Monthly Archives: September 2013


Baro River Gambela Source: By T U R K A I R O ([1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Baro River Gambela
Source: By T U R K A I R O ([1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

 ‘There are a whole host of interlacing factors that have led us to believe this problem is unique to Australia. Being a geographically isolated island nation and the idea we are being invaded certainly feeds it. As does the fact that we have no strong human-rights discourse. We fill that void with law-and-order politics that frames the debate around illegal refugees and a helpless sovereign state.’

Professor Sharon Pickering of Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry[1]

On 19th August 2013, just over a week ago, another boat carry asylum-seekers sunk off the coast of Australia.[2] Only two days earlier, a boat arrived packed with over 200 people.[3]  At the same time, Australia’s Immigration Minister, Tony Burke and Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, were in Jakarta discussing a regional solution to the people smuggling issue.

From media reports and the rhetoric of politicians it is entirely believable to think Australia is pulling more-than-its-fair share of weight in providing a welcome mat for asylum seekers. But is this actually the case?

Reasons for Fleeing 

In general, asylum seekers and refugees account for only a small proportion of the global movement of people.[4] These people are fleeing circumstances of war, violence, civil unrest, human rights abuses and/or persecution for who they are. As a consequence, they often do not have the requisite documentation, use unauthorized crossing points or retain the services of smugglers.

There was a significant increase in 2012 of the number of people seeking refugee protection in particular, there was an increase in numbers of asylum applicants fleeing the civil unrest and security issues in the Syrian Arab Republic.[5] The conditions under which they migrate in these circumstances are dangerous. They often have to travel in inhumane conditions, may be exposed to exploitation and abuse and have their lives placed at risk. Once they arrive at a host country, they are generally regarded as a threat to the country’s sovereignty and to their national security.

The number of people requesting international protection has fluctuated significantly between countries and years depending on the political development in countries of origin and also changes in asylum policies and practices in receiving countries. There are some common factors that tend to influence asylum trends including the existence of social networks of certain communities in destination countries, improved capacity to register asylum seekers and the fact that some countries are perceived as more likely to grant refugee status than others.[6]

Industrialised Countries

According to the UNHCR’s report on Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialised Countries in 2012, an estimated 479300 asylum applications were registered in 44 industrialised countries in the past year.[7] This represents an increase of 8% from the previous year, the second highest level in the past decade. Afghanistan remained at the top of the list of source countries with approximately 36600 Afghans requesting asylum. This figure is comparatively equal to that recorded in 2011, reflecting the continued political instability in Afghanistan. Australia’s share of Afghan asylum applications in relation to the rest of the world is consistent with the previous two years at 8% of total applications.

These individuals are fleeing to industrialised and less developing countries around the globe. The top five receiving countries for asylum applications in 2012 were respectively, the United States of America, Germany, France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.[8] These countries together accounted for more than half (57%) of all asylum applications received by industrialised countries.

Australia’s intake of asylum applications against the top 5 host-industrialised countries in 2012[9]

The USA tops the list for the seventh consecutive year recording 834000 asylum applications for 2012. This means that out of the 44 industrialised countries, it accounted for one in six claims lodged. These applicants originated mainly from China (24%), Mexico (17%) and El Salvador (7%). Furthermore, there was a recorded increase of 7400 claims on the 2011 figure, mainly accounted for by an increase in applicants originating from Egypt (+102%), Honduras (+38%), Mexico (+35%) and Guatemala (+24%). The continuing violence generated by transnational organized crime, gang-related violence and drug cartels in regions of Central America have been suggested as reasons for the higher number of individuals from this region submitting asylum applications in the USA.[10] The huge increase in claims originating from Egypt could be seen as a direct result of the dire political instability and violent protests persisting in the country.

In comparison, Germany was the main recipient of asylum seeker applications in Europe with a total of 64500 new asylum claims registered in 2012, representing a 41% increase over 2011’s claims.[11] This higher level is attributable to a larger number of people from the Balkan region requesting international protection in Germany. In particular, the conflict arising in Syria has seen a vast increase in the number of applicants originating from the country. The number of applications in fact from Syria has more than doubled from 2600 in 2011 to 6200 in 2012.

The UNHCR has released an interesting comparison of recipient asylum applicant countries, using national population and GDP as base indicators to compare trends in refugee flows.[12] Firstly, using national population as the base factor, it was found that Malta, on average, received the highest number of asylum seekers compared to its national population at 21.7 applications per 1000 inhabitants. Australia received a relatively low 1.3 applicants per 1000 inhabitants. Secondly, using GDP as an underlying indicator for recipient States, France and the USA were held to have the highest number of asylum applicants at 6.5 and 6.2 applicants per capita respectively.


