Busting the asylum seeker myths

Some of the most shameful debate in the history of Australian politics is taking place right now. Over 40 Coalition speakers rise, one after the other, to gloat about the Gillard government’s decision to cave in and re-open Nauru and Manus Island as asylum seeker detention centres. Oh, wait, sorry, they’re ‘processing centres’ now. That makes all the difference.

These dreadful speeches are replete with smugness, scorn and electioneering – but the worst, and most dangerous aspects are the lies. Every single speaker is lying, without shame and without consequences. Parliamentary privilege protects them. They can say whatever they like, and get away with it.

You know what? I don’t think they should get away with it. I think they should be called to account – and since the mainstream media seems unwilling to do it (witness the complete failure to call Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on his lies to the media yesterday), I guess it’s up to the rest of us.

So here goes. Let’s bust some myths.

Myth No. 1: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are committing an illegal act.

It is not illegal to seek asylum, regardless of how someone arrives in the country. The proper designation for those who come by boat is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrival’. The Coalition knows this. The media know this – the Press Council is very careful to urge its members not to criminalise asylum seekers.

In contrast, those who overstay their visas do commit an illegal act, and can be deported.


Myth No. 2: Without offshore processing, Temporary Protection Visas and turning boats around, we will be flooded with asylum seekers coming on boats.

This is a favourite argument of scaremongers and xenophobes. What it boils down to is:

Yet almost all asylum seekers who arrive by boat immediately declare their intentions and enter into the processing system. Visa overstayers, by contrast, often take great pains to hide their unlawful status and keep working. And just to drive the point home, boat-borne asylum seekers add up to around one-tenth of visa overstayers.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 3: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are simply wealthy ‘queue-jumpers’ who use their money to force ‘real’ refugees to wait even longer for resettlement.

The idea of an orderly ‘queue’, where saintly refugees wait patiently to be re-settled while selfish, cashed-up ‘illegals’ bully their way to the front is both pervasive and pernicious. For many asylum seekers, it is not a matter of simply turning up at a refugee camp halfway around the world and talking to the UNHCR. Often, there are no camps, or diplomatic representation, in or near their countries of origin – and thus, there is no queue.

If they do make it to a camp, the strain on the system is so great that they may wait up to a decade to be resettled – and all the while, they are displaced persons, often living in tents and dependent on foreign aid. And these camps are not always secure, either; it’s not unknown for armies or paramilitary groups to raid, looking for ‘dissidents’. Is it any wonder people fleeing for their lives would look to any means possible?

Oh, and one more thing – it was the former Howard government that decided to include boat-borne asylum seekers in our total refugee quota. They created the fiction of a queue.

As for the idea that only the rich (read: and therefore the undeserving) can afford to pay a people smuggler, the UNHCR has found that generally, asylum seekers only pay up to $A5000 – and often, whole families will pool their resources to find that sum.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 4: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat deliberately get rid of their passports so that they cannot be sent back to their country of origin.

There is simply no evidence to support this. Certainly, many asylum seekers arrive without identification papers, but this can be for many reasons. Firstly, someone fleeing persecution may have had their papers confiscated or destroyed to prevent them leaving by normal means. They may have lost papers if they needed rescue from a sinking ship. They may indeed have destroyed their own papers, because they fear being identified by those who seek to imprison or execute them. And there may be a small minority who want to ensure they can’t ever be sent back to risk a resurgence of the state of affairs that prompted them to leave in the first place.


Myth No. 5: Denying family reunion under the special humanitarian programs will deter husbands and fathers from making the boat voyage.

This is one of the recommendations of the Houston panel – and for the life of me, I can’t see how they could come to this conclusion. Neither can Amnesty International and a dozen other refugee organisations. Special humanitarian family reunions were instituted precisely to prevent women and children risking the boat voyage. It resulted in the journey being undertaken primarily by men, although there are still significant numbers of women and children travelling.

Axing the family reunion program will have no deterrent effect whatsoever. It is far more likely to increase the numbers of whole families on boats, wanting to secure a safe haven for re-settlement together. It will not remove the impetus for people to seek asylum through whatever means possible, merely ensure that it endangers more people. Given the possibility of waiting a decade in a refugee camp, living in utter poverty, raising children in an unsafe location, and risking a single boat voyage to possible safety and a new life – families are likely to opt for the latter. It’s a terrible choice either way.


Myth No. 6: Anyone who opposes offshore processing does not believe in the security of the nation-state and has no interest in keeping Australia ‘safe’.

This particular assertion was made by Bronwyn Bishop in Parliament today. According to her, those ‘on the Left’ have a vested interest in tearing down the concept of the nation-state, and opening the borders to anyone who wants to come here, regardless of their origins or intentions.

Apart from the patent absurdity of referring to anyone who opposes offshore processing as necessarily ‘Leftist’, this is cherry-picking to an amazing degree. Bishop quoted former Senator Bob Brown’s declaration that he would like to see a global consciousness of all people as ‘Earthlings’ as evidence that Leftists seek the destruction of sovereign states, when in fact that statement was made in context of urging global action on climate change. She also conveniently ignored the fact that many of Labor’s declared Left, including the outspoken Senator Doug Cameron, have accepted the recommendations made by the expert panel for offshore processing.

