Uncomfortable truths: busting the top three asylum seeker myths

There is no such thing as a “typical” refugee. EPA/Jamal Nasrallah

Over the past few weeks as the asylum debate has heated up, rumours and myths have been circulating with well-rehearsed mantras being repeated about the good, the bad and the downright ugly of asylum politics.

Here’s a few of the most pernicious untruths, and how they are shattered in the face of evidence-based research. We’d love to hear if you have any others.

Myth one: there is an ‘orderly’ resettlement process

The notion that Australia’s offshore refugee program is a perfect system, where more deserving refugees wait patiently in some kind of queue, is something that gets trucked out by people on both sides of the political divide. Most recently by the current Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. Research on the refugee experience emphasises a number of themes – most often violence, marginalisation and unpredictability, not orderly queues and a known future.

The most immediate problem with refugee resettlement process is the lack of available places. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that with 800,000 refugees globally in need of protection and only 80,000 places offered annually by countries around the world, “only one in every ten refugees at risk and in need of resettlement will be able to secure the protection they require through this durable solution”.

This makes for pretty stark numbers: closer to home, in a recent evaluation of its Malaysian operations, UNHCR reported 7300 resettlement cases departing in 2009 and nearly 8000 in 2010, many fewer than the places that could be taken up by some of the 100,000 refugees and asylum-seekers residing in Malaysia. Of course not everyone wants to be resettled (many people opt to be voluntarily repatriated or integrate locally in a country) or will be found eligible for resettlement. No one country is going to solve the plight of the world’s refugees through resettlement alone but more countries taking part in resettlement programs will help.

As demand grows, refugee resettlement has also become highly contentious and complicated. Ethnographic studies and NGO reports of resettlement show it to be a negotiated and imperfect process. For example, a scandal in 2001 revealed that bribes were being paid to staff at the UNHCR office in Kenya by refugees hoping to get their resettlement applications prioritised.

Australia conducts interviews with all of its refugee applicants, including those referred by UNHCR, which can make the application process slow. Perhaps some improvements could be achieved by getting more cases referred from reputable NGOs who work closely with refugees and streamlining the interview to a desk review of cases – which is how the USA handles its large resettlement program. Getting to a UNHCR office, or a local Australian embassy can be risky or near impossible for many refugees.

Refugee processing and settlement is far from orderly. EPA/Hotli Simanjuntak

It is true that all people arriving by boat or air who are accepted as refugees do reduce the number of places available to people waiting offshore. But this is due to the decision by the Australian government to link the (onshore and offshore) programs so that everyone competes for the same pool of resettlement places.

To change this would involve a simple bureaucratic decision that can be reversed at any time.

Myth two: there is a ‘typical’ refugee

The work of scholars like Aristide Zolberg and James Jupp provides a historical backdrop to the situations that cause people to flee their homes as refugees and the profile of people who leave. It is remarkable for its breadth and diversity.

Refugee arrival trends across the decades from Indo-China in the 1970s, the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to Afghanistan and Sri Lanka today, reflect contemporary crises. We can no sooner predict where the next group of refugees will emerge from than we can their demographic profile.

What we do know from the work of Zolberg in particular is that refugees flee for persecution-based reasons and also as a consequence of state or regime change. For example a large proportion of the latest refugee arrivals in the European Union originate from Libya and Tunisia - states undergoing major changes. Today’s asylum-seekers will most likely not be the same profile in future and this is why an asylum policy should be centred on long-term strategies rather than concentrating on specific refugee groups.

Finally, a lot of interesting research has shown how we have become accustomed to refugees fitting a certain prototype or image. Barbara Harrell-Bond, Founding Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, has helped us to re-consider refugees as “the eye of many a political storm", rather than the way NGO appeals or media portrayals would have us see them – as helpless victims. It is worth reflecting on how this feeds a perception of a “grateful” refugee that is pitted against a mythical “queue-jumping” asylum-seeker.

Myth three: people are being ‘pulled’ to Australia

Many comments to The Conversation’s Expert Panel Blog have suggested that asylum-seekers are drawn to Australia because of what it offers. Research by Dr Khalid Koser for the UK Home Office found that “asylum seekers may arrive in destination countries without detailed knowledge of asylum policies, even where they have established social networks."

This is because “many asylum seekers leave their country of origin under duress, and do not have the time to mobilise social networks or to evaluate information about potential destinations”.

As asylum seekers worldwide spend more and more waiting time in countries of transit, they may become dependent on information from people smugglers. Whether they trust the information they are given, if they are given it at all, is unclear and so-called “deterrence” strategies are questionable.

What other myths persist about asylum seekers who come to Australia? Do you have any questions for our panel? Leave your thoughts below.


Read the rest of The Conversation’s asylum seeker coverage:

Asylum seekers and Australia: the evidence

The Conversation panel on asylum seekers: meet the experts

Infographic: global refugee populations 1975-2010

Refugee intake starts in the region: making a difference in regional burden sharing

Refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia: the good, the bad and the unexpected

What does the Australian public really think about asylum seekers?

Resettling refugees: the evidence supports increasing our intake

What role does Australia play in accepting the world’s refugees?

Who are Australia’s ‘boat people’, and why don’t they get on planes?

There’s no evidence that asylum seeker deterrence policy works

There’s more to regional collaboration than the Malaysia Arrangement

How immigration policy harms asylum seekers' mental health

Asylum seekers in Indonesia: why do they get on boats?

Preventing deaths at sea: asking the experts on asylum seekers