The UNHCR’s Report outlines that the number of individuals seeking asylum in Australia has increased by 37% between 2011 and 2012, with a total of 15 800 applications for asylum registered. [13]  This represents a significant increase, which is worrying from the standpoint of the serious risks involved in people smuggling and being on a boat on the high seas. Most of these individuals, one-third in fact, originate from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka.[14]

Nonetheless, in comparison with other refugee-hosting countries, this number is relatively low.[15] Many other industrialised and non-industrialised countries including the United States, Switzerland and Sri Lanka eclipse the number of asylum applications processed in Australia. According to the UNHCR, Australia is currently providing host to only 0.2% of the world’s refugees. At a per capita level, this ranked Australia as 68th in the world.[16] The Australia Parliamentary Library expresses that ‘in the context of our migration program, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia is very, very minor. It is less than 1.5% of new migrants.’[17] It is entirely feasible to say that in general, boat arrivals to Australia represent a very small cohort of migrants.

For many people, Australia is not the first place in which they have sought asylum. In the Asia-Pacific region, most countries are not signatories to the United Nations Refugee Convention and lack a sufficient legal and administrative framework for addressing refugee protection issues. This means that asylum seekers in these countries are generally treated in the same way as illegal migrants. They are generally unable to access healthcare and education, rent or purchase property and obtain work through legal channels. Of even great concern is that they may face harassment and abuse and are at risk of being detained and forcibly returned to their country of origin. The lack of effective protection often drives them to seek sanctuary elsewhere (including Australia) in hopes of finding a durable solution.

Developing Countries

There is a large number of the world’s refugees located in developing countries neighbouring their own country of origin. In 2011, developing countries played host to four-fifths of the world’s refugees with 48 of the least developed countries providing asylum to 2.3 million refugees.[18] That is, only 17% of refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate where living outside their region of origin. Examples include the large refugee populations in Pakistan (1.7 million), Iran (886500), Kenya (556500) and Chad (366500).[19] The reason behind these large refugee populations lying so close to the original homeland of many of these refugees is that the quickest and seemingly easiest way to flee from the risk of persecution is to seek refuge across the border. The geography of Africa makes this an option as many countries are landlocked or share a border with at least two neighbouring countries.

Australia plays a significant role in providing protection for people fleeing their country of origin where their safety and the safety of their love ones can no longer be guaranteed. Australia is not alone in opening its borders to those in need. Countries all around the world, including 44 industrialised countries, and even more developing countries, process asylum applications every year. It is our international law obligation to keep our doors open so individuals have a fair opportunity to live free from the fear of persecution.

[1] Ian Lloyd Neubauer, ‘Australia’s Message to Asylum Seeker’s: Go Away’, Time World (online), 23 July 2013 <>.

[2] AFP, ‘Asylum Boat sinks of Australia Amid People-Smuglging Talks’,  Yahoo 7 News (online), 20 August 2013 <>.

[3]  Gemma Jones, ‘More than 200 on latest asylum seeker boat’, The Telegraph (online), 18 August 2013, <;.

[4] UHCR, ‘Asylum and Migration: All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration’, UNCHR (online) <;.

[5] UNHCR,  ‘Asylum Trends 2012: Levels and Trends in Industralized Countries’ (Report, UNHCR, 2013) 7.

[6] Ibid, 12.

[7]Ibid, 5.

[8] Ibid,  8.

[9] Data sourced from UNHCR,  ‘Asylum Trends 2012: Levels and Trends in Industralized Countries’ (Report, UNHCR, 2013).

[10] UNHCR,  ‘Asylum Trends 2012: Levels and Trends in Industralized Countries’ (Report, UNHCR, 2013) 9.

[11] Ibid, There were 45700 asylum applications lodged in 2011 according to UNHCR.

[12] Ibid, 13.

[13] Ibid, 3.

[14] Ibid, 8.

[15] SBS, ‘Does Australia take in its ‘fair share’ of refugees?’ SBS (online factsheet) <;.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Janet Phillips, ‘Asylum Seekers and Refugees: What are the Facts?’ (Parliamentary Library, 2013)  15, quoting Julia Gillard in her address to the Lowy Institution (J Gillard (Prime Minister), ‘Moving Australia forward: address to the Lowy Institute’).

[18] SBS, ‘Does Australia take in its ‘fair share’ of refugees?’ SBS (online factsheet) <;.

[19] Ibid.



Filed under Refugee flows