Then there’s the idea that offshore processing will somehow keep Australia safe. Bishop here is dog-whistling. That’s all. There’s no evidence to suggest that boat-borne asylum seekers are in any way

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 7: Offshore processing (preferably combined with TPVs and turning back boats) is the only way to stop the boats and break the people smugglers’ ‘business model’.

This is a particularly cunning idea. It sets up the proposition that the boats must be stopped, and challenges anyone to prove that there is a better way of doing this than via Coalition policy.

But take a step back. Why must the boats be stopped? The usual answer is that the voyage is dangerous – people smugglers tend to run a cut-rate operation, and little niggling details like seaworthiness are often overlooked. This much is true – but it begs the question. People only get on boats – and risk their lives – when they feel they have no other alternative.

So what are the alternatives? Increasing our humanitarian intake is one, and this was recommended by the Houston panel. Contributing more money to improving the efficiency and speed of asylum seeker processing is another – and if the government has funds to renovate Nauru and Manus Island, it has funds to contribute to this. Finally, there is the option of bringing asylum seekers directly to Australia via safe means, and processing them here. All of these would be far more likely to reduce the number of dangerous boat voyages and take profits from people smugglers.

As for the claim that these measures stop boats, it’s worth noting that the Pacific Solution did nothing of the kind. There were years when no boats arrived, but in the lead-up to the 2007 election, numbers jumped sharply and were on the rise again. This coincided with a resurgence of unrest in Afghanistan and Africa.


I could go on – the claim that discarding the Pacific Solution made more boats come, that asylum seekers threaten our border, that our naval vessels are suffering from metal fatigue because they’re being used to rescue asylum seekers – but really, these are the major points. These are the most vicious of the lies. This is what the Coalition says, and keeps saying, apparently operating under the theory that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth in people’s minds. This is the strategy of the parties that violated international maritime law with the Tampa, violated our obligations under UN treaties, subjected countless innocent people to shameful and damaging treatment, and continue to tell the world that they are ‘compassionate’ and ‘sensible’.

They are nothing of the kind – and they’ve successfully dragged the government down to their level. Not that it took much persuasion, in the end. Perhaps under Rudd it would have been different. We’ll never know.

What we do know is that this whole issue is surrounded by self-serving, disgusting lies. Those lies should be exposed for what they are, every time they’re uttered.

And apparently it’s up to us to do it, since (with few exceptions) our representatives won’t.


16 Responses to Busting the asylum seeker myths

  1. wenthworthw says:

    How many people deceived by by people smugglers?
    How many people drowned at sea, a slow, terrifying death?
    Please watch the recent 4 corners report.

  2. False name says:

    It would seem to me that your “Busting” of Myth #3 is self defeating. You yourself describe the appalling conditions in refugee camps, and paint an excellent picture of why one would not wish to spend any more time there than absolutely necessary – surely people bypassing these camps and getting to resettlement faster is actually going to cause some people IN the camps to stay there longer? So, in fact, if there is a queue – the people in the camps waiting to be processed – then that queue is being jumped by people who want to avoid it. You didn’t bust the myth, you proved it.

  3. lilacsigil says:

    David – you say “Australia does have a very generous humanitarian program. Its cruel but costs need to be controlled and, importantly, shared.”

    Sadly this is not true. We take relatively few asylum seekers compared to much poorer countries, and even compared to relatively rich countries like the US, Germany or South Africa we compare poorly. We are certainly not the world’s refugee camp. We’re not even South-East Asia’s refugee camp.

    And as for “irregular maritime arrivals” vs “virtuously waiting in a camp”, the article above will tell you where most of these camps are located. That alone should explain why pooling family money to send one person to Australia might be a better option that staying there, when the camp is almost as risky as the danger from which they fled.

    All of them arrived in Indonesia by plane.
    Why does this indicate that they had legitimate papers? Travelling on fake documents is hardly uncommon – if the documents were in good order they would probably have come directly to Australia, as the actually wealthy queue-jumpers do.

    • David says:

      Australia has the third largest refugee resettlement program in the world, and the most generous on a per capita basis. That is not to say its sufficient but it illustrates my point.

      If we are going to have a refugee program who is more deserving? Those that can afford a plane ticket, fake documents (as you suggest) and a people smuggler or those languishing in camps?

      Thirdly, the reason they do not travel by plane is because they are from countries where visas are hard to come by. Airlines are fined heavily for allowing people to enter Australia without a valid visa. There is no timely way to get a refugee visa, hence the queue jumping and also why there is five more times as many people overstaying their visa as there is irregular maritime arrivals.

      • David says:


        Where I got my info regarding settlement figures.

      • lilacsigil says:

        If we are going to have a refugee program who is more deserving?

