Category Archives: Refugee flows

PATTERNS AND TRENDS IN ASYLUM SEEKERS’ JOURNEYS

Baro River Gambela Source: By T U R K A I R O ([1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Baro River Gambela
Source: By T U R K A I R O ([1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, 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.

Australia

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 <http://world.time.com/2013/07/23/australias-message-to-asylum-seekers-go-away/#ixzz2dL1X7vwt>.

[2] AFP, ‘Asylum Boat sinks of Australia Amid People-Smuglging Talks’,  Yahoo 7 News (online), 20 August 2013 <http://au.news.yahoocom/latest/a/-/latest/18571660/asylum-boat-sinks-off-australia-amid-people-smuggling-talks/>.

[3]  Gemma Jones, ‘More than 200 on latest asylum seeker boat’, The Telegraph (online), 18 August 2013, <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/special-features/more-than-200-on-latest-asylum-seeker-boat/story-fnho52jp-1226699490774&gt;.

[4] UHCR, ‘Asylum and Migration: All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration’, UNCHR (online) < http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a1d406060.html&gt;.

[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) < http://www.sbs.com.au/goback/about/factsheets/8/does-australia-take-in-its-fair-share-of-refugees&gt;.

[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) < http://www.sbs.com.au/goback/about/factsheets/8/does-australia-take-in-its-fair-share-of-refugees&gt;.

[19] Ibid.

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Sri Lanka

The numbers of Sri Lankan asylum seekers coming to Australia seeking refugee status is rising. With 2,345 protection visa applications lodged by Sri Lankans in 2012,[1] over one third of all asylum-seekers in Australia originate from either Afghanistan or Sri Lanka.[2] Despite political rhetoric,[3] the vast majority of Sri Lankan asylum seekers arriving by boat are found to be genuine refugees. Over 81% of rejected DIAC applications from irregular maritime arrivals are overturned upon Independent Merits Review/Independent Protection Assessment [4]

While most refugee flows stem from wartime conditions or dictatorships, the situation in Sri Lanka poses an interesting exception. With the 26-year-long conflict between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ending in 2009, ‘improvement and stabilisation in conditions’ was widely regarded as inevitable.[5] This has led to the Australian government holding a somewhat skewed perception of the situation in Sri Lanka.

In April 2010, the Australian government suspended the processing of asylum claims from Sri Lanka on the basis that the Tamil minority could now live ‘reasonably safely’.[6] This view was reinforced by acts of apparent advancement by Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa, including the appointment of a Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to investigate human rights abuses and the implementation of a National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) in 2011.[7] However, despite the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, recently stating that Sri Lankans no longer need to seek asylum,[8] reports indicate that the Sri Lankan government has continued its assault on democracy and failed to take any significant steps toward providing accountability for war crimes committed during the conflict.[9]

Thus, what was once a country marred by internal violence, the situation in Sri Lanka has become one of a deteriorating governance crisis. The growing ethnic tension and denial of minority rights has been exemplified by the dismantling of the judiciary and other democratic checks on the executive and military. This situation is worsened by the Rajapaksa government’s refusal to comply with the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) March 2012 and March 2013 resolutions on reconciliation and accountability.[10] Further, while the government claims to have implemented many of the LLRC recommendations, the most critical issues have, thus far, been ignored.[11]

Lack of Accountability 

Sri Lanka has made no progress toward ensuring justice for the victims of human rights violations committed during the conflict between the government and the LTTE.[12] These abuses were perpetrated by both sides in the conflict and include the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and their use as ‘human shields’. [13] With Sri Lankan officials, including the country’s President and senior diplomats, facing murder indictments in Swiss, German,US and Australian courts,[14] a lack of internal accountability remains a key issue in Sri Lanka.

