekers who arrive in our country with a genuine refugee claim. This is known as the onshore program.

Despite hysterical claims about our country being overrun by a flood of refugees, in truth only a few thousand asylum seekers arrive in Australia without visas each year, seeking our protection from persecution. The vast majority of the world’s refugee populations are taken in by poor countries.

While the numbers coming to Australia are small, Pakistan, for example, is now home to over 1.7 million Afghan refugees. In an effort to redress this huge global imbalance, Australia resettles a number of refugees out of refugee camps and vulnerable situations in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Syria, Iran and Thailand. This is known as the offshore program.

The resettlement of refugees through the offshore program is crucially important, and the right thing to do. However, it should be recognised that Australia does not have a legal obligation to operate this program. This ‘responsibility sharing’ or ‘burden sharing’ is something we do as a responsible member of the international community, to alleviate the disproportionate pressures placed on countries like Pakistan.

To be resettled in Australia under the offshore program you must either be referred by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or sponsored by someone already living here. If the person sponsoring you is not a family member, or, increasingly, an immediate family member, your chances of success are negligible.

To be referred by UNHCR you must first be allowed to register with UNHCR, then UNHCR must be in a position to be able to refer you to a resettlement country. Last year 75 per cent of all refugees resettled internationally had fled from two countries, Burma and Iraq.

For most refugee populations around the world the opportunities for resettlement, and even registration, are slim, and the future is bleak.

A number of countries in our region refuse to allow UNHCR to even register refugees.

For example, for the last 15 years Bangladesh has refused to allow Burmese refugees to register. Pakistan is now so dangerous UNHCR has had to restrict its operations and Australia’s access has also been severely curtailed. For refugees in these countries and many others, there is no queue.

This does not mean resettlement is not important, and traditionally the offshore component of Australia’s Refugee Humanitarian Program has been one of the most positive and well-resourced refugee resettlement programs in the world. Australia has also consistently remained one of only three countries to offer significant resettlement places each year.

This generous contribution our country makes to international burden and responsibility sharing should be applauded, and is something of which we should all be proud.

But it does not replace our obligations to those who arrive on our shores, whether by boat or by plane, seeking our protection.

The origin of the notion of ‘queue jumping’, as Australians understand it in the current refugee debate, lies not in the fact that people living in refugee camps are more deserving of our protection, but in the fact that the previous Australian Government initiated a policy linking the onshore and offshore programs in a fixed quota system.

The linking of the two programs has had a number of very negative consequences. It has meant that an asylum seeker who is granted refugee status onshore is perceived as ‘taking’ a place from a humanitarian entrant offshore.

This policy has pitted refugee communities in Australia against each other and created a perception in the Australian community that one refugee group is more deserving than another.

Sadly, it has also fundamentally compromised Australia’s international reputation as a rights-respecting country which recognises that individuals have a fundamental right to flee persecution and seek asylum.

Much reporting by mainstream media outlets over recent years has also clearly demonstrated the lack of understanding of the difference between our international obligations to protect those recognised as refugees onshore (asylum seekers) and our contribution to international burden sharing.

The blurring of these two distinct programs has seriously undermined public understanding of both, and ultimately this has only served to undermine public confidence in Australia’s refugee programs more broadly.

Nobody wants to be a refugee, yet the thousands of Sri Lankans and Afghans currently facing severe human rights abuses have very little hope of finding sanctuary in their own countries. Nor will they find it in their neighbouring countries, which are not party to the Refugee Convention and have no obligation to provide protection.

As a result, men, women, children and families are forced to take desperate measures and risk their lives undertaking dangerous journeys to countries like Australia.

Put simply, there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. It is a fundamental human right, and Australia has an obligation to protect people who can prove a valid refugee claim.

Gaining a visa to live in Australia as a refugee is by no means easy. All asylum seekers who are found to be refugees and allowed to remain in Australia must undergo a rigorous assessment procedure before being granted refugee status.

In order to prove their claims and qualify as a refugee under the Refugee Convention, these people must demonstrate that they cannot return to their home countries out of genuine fear of torture or death.

Around 90% of asylum seekers who manage to arrive in Australia by boat are ultimately found to be refugees. Despite the trauma they have endured and their overwhelmingly genuine nature of their claims, these people are vilified. The notion of the ‘queue jumping’ asylum seeker continues to be exploited by Australian politicians and still resonates with sections of the public.

De-linking the onshore and offshore humanitarian programs should now be considered a priority for the Australian Government.

The damage that is being done - firstly to Australia’s international reputation, and secondly to domestic support for refugee protection - by the blurring of these two distinct programs, serves no purpose but to undermine our nation’s commitment fundamental human rights principles.

This article was first published in The Punch on 24 February 2010.