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FactCheck: are asylum seekers really economic migrants?

Did Foreign minister Bob Carr’s controversial claim that the majority of asylum seekers coming to Australia are economic refugees go too far? AAP Image/Rossbach/Krepp

“People are coming here, not now as a result of persecution, but because they’re economic refugees who have paid money to people smugglers.” - Foreign minister Bob Carr, Meet the Press, June 9.

There is a political context to this statement as the government grapples with its perceived weakness on asylum seeker policy. Resurrected prime minister Kevin Rudd has backed Carr, saying there were a “whole bunch of people” arriving by boat as economic migrants purporting to be refugees.

The government has commissioned a review into the processing of asylum seekers in a bid to lower the acceptance rate - around 90% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat have been found to be refugees. The government’s view is that many are middle class Iranians and Sri Lankans, in particular, who are fleeing for economic reasons. “There’ve been some boats where 100% of them have been people who are fleeing countries where they’re the majority ethnic and religious group, and their motivations is altogether economic,” Senator Carr said last week.

The government says it has evidence to justify these claims, but so far we have not seen it. Putting aside the politics, the government’s assertions are not backed by the known facts.

Since the adoption of the Expert Panel Recommendations on Asylum Seekers, the “no advantage” test has been applied to all individuals who have arrived in Australian waters seeking asylum since August 13, 2012. This means they receive no benefit compared with people who stay in refugee camps waiting for processing. Because of this, as reported in The Guardian: “there has been virtually no processing of the claims made by the more than 20,000 refugees who have arrived since that time”. This was confirmed in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee on May 27, 2013. So, if we have not processed claims, we have no idea whether recent arrivals by boat are “genuine” refugees or not.

We also know that the majority of asylum seekers are arriving from Sri Lanka, Iran and Afghanistan. Regarding Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Council on March 21, 2013, adopted the resolution on Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka, which called on its government to “conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law”.

The resolution expresses concern at:

…reports of continuing violations; concern at reports of enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, threats to the rule of law, religious discrimination and intimidation of civil society activists and journalists.

As for Iran, this year the Security Council – of which Australia is a member state – extended the enforcement of sanctions. The Human Rights Council on March 22, 2013, passed a resolution on the human rights situation in Iran after hearing a report by the UN Secretary General. It concluded that:

…the Secretary-General remains deeply troubled by reports of increasing numbers of executions, including of juvenile offenders and in public; continuing amputations and flogging; arbitrary arrest and detention; unfair trials; torture and ill-treatment; and severe restrictions targeting media professionals, human rights defenders, lawyers and opposition activists, as well as religious minorities.

As for Aghanistan, the Security Council regularly hears from the United Nations mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). In March 2013, it was reported to the council that there remains serious human rights violations and attacks on civilians by armed non-state actors. Regarding the likelihood of these asylum seeker claims meeting the UNHCR refugee definition – “the UNHCR has identified 859,305 refugees in need of resettlement, of whom 180,676 require resettlement in 2013”. Afghanistan remains the number one source country for successful refugee claims around the world.

In summary, these three major source countries for boat arrivals have been repeatedly found by the international community to be unable to protect persons that may fall under the refugee definition – someone with a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion.

Finally, on the question of “economic migrants” versus “refugees”, the UNHCR provided an important qualification in their 2011 issue of the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Guidelines for RSD. They noted the distinction is “sometimes blurred”.

“Behind economic measures affecting a person’s livelihood there may be racial, religious or political aims or intentions directed against a particular group.”

The handbook goes on to note that “objections to general economic measures are not by themselves good reasons for claiming refugee status. On the other hand, what appears at first sight to be primarily an economic motive for departure may in reality also involve a political element, and it may be the political opinions of the individual that expose him to serious consequences, rather than his objections to the economic measures themselves”.

As signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, we have an obligation to hear - without prejudice - the testimony of each asylum seeker before presuming that their claim for refugee status is not valid because of their nationality or ethnic origin.

UPDATE: The government is now processing the claims of around 22,000 asylum seekers who arrived by boat since August last year.


Based on the available information, the foreign minister’s statement is incorrect.


The author is correct that it is the political context surrounding current asylum debates that has prompted a shift in language, now likening asylum seekers to economic migrants. This shift in language heralds a potential future shift in asylum policies.

It is true that as the reference to UNHCR in this article notes, Convention-based persecution can lead to economic deprivation, and Australia should be wary of making blanket assessments of particular countries or groups. However on the matter of claims not being processed and the unavailability of data, there are a number of Sri Lankans in particular who have either returned voluntarily or involuntarily on the grounds that they have not invoked Australia’s protection obligations. It may be instances like this that Senator Carr is using to extrapolate to all boat arrivals. – Melissa Philips

The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to this year’s federal election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.Request a check at Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

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