In March 2012 and 2013, the UNHRC adopted resolutions finding that the LLRC failed to adequately address allegations of violations of international law. It requested that the government expeditiously present a comprehensive plan detailing the steps it had taken to implement the LLRC’s recommendations and to address accountability. The Sri Lankan government’s response was to publicly threaten human rights defenders who had advocated for the resolution.[15] While the government has since announced the adoption of an action plan, the scheme is criticised for its vague requirements for ‘looking into’ civilian deaths, and overall the lack of transparency and independence.[16]

‘Authoritarian Turn’

Government attacks on the judiciary and political dissent highlight an authoritarian turn that threatens stability and peace in Sri Lanka.[17] President Rajapaksa and his brothers continue to accumulate power at the expense of democratic institutions.[18] The impeachment of the Chief Justice in January this year highlights the weakness of political opposition.[19]

On 15 November 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers released a statement criticising the impeachment, stating that “the misuse of disciplinary proceedings as a reprisals mechanism against independent judges is unacceptable.”[20] Similar calls to restore the independence of the marginalised National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have been ignored. [21]

Violence, Arbitrary Detention and Enforced Disappearances

Gangs linked to government-allied political parties, including the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, have been blamed for robberies, abductions, rapes, assaults and murders throughout Sri Lanka.[22] There are frequent reports of people being taken into white vans and later dumped, or never seen again.[23] Political activists, returning displaced persons, and former LTTE members are targets.[24]

In April 2012, nearly 220 Tamils in the Trincomalee area were arrested and held for several days without charge in military detention camps.[25] Further, Tamils who returned to Sri Lanka, including deported asylum seekers, reported being detained and accused of having LTTE links or association with anti-government activities whilst overseas.[26]

Although formal emergency regulations were lifted in 2011, the Sri Lankan police and security forces continue to enjoy broad detention powers.[27] With the  Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) 1979 permitting detention without charge for up to 18 months, an abusive detention regime persists in Sri Lanka.

Attacks on Civil Society and Clampdowns on Free Speech

Suppression of expression and peaceful dissent is common in Sri Lanka.[28] Reports indicate that both human rights defenders and individuals expressing anti-government sentiment are portrayed as ‘traitors’ and subjected to anonymous threats and smear campaigns.[29] The government has taken no action against cabinet minister, Mervyn de Silva, who threatened activists.[30]

Increased surveillance and clampdowns on free speech have been reported by Amnesty International.[31] Throughout 2012, the government shut down at least five news websites critical of the government.[32]  Sunday leader reporter, Faraz Shauketaly, was gunned down by unidentified assailants in February this year.[33] This follows the 2009 shooting of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Sunday leader’s previous editor. No investigations have been conducted into these deaths.[34]

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Militarisation

Despite the government’s claims of decreased military presence in the north and east, reports indicate that military personnel still frequently intervene in civilian life.[35] Fishermen and farmers report that armed forces continuing to encroach into their coastal areas and onto their land, impacting their livelihoods.[36]

More than 93,000 conflict-displaced people remain living in camps, with host communities or in transit situations.[37] Sri Lanka has no legislation governing the protection of internally displaced persons (‘IDPs’). A bill drafted by the NHRC in 2008 has not been taken forward.[38]

It is integral to critically engage with independent evidence when determining the safety and stability in Sri Lanka for refugee claims. A focus on mainstream media and statements by Sri Lankan officials has the capacity to distort the true situation and could lead to devastating consequences when those truly fearing persecution are denied refugee protection.

Jess Thrower


[1] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Asylum Trends 2012: Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries (21 March 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/514ad4e02.html&gt;, 27.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] SBS, Sri Lanka ‘welcomes’ boat arrivals (11 April 2013) <http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1755142/Sri-Lanka-welcomes-asylum-boat-returns&gt;.

[4] Department of Immigration and Citizenship (2012) Asylum Trends – Australia: 2011-12 Annual Publication, Program Evidence and Knowledge Section, 30.

[5] The Hon Stephen Smith MP, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Changes to Australia’s immigration processing system (9 April 2010) <http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2010/fa-s100409.html&gt;.

[6] Larry Marshall, ‘Introduction: Sri Lanka after the war’ (2010) 22(3) Global Change, Peace & Security 327.

[7] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Sri Lanka country brief (August 2012) <http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/sri_lanka/sri_lanka_country_brief.html&gt;.

[8] Lateline, High Commissioner says Sri Lankans don’t need to seek asylum (10 April 2013) <http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2013/s3734398.htm&gt;.

[9] Human Rights Watch (HRW), World Report 2013: Sri Lanka (22 April 2013) <http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/sri-lanka>.

