The problem with Australia’s refugee problem

by Gwynne Dyer

The Australian boat people are getting to be a problem. The first few million just got off the boats from Britain, pushed the Aborigines off the good land, and declared themselves the real Australians. This latest lot of boat people, though, don’t even stay in Australia. They’re being settled in Papua New Guinea.

It’s not exactly their own idea, to be fair. The descendants of the earlier boat people, now numbering some 20-odd million, have decided that Australia is full up, so any more boat people have to be sent elsewhere. But where? Well, how about somewhere poor and violent, to deter them from trying to get into Australia in the first place? Besides, if it’s a really poor country, then it can be bribed to accept them. Right, then. PNG it is.

The Australians have convinced themselves that they are drowning in refugees, but they aren’t. Just go to the OECD’s 2011 online statistics, and check out the top four lines for “Inflows of Asylum Seekers.”

First by alphabetical order is Australia (population 23 million), which got 11,505 asylum seekers. Then comes Austria (pop. 8 million), which got 14,406. Then Belgium (pop. 10 million), which took in a whopping 26,003 refugees. And finally Canada (pop. 35 million), which received 24,985. If the Australians are drowning, they are drowning in very shallow water.

Moreover, 70 percent of the boat people seeking asylum in Australia are Sri Lankans, Afghans and Iranians, most of whom we may assume are genuine refugees. So why did Australian governments start detaining asylum seekers, including children, as long ago as 1992, even though that is illegal under the 1951 Refugee Convention of which Australia is a signatory?

At that time refugee flows were high everywhere, though that’s hardly an excuse. No other country did that, and at no time have asylum seekers amounted to even 10 percent of Australian immigration.

Keeping them in prison in Australia while sorting out their claims eventually got too embarrassing, so in 2001 the government signed a deal with Papua New Guinea to send them to mosquito-infested Manus Island, 300 km off PNG’s northern coast, for “processing.” But their claims for asylum were still treated seriously, and the genuine claimants were eventually settled in Australia.

Asylum seekers to Australia were at a peak of almost 13,000 in 2001, but over the next few years they dropped steeply. By 2004 they were down to 3,200, so Australia closed the Manus camp.

Labour Prime Minister Julia Gillard reopened the Manus Island prison last year, presumably because the number of asylum seekers had gone back up to 11,500. (Why? The defeat of the Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, a possible Taliban take-over in Afghanistan, and the crushing of the Green protests in Iran). But horrible though it was, the Manus camp was still a “processing” center, and (some) genuine refugees got resettled in Australia in the end.

Then Kevin Rudd took over the Labour Party leadership last June in an inner-party coup, and almost his first act as prime minister was to declare that no person arriving by boat would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. They would be settled in Papua New Guinea instead.

He was facing an imminent election that Labour seemed bound to lose, so he needed to rouse the rabble. It worked: Labour’s poll numbers have already improved considerably.

Papua New Guinea is an utterly impoverished country with one of the highest crime rates in the world. 85 percent of its 7 million people survive by subsistence agriculture, and the cities largely consist of gang-ridden slums swept by tribal violence. It is a completely unacceptable place to “resettle” refugees, but Rudd has persuaded the PNG government to take them in return for a very large (but secret) amount of money.

Why does Australia behave like this? Racism, obviously. Compared to any other English-speaking people, Australians (or a great many of them) are openly, astoundingly racist. You’d have to go somewhere like Russia or China to find people expressing their racial prejudices in such an unselfconscious, almost naive way. And here’s a clue: New Zealanders, similar to Australians in so many other ways, don’t talk like that at all.

Racism is mostly about fear, and the Australians are very afraid of something. You may mock, but I have a theory about that. Every time Australians look at a map, they see the entire continent of Asia looming above their country like an avalanche waiting to happen. I suspect they are afraid that one day it will fall on them and crush them

But that’s only because conventional maps are drawn with north at the top. You can already get joke world maps in Australia that put south at the top, so that Australia floats serenely above that huge Asian mess below. Just make those maps standard in Australian schools and on Australian TV news, and in a few months you’ll see the change.

Then, if the occasional boat-load of refugees bubbles up from below, who cares? Australia’s above it all, and we can deal with it.

Problem solved. My bill is in the mail.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

  • Christopher Pokarier

    I am disappointed that the Japan Times is running this ill-informed, crudely anecdotal, half-baked opinion piece. It doesn’t even get some basic details correct: for instance, it is Labor, not Labour, for the ALP’s name. Dyer seems guilty of a shameless prejudice similar to that which he asserts many Australians to be guilty of.

    • QandA

      I was really looking forward to your opinion as to why this piece was ill-informed, crudely anecdotal and half baked, but you only informed us of a spelling error, not a content error. If you know more on this subject help some of us understand what’s going on. Australians are not all racists. My wife is Australian and not racist (unless England crushes Australia in cricket), but while living out there I did notice a lack of darker tanned people on television (unless it was the news reporting on taxi cab crimes or what they are now freely calling ‘the boat people’).

