Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Refugee Queue

The management of News Ltd's flagship The Australian assures us that they don't have a political agenda, they just report the news as they see it.  If that's the case, then they see things in a slightly odd way.  Or perhaps it's better to say they see some things, but not others.

For the past two Saturdays The Weekend Australian has featured pretty much identical cover stories about the refugee issue.  Yesterday's was entitled Too Poor for a Boat, Family Stuck in Asylum Void, and features the story of Burmese Chin refugee Ngun Tin Tial and her family, stuck in Kuala Lumpur after fleeing persecution in their homeland and living in legal limbo, earning a meagre living in the grey economy.  They would like to come to Australia and have got some way along the application process.  However, the wait is long, and apparently being made longer by the fact that when Australia accepts boat arrivals, these are counted towards our overall refugee and humanitatian quota of 13,000 refugees, reducing the number that will be settled from offshore.  An illicit boat trip is not an option for them, because there's no way they can rustle up the required $32,000.

"This is not fair," she said. "Of course we don't have that sort of money." Even if a processing centre were opened in Indonesia, the family wouldn't have the means to get there: too far, too expensive. They can only wait and hope. "It's extremely hard and difficult for my family," Ngun Tin Tial added, her voice breaking. "It's so difficult I can't speak."

The author, Sian Powell, continues:

The family's plight seems unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Today The Weekend Australian reveals that Australia's entire offshore humanitarian program could be wiped out this financial year if asylum-seeker boats continued to arrive at their present rate.

Interestingly, last weekend's cover featured the same story from a different place, this time the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.  Abdikadir Omar has been a refugee since he was 11 after fleeing Somalia following the execution of his parents.  The story doesn't say how old he is but he now has a wife and three young children, all born in Dadaab.  He too would like to come to Australia, as would many others of the 460,000 people who live in this dangerous and impoverished place of refuge.  But - well, you guessed it.

His hopes, and those of a generation of displaced people in camps around the world, are being crushed by a gross distortion in Australia's humanitarian program, caused by the flood of asylum-seeker boats. People such as Mr Omar in Kenya's giant Dadaab camp do not have the money or access to people-smugglers and their boats. He has no choice but to apply through proper channels for the fast-shrinking number of humanitarian places being offered to those who do not arrive in Australia by boat.

Author Cameron Stewart provides us with more data.

Since 1996 Australia has capped its total humanitarian intake at about 13,000 by linking its onshore intake, which includes asylum-seeker boat arrivals, with its offshore intake, which includes both the refugee and special humanitarian category....

The number of special offshore humanitarian visas issued each year has fallen from 5183 in 2006-07, when boat arrivals were in single figures each year, to barely 800 in 2011-12 and is likely to vanish this financial year, amid the current surge in asylum-seekers.

I feel extremely sad for both families, and hope that they both make it to Australia soon.  They are ordinary, decent and hardworking people who have suffered too much already.  The way their stories are reported, on the other hand, makes my blood boil.  They imply that these poor and genuine refugees are being made to suffer by wealthier and less needy people jumping the queue by making the unauthorised boat trip to Australia.

So, to set the record straight, first of all while it is true that those who arrive on boats are a little better off than those who can't afford to do so, a person who can scrape together $5-10,000 for a rickety boat trip would not fit most people's criteria for "rich".  Genuinely rich people don't need to do that, they can come to Australia by plane, with a visa, if they promise to bring at least half a million dollars with them.  If they are not that well off, they can come as skilled migrants or, failing that, come as students and get the skills here, then apply to stay.  They don't even have to be refugees to do that.  Failing all else, they can fly in as tourists and then apply for asylum before their visas run out.  Coming on an unauthorised boat without a visa is the resort of only the most desperate.  They are not the poorest of the poor, but they are not far from it.

Secondly, there is no iron law of mathematics that says that if boat arrivals go up, offshore numbers must go down.  There is nothing sacred or absolute about the quota, nothing that prevents us from taking more people, and from decoupling the offshore quota from onshore arrivals.  This way, Ngun Tin Tial and Abdikadir Omar need not be played off against the Afghanis, Sri Lankans and Iraqis who make it here by boat.

Of course there are budget implications but these are also a matter of choice. According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre it costs about  $11,000 per person to settle someone in the community.  If we settle 13,000 people per year, this will cost us $143m.  Of course we wouldn't want these costs to blow out, would we?  On the other hand, it costs $137,000 per person per year to keep someone in immigration detention.  At that price the costs of detention rapidly wipe out the budget for resettlement.  This is the tragedy of our current approach - our budget for humanitarian resettlement is not being wiped out by alternative humanitarian aid for those in slightly less need, it is being wiped out by the cost of treating people inhumanely.  For every family we refrain from sending to detention when they pull up at the dock on Christmas Island, we can afford to settle the entire Tial and Omar families and their favourite cousins and have plenty of change to pay for the increased boat arrivals which will supposedly come on the back of our becoming more humane.

One final point while we're talking numbers.  Cameron Stewart seems not to have noticed the other incredibly large number he put in his article - the 460,000 people currently resident in the Dadaab refugee camp - and the mathematical relationship between this and Australia's 13,000 humanitarian quota.  I can quote even bigger numbers of you like - the UNHCR currently has 10.5 million refugees on its register worldwide.  Irrespective of what happens about unauthorised boat arrivals in Australia  Sian Powell and Cameron Stewart will still be able to find any number of people like Ngun Tin Tial and Abdikadir Omar stuck in refugee limbo.  It is a sign of how truly insular we have become that we are able to see this is a problem of border protection.

* Photos of Ngun Tin Tial and her adopted sons, and Abdikadir Omar and family, taken from The Australian.

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