Is Australia taking its fair share of asylum-seekers?

In Crikey this week, Bernard Keane made the point that Australia accepts a disproportionately small number of asylum-seekers given our population size. So, where exactly do we rank in the world in terms of generosity towards displaced persons? The United Nations Refugee Agency provides a wide range of statistics about refugees and asylum-seekers. The latest monthly data gives the number of asylum-seeker applications by country for 2009 up to and including August. The chart below shows a ranking of the 44 countries who reported accepting asylum-seekers over this period. Australia finds itself well down the list in 20th place. Mind you, the United States ranks a few spots behind us and, despite having a better reputation when it comes to taking refugees, New Zealand is even further behind. Malta is by far the most welcoming country for refugees.

Asylum-seekers per capita

So, how many more asylum-seekers should we be taking to be accepting our fair share? Keane approaches the question by considering the relative size of our population to the population of the world. However, there are many countries that are a source of refugees that could not realistically accept asylum-seekers. So, instead the baseline should be an equal share of asylum-seekers based on the relative size of a country’s population to the combined population of the 44 countries who have been taking asylum-seekers (a total of 1.14 billion).

The magic number, shown as a grey line in the chart, is 197 asylum-seekers per million population. This means that Australia’s fair share for 2009 to August should be 4,197 rather than the 3,666 we have taken so far. So, we could easily accept the 255 Sri Lankan boat people currently seeking asylum in Australia, and still have room for more. Mind you, Australia only just falls below the average rate, ranking just behind Germany which takes in slightly more asylum-seekers than average.

For anyone wishing to explore this data further, I have uploaded it to Swivel. It also includes data on asylum-seeker intake per billion US dollars of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Population and GDP data is taken from the CIA World Fact Book. Here is a chart of rankings by GDP.

UPDATE: New and easier to read charts have now been posted here: A better view of the asylum-seeker league tables.

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17 thoughts on “Is Australia taking its fair share of asylum-seekers?

  1. taxpayer

    The only reason Asylum Seekers want Australia is the wonderful pensions and benefits they get. They will get public housing, Centrelink Pensions,
    free hospital and medical and top priority if they want hospital treatment,
    free school and education for their children as they will say they have no money for schools and books etc. They will also say they are unable to afford school uniforms and they will be provided. If they need ahospital bed other people will be tossed out just as it happened when they blew up their boat.

  2. Damien

    Could we please kick “taxpayer” out of Australia and replace them with an asylum seeker.

    Thank you.

  3. stubbornmule Post author

    taxpayer: The idea that asylum-seekers are drawn to Australia by the prospect of free school uniforms is ludicrous. When asylum-seekers first arrive in a country of refuge, they have next to nothing with them: no home, very few possessions. So, of course they will require welfare assistance to begin the process of rebuilding their lives. But, given the determination shown in embarking on their perilous flight in the first place, if anything I would expect asylum-seekers to be extremely motivated to find work and rebuild their lives financially and psychologically. In the process, they are adding to the wealth of their new-found country.

    In a recent piece in the SMH, Adele Horin made a solid case against the re-introduction of Temporary Protection Visas, a policy of the previous government which was designed to appeal the misguided views of people like “taxpayer” here and in the process extended the torture of refugees by preventing them from getting on with rebuilding their lives. It’s worth a read and I hope that the Rudd government never decides to succumb to tactics like TPVs.

  4. Danny Yee

    I haven’t seen this quantified anywhere, but what I’ve read suggests that “boat people” are exceptionally well-motivated to achieve and succeed, and prepared to both work hard and take risks to do that. (It would be interesting to see figures on how Vietnamese boat people of the 1970s and their children have done.)

    If anything the ordeal these people go through and the hurdles they have to overcome are a much tougher pre-selection than anything imposed by our skilled migrants program. The psychological trauma can’t be good, especially for children, but locking them up is hardly going to help there.