      That’s the title the news came up with. Now that not only reminds one of some strange people that travel the seas and eat strange foods, like pirates though scarier (because honestly, Disney hasn’t made boat people cool yet), but also separates them entirely from ‘the non boat people of Australia’ in a way that is belittling to them and subtly dehumanizing.

      Anyway, if you can illuminate your opinions on this piece it would really help people, myself included get a more rounded understanding of what you, your friends, Australians may think of the whole thing. I am aware I have assumed you are Australian. If you are not then don’t worry about my request.

      • seven_tech

        I think, Chris, one of the biggest issues you’ve missed with this has been the politicisation and media tabloid nature of the whole debacle. Howard was unfortunate enough to bare the first of it high profile with the “children overboard” rubbish in early 2000’s.

        Even since then, the media have jumped at “the boat people” like ants on a Mars Bar. And politicians have jumped back at the same rate. It was a problem for Howard, even though, as you say, refugee arrivals were at their lowest when he was voted out. Why? Media hype.

        Do I believe Australia is a racist country? No. Do I believe there are alot of ill-informed or ignorant racist people IN Australia- you better believe it. And ignorance breeds ignorance. On that front, we are no different to any other country. We’ve struggled with integrating Aboriginals back into our society after we, white people, ostracised, abused and removed them from it. That is a shame the whole country has to live with. Same as many countries.

        On your point about only seeing white people on the news….well, sorry Chris, but I’m afraid out of the 23 million of us that live here, only some 575K are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That is, some 2%. That’s both those who are traditional Aboriginals and those who have inter-bred with other ethnicities. So recognising those that are Aboriginal on TV because they’re not “black” would be extremely difficult in many cases. In terms of other ethnicities, such as those of Asian background, there are millions of Asians in Australia and they are represented at many levels, including on television. Again, that includes those who are part Asian also. And again, not seeing them on a news broadcast means very little. Have a look at Home & Away and Neighbours once in a while. There have been many Asian and Aboriginal actors who have appeared on those popular Australian dramas over the years.

        If you’d care to take a train ride out to Western Sydney, some 40-50% of residents out there are of non-Australian (by that I mean traditional white European) background. Ethnic groups tend to clump together. Again, in that sense, we are no different to other countries. That doesn’t mean they are not Australian or that they are shunned. However, some of the middle-eastern countries problems with state and religion have found their way into Australian life- case in point, the Cronulla riots of 2005. It was started by those of middle-eastern background and, unfortunately, drunkeness and more ignorance on the part of the crowd that gathered to protest against the earlier violence is what followed in riots. There are areas in Australia where cultural differences are because of religion and upbringing, not “race”.

        The issue of refugees is a major one for Australia. Not because there are so many of them we’re going to “drown” in them. But because our politicians pander to the media and the media inflate the problem to massive proportions. Those that are ignorant, breed ignorance and make the problem worse. This is a fault of successive governments not using education to ensure people understand who we are as a nation is based on migration, tolerance and ethnicity mixing.

        Are we perfect? Far from it. And could we be doing more to integrate both Aboriginal Australians and non-European Australians into our country? Definitely. But simply calling us racist I think belittles the problems we have and simply relegates us to “too hard to fix” territory. NZ had an easier time. Why? Government made some right, but tough, choices early on to give Maouri people’s financial ownership of traditional land, something successive Australian governments have failed to do. It also helps, that, as a proportion of population, Maouri people’s are are much higher represented group in NZ compared to Aboriginal Australians.

        I am Australian. I’m proud to BE Australian. Does that mean I’m proud of everything Australians do and say? Nope. But I will stand up and say “enough is enough” if those who come here, from other countries, insist I allow them to perform acts, teach children or behave or otherwise act in a way that is contrary to what the Australian way of life is about- freedom to express ones-self, freedom to vote and live in a peaceful manner and freedom to walk down the street and be who you are without being judged for it. There are white Australians who don’t act this way either and they, in my eyes, are just as bad if not worse.

        But simply labelling Australia racist because of a vocal minority of ignorant, poorly raised and (half the time) drunk and/or inflated egotistical groups of people, from ALL cultures, causing problems, is grossly unfair.