[10] BBC, UN passes resolution against Sri Lanka rights record (21 March 2013) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21873551&gt;.

[11] International Crisis Group (ICG), Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action (20 February 2013) Asia Report N°243 <http://www.refworld.org/docid/5124deb32.html&gt;.

[12] HRW, above n 9, 2.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Annual Report 2012 – Sri Lanka (24 May 2012) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fbe390d46.html&gt;; The Conversation, Experts respond: indicting the Sri Lankan president for war crimes (25 October 2011) <http://theconversation.com/experts-respond-indicting-the-sri-lankan-president-for-war-crimes-3990&gt;.

[15] HRW, above n 9, 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ICG, above n 11, 3.

[18] HRW, above n 9, 3.

[19] ICG, above n 11, 3.

[20] United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights and Democracy: The 2012 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report – Sri Lanka (15 April 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/516fb7bf16.html&gt;.

[21] HRW, above n 9, 2.

[22] Amnesty International, There are no human rights in Sri Lanka (1 May 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/5183b25b4.html&gt;; Human Rights Watch (HRW), We Will Teach You a Lesson” – Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces (26 February 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/5130850f2.html&gt;.

[23] Amnesty International, above n 22.

[24] Amnesty International, above n 14.

[25] HRW, above n 9.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Amnesty International, Sri Lanka’s assault on dissent (30 April 2013) ASA 37/003/2013 <http://www.refworld.org/docid/51875d824.html&gt;.

[29] Amnesty International, above n 14, 3.

[30] BBC Colombo, Sri Lanka minister Mervyn Silva threatens journalists (23 March 2012) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17491832&gt;.

[31] Amnesty International, above n 14; Committee to Protect Journalists, Sri Lankan daily attacked again, twice in two weeks (15 April 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/518cafc718.html&gt;.

[32] HRW, above n 9.

[33] BBC, Sri Lanka Sunday Leader reporter Faraz Shauketaly shot (16 February 2013) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21482317&gt;.

[34] HRW, above n 9.

[35] Sri Lanka Guardian, Militarisation, Lanka Style (10 February 2013) <http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2013/02/militarisation-lankan-style.html&gt;.

[36] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sri Lanka’s displacement chapter nears end with closure of Menik Farm (27 September 2012) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/50654eca2.html&gt;.

[37] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Global Overview 2012: People internally displaced by conflict and violence – Sri Lanka (29 April 2013) <http://www.refworld.org/docid/517fb0516.html&gt;.

[38] Ibid.

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Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a major source country for asylum seekers and refugees globally, not only for Australia. UNHCR estimates that there are three million Afghan refugees worldwide; this constitutes one in three of the world’s displaced persons.[1] This number is rising with 33,500 Afghani’s making claims for asylum in 2010.[2] Civilians in Afghanistan face three major push factors: general violence and conflict, abuse at the hands of Afghan security forces, in addition to the plight of ethnic minority Hazaras.

Although Afghani’s constituted the highest number of asylum applications in Australia[3] they only counted for a fraction of total asylum claims worldwide. The figures below detail the asylum claims received over the 2010- 2011 period, up to and including June 2011. The majority of Afghan asylum seekers have been found to be genuine refugees. Even if applicants were rejected in the first stage of application to DIAC, up to 86% of those decisions were overturned upon review by either the RRT or the alternative ‘privatised’ system of IMR set up for irregular maritime arrivals (those arriving by boat without valid entry visas) who are processed as ‘offshore entry persons’ (see data below). Continue reading

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Recent Refugee Flows

Libya

The unfolding events in Libya have had major consequences upon the population. It has been estimated that currently 3 million people have been affected by the conflict, including 218,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 860, 900 people (192,000 Libyans) forced across the border.[1] In May, Italian maritime authorities were conducted a rescue mission for 500 Libyan refugees whose boat had hit rocks just off the coast[2]. The vast majority of Libyan refugees have sought asylum in Europe and Italy in particular, which already received thousands of Tunisian refugees earlier this year.[3] However, as the situation in Tunisia stabilises, the Tunisian government has established refugee camps for Libyan refugees (mostly in Choucha), although many Libyan refugees are opting to return home due to poor conditions[4].

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