The asylum seekers that we don’t talk about

In the last ten years, 65,000 asylum seekers have come to Australia. 47,000 or 72% of those came by air. Only 28% came by boat. In the last five years, we received 47,000 asylum seekers, of whom 28,000 or 62% came by air. Only 38% came by boat. In only one year, in the last ten years, 2011-12, did we have more boat arrivals (7,379) than air arrivals (7,036). Air arrivals are fairly steady at about 5,000 to 7,000 p.a. whilst boat arrivals fluctuate more.

Yet for years our whole debate is about boats, boats and more boats. As Fran Kelly on the ABC put it recently, ‘boats are coming thick and fast’. The fact is that many more asylum seekers come by air then by boat.

Why does our public discussion focus overwhelmingly on boat arrivals? I suggest two reasons. The first is that the media is overwhelmingly focussed on the toxic politics of asylum seekers, rather than the facts and the policy implications. It is so easy to play to the latent fear in all of us and in our community about boats arriving on our doorstep. The media has little interest or understanding of the critical issues and features of the world wide flows of asylum seekers and refugees. It is domestic politics from beginning to end.

The second is that stories about boat arrivals with scruffy looking asylum seekers in yellow vests are much easier to illustrate. Pictures are always available, often old file pictures. But asylum seekers coming by air through our international airports between 6am and 10pm at the rate of about 100  every day of the year are more difficult to locate  and even harder to get pictures about. But they are trickling through all the time with little public or media interest. The lazy media works on the proposition that if there are no easy pictures there cannot be a story.

How do asylum seekers come to Australia by air? In 2011-12, 40% came on student visas and 35% on visitor or working holiday visas. Some had genuine plans as students and visitors. Many did not. With the help of ‘agents’ they are persuaded to make false claims about their intentions in coming to Australia and are issued with visas. That is how they get into the country. Once here they then apply for refugee status.

Where do most of these air arrivals seeking asylum come from? In 2011-12, 17% came from China which is always top of the list, 13% from India and 10% from Pakistan. Southern China has a particularly active people-smuggling network.

How do air and boat arrivals compare in refugee determination? In the last 4 years the final refugee determination rate for air arrivals was 46%. For boat arrivals it was 89%. That is not to say that there are not many deserving asylum seekers amongst air arrivals. But we focus our attention and hostility towards boat arrivals who have double the ‘success rate’ of air arrivals in refugee determination.

Our politicians and our media have a lot to answer for in the way that public debate is skewed in this country against boat arrivals.

John Menadue

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