        This is the big smokescreen that the government uses to bash boat people. People who stay in camps vs people who try to send a family member are *all* in desperate straits. The fiction of a queue is designed to support the bizarre and dehumanising idea of turning back the boats in favour of real refugees who will be totally different and cheaper and safer and less scary because…(reason never actually explained). If the real aim is to stop the boats in favour of the Truly Deserving, why not start paying Indonesian fishing boats a $20 bounty per live non-Indonesian on a boat heading our way? It’d be cheaper, they’d never enter Australian waters, and I’m sure not *so* many people would die. This division of refugees into the Truly Deserving and the Evil Hordes is a horrible and dehumanising one against all refugees and indeed all immigrants.

        (Thanks for the more up-to-date settlement figures.)

  4. jane says:

    While at first blush this legislation looks like an abysmal cave in, I think it will serve to permanently put to rest Liars Party claims that their so-called Pacific Solution will “Stop The Boats”.

    Once the Liars no longer have this furphy to beat the government with, hopefully all parties will be forced to sit down and renegotiate decent legislation.

    Unfortunately, the myths you so easily and sensibly debunked, are now perceived as fact in the wider community, due to cynical political manipulation by interested parties.

    The msm should cop a big fat serve for either allowing these lies to pass unremarked or, in the case of shock jocks like Jones etal, for spruiking it far and wide.

  5. David says:

    Ill start by saying im more on the left side of things and refugees, but I have to reply to some of the holes in your argument.

    Myth 3 – They are cashed up compared to others. I agree I would do the same, but should an independent umpire allow it? Why should someone wait 10+ years in a camp because our (inadequate) yearly intake is taken up by irregular maritime arrivals? These people fly and pay for boats, surely they can make a safe home in many different places – more so than others without these means.

    Myth 4 – Senate estimates show 3200 of the 3227 irregular maritime arrivals did not have passports. All of them arrived in Indonesia by plane. At this point, there is no reason to destroy the documents other than to obfuscate proper identification.

    Myth 5 – Depends if they can afford the 5k per person.

    Myth 7 – Its expensive. We cant be the world’s refugee camp. Every 4,000 persons costs about $200m to settle (aph.gov.au humanitarian program 2011-12). This alone is not much, but Australia does have a very generous humanitarian program. Its cruel but costs need to be controlled and, importantly, shared.

    • jane says:

      David, I feel I must take you up on a couple of your points.

      How many refugees would actually have all the documentation required to prove their identity?

      I doubt that most Australians have a passport, or the carry that documentation around with them.

      And I reckon if you have to flee your home at a moment’s notice, the last thing on your mind would be “Have I got my passport/birth certificate/marriage certificate in my wallet?”

      • David says:

        Most Australian’s dont have to worry about crossing international borders. I doubt very many would be able to make it from Afghanistan to Malaysia or Indonesia with identification papers – by any method. To boot, most of them fly there.

        And if I thought I was going to be crossing any international borders and that documentation might help me I would certainly take it with me. Notwithstanding, the (relatively high) amount of money that is required to use a people smuggler suggests strongly these are not spare of the moment decisions.

  6. All very depressing, isn’t it? Malcolm Fraser has had some good things to say about this. I would never have believed I would be following him on Facebook and nodding approvingly.

  7. Merinnan says:

    Reblogged this on Butterfly's Wings and commented:
    The Houston recommendations, the ensuing and predicable xenophobic racism from the Coalition and Labor, and the appalling amendments made to the Migration Act today have all led to me feeling the most ashamed I have felt for being Australian since Howard first began this disgraceful race to the bottom between the two major parties. I was going to write in more detail about this, but The Conscience Vote has covered everything I was thinking, and far better than I think I would be able to right now.

  8. Merinnan says:

    I was planning to write something about this when I got home from work, but I don’t think there’s anything I could say that would really add anything to what you’ve said here.

  9. tqft9999 says:

    Classic policy test: how will it look in 5, 10 or 20 years.

    Imagine a world where millions of people are on the move due to economic, war or climate change (or a combination). It really isn’t that hard. Will this solution be practical in 5 years? 10 years or more with a ramped up stream of people looking for any place where they can sleep without fear of dying?

    No, I didn’t think so.

    If I had the choice of dodging warlords or trying for Australia no matter how discouraging the reception, it isn’t even a choice really.

    All this money would be better spent on reducing the need to seek asylum (Foreign Aid) than on imprisoning people for the audacity of wanting to wake up to see their family alive.

    “that our naval vessels are suffering from metal fatigue ” if that is true and given some of facts out there, then the Navy should have it’s ass kicked.

  10. lilacsigil says:

    Your post thoroughly debunks the rubbish passing for policy, but every year our treatment of refugees seems to get worse and worse. The Howard government certainly stirred up the “illegals and bludgers and terrorists” sentiments, but the current government is happily using those same barely-disguised racist sentiments to court voters. It’s disgusting, and protesting seems to be accomplishing nothing.

  11. Catherine says:

    Well said. This whole situation depresses me beyond belief.

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