      • Christopher Pokarier

        Since my initial reaction to this there have been several subsequent replies that have addressed some of my concerns with the article (but ‘seven tech’ seemed to mistake me as the original author!). Firstly, for the record, I personally have long been very critical of the ugly politics of asylum seekers in Australia. It is not true that – as the author blithely asserts – that arrivals by boat are refugees, as understood under international law, just by virtue of being from Sri Lanka, Iran or Afghanistan. The issues entailed are complex, widely-reported and debated and beyond detailing here. Gwynne’s report also gives the false impression that the Rudd Govt’s recent PNG policy would resettle asylum-seekers there permanently. It does not do that; it is another attempt at ‘offshore processing’ – hardly very nice discourse I know – that houses claimants abroad until claims are processed. The objective of mandatory detention (now abroad), in many ways awful though it is, is to discourage asylum-seekers from paying large sums of money to people-smuggling outfits. Many lives have been lost through sinking vessels this year alone. We should recall that those travelling to Australia by boat have previously flown to Indonesia and entered the country legally with valid travel documents, and then attempt the hazardous sea journey to Australian territory. The issues, and any possible solution, are difficult, and certain regional. The domestic politics has indeed been unpleasant but there are striking parallels in Europe. What dismayed me most about the article though was the crude anecdotalism when the author wrote (not the sub-editor) that “compared to any other English-speaking people Australians (or a great many of them) are openly astoundingly racist”. There is a wealth of comparative empirical data on attitudes to immigration, other nations and cultures that gives no support for such assertions. Some of the toughest attitudes to boat arrivals are to be found amongst other recent migrant groups. Of course pockets of racism and other intolerance exist, in Australian and elsewhere. Yet the very seriousness of a charge of racism in contemporary Australia speaks to the fact that it is anathema to very many people these days. Such sweeping negative generalizations about a diverse national population are neither in keeping with good journalistic nor academic norms of fact-checking and attribution; standards that are also antipathetical to racism. I suspect the author has been saving up a metaphorical gag about Australians, at the bottom of the world, fearing being crushed by people from above and worked back from that. He left us wondering where non-racist Kiwis fit into his theory then.

  • jazz350

    Well said, racism is alive and well in Australia, aborigines are suffering to this day.

  • Simon Ashby

    If you actually look at the OPEC numbers stated by this article, as a function of population, you will see that Australia had the twelfth highest (out of the 34 OPEC nations) asylum seeker ingest per thousand population.

    Just for comparison, Japan, where this newspaper is from, was ranked number 33 out of 34.

    Sure, Australia may have a fair way to go compared to the countries with the highest rate, but we are still accepting more asylum seekers than the majority of OPEC countries.

  • Kath

    I do not support the government’s response to asylum seekers, and many other Australians don’t either. The government is playing on fear to maximise the vote of the many people who see and hear things in the media, and worry what integrating other cultures into ours means for their way of life. And let’s be honest, we have a pretty good way of life in Australia, so it is understandable a lot of people don’t want that disturbed. But that doesn’t make not taking asylum seekers right. Of course we have the capacity to take many more asylum seekers, and should do so. These people should be welcomed to this country and supported integrating.

    I started reading this article nodding my head disappointed with the decision the government has made and acknowledging the extreme problems of resettlement in PNG. However pretty soon it seemed to me the writer was using this information just to criticise Australia. I suggest that the writer of this article is being pretty damn racist himself. How dare he tarnish all Australians with the same brush. This would not be acceptable with any other race, so I call massive hypocrisy. I call on the author to name a country where racism doesn’t exist. Not to mention his racist comments about Russia and China, which he manages to give the impression as being backward. Instead of criticising others for racism I think the writer needs to have a long hard look at himself.

  • Zac

    I don’t quite understand the purpose behind this article. Why pick on Australia?

    Firstly the comparisons are very selective–using alphabetical order simply because it happens to produce a favourable result for the author. If we compare the number of asylum seekers to say the UK where the author is apparently writing from then Australia is receiving about 1.62 times more asylum seekers per capita than the UK.

    If we compare to Japan where I am living and where this article is being republished, Australia receives 36 times more asylum seekers per capita than Japan.

    Secondly, saying “The Australians have convinced themselves that they are drowning in refugees” seems very out of touch. Most Australians are now aware of the false generalizations being passed around by politicians. One of the most shared articles amongst my Australian friends recently was this:


    Please watch that video to see what Australians are really thinking about this situation.

    The characterization of Australians as racist is hypocritical and without any basis other than the author’s impression. Personally I witness more racism in this article than I have seen in any Australian source. Even the term “The Australians” strikes me as judgmental. I have never heard Australians even refer to “foreigners” but my experience is mostly with people from large cities and rural areas likely differ.

    I am certain there is terrible racism in Australia but I am also certain it is no worse and rather much better than any of the other countries I have lived in including several countries in Europe and Asia.

    I really don’t understand the author’s purpose in writing this article other than to feel self-righteous.

  • JTCommentor

    This author clearly has no idea about how politics works, and is seeing only the superficial level.

    As one simple example – in suggesting that the “boat people” issue arose because of Australia’s racism, and that the new “you will not be settled in Australia” policy is the pinnacle of that racism, he is, by extension, casting Kevin Rudd as the #1 racist in Australia. Kevin Rudd, extensively educated on foreign policy, widely published in foreign policy press with thought provoking and excellent articles on the Asian region, former diplomat in Beijing, fluent in Mandarin, father-in-law of a Chinese-Australian and grand father of a half ethnic Chinese – this guy is the #1 racist in Australia?