    The whole idea that most refugees are “economic” is frankly wrong. Java has a hundred million people and poverty on a massive scale, but how many Javanese hop onto boats and try to cross the Timor Sea? Almost none, and that’s because the cultural and social barriers to relocation are so high (contrast with Kiwis crossing the Tasman) and Java hasn’t experienced the kind of civil wars that break up communities and create refugees. (Yes, I know about the massacres of 1965/66, but they didn’t last long and a centralised state soon imposed order.)

  5. JamesGlover

    I agree with Danny Yee’s comments. A data driven post on the children of Vietnamese refugees would be very informative at this time. I suspect on the dimensions of education, tax paid and health they are way ahead of the norms. I am old enough to remember a similar racist panic to what is going on about Afghans and Sri Lankans when there was an influx of Vietnamese refugees in the 70s. Fortunately my mother was a teacher at a school where refugees initially enrolled (Swanbourne in Perth) and her description of them as hardworking and polite was at odds with the nightly commercial news where they were portrayed as a bunch of cutthroat, ne’er do wells out to fleece the hardworking (sic) Aussie taxpayer.

  6. Sam

    The average waiting time in a UN detention center is about ten years worldwide. Australia does spend money to speed up this process and shorten the timelength for people who apply for asylum in Indonesia.
    We accepted 13 500 UN asylum seekers last year. . All of those people have experienced what the boat people have…should they have to wait longer?
    The majority of those 13 500 asylum seekers…UN refugees, arrived last year in Australia unnoticed amongst the 178 000 imigrants without the media attention or commentary the boatpeople situation has garnered. No..there hasn’t been any panic…we take in similar numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers/refugees every single year. It is quite normal.

    When people compare the numbers of asylum seekers taken by a country…they look at numbers…80 000 in the U.S but 0.01 of the population. Australia takes in a rate of 0.04 of the population/similar to Germany in ratio…but for Germany that is 35 000 yearly. Australia…per head…we do more than the U.S. But 10 000 compared to 80 000 looks soooo small. And there are millions waiting in camps and centres.

    25% of our population has a migrant parent. 13% of the UK has a migrant parent. 12% in the U.S . We’re open a lot more in terms of migration. It’s a hot political issue here…because of politics. The opposition, whichever party, says we’re not doing enough or they’re doing it wrong. It gets them votes. Lots of empathy around. But it gives us a skewed media picture of Australia as hostile to asylum seekers and migrants. If we compare internationally…not true.

    We’re also softer in terms of living conditions provided than France that takes in the majority of them. Ours on Christmas Island get a small amount less than the $480 Newstart Allowance…compare that to $1 a day UK…Google Malta assylum seekers to find out why the numbers are up in qualifiers over the last 6 months. The problem is immense…the numbers are huge. Riots…ghetto camps…google the international problem.

    Not as many women and children on the boats as there are men…….surely there are many more women and children who are desperate and need asylum. The most disempowered and disenfranchised are affected by people smuggling and queue jumping.

    $15 000 to travel to Australia…montly wage of the teacher on the boat…$108-$135US… Who/what organisation may have helped them pay? What do they owe them as a result? What will that money fund that they send back home from here? Perhaps not…but it does happen. Skills with explosives and preparation…they threatened to blow up their ship …from a country where massacres, suicide hits, child soldiers and such are the landscape of war. Should we ask a few questions first? Most asylum seekers are genuine and do get approved for refugee status…but not all of them…and some may have complex circumstances.

    Mate they are not getting off that boat, cause they know the drill…10 years in a detention center. They can’t work or get an education in the Malaysian detention centers.There is no medical care. They had the opportunity to get into one on their way here and start the UN process. Life in Sri Lanka is bad…but why live in a detention camp….if they can have better than that elsewhere? Malaysia happens to be a pipeline country for people smuggling, they took that route. They risked the odds. The smugglers win either way.

    As bad as detention centers and the wait are and the horrific experiences people have had which forced them to seek asylum…the UN process exists for a reason. If we increase our numbers of asylum seekers there are plenty of UN qualifiers. We could take 60 000 of them and more in the space it would take to blink. The boat people are only a small selection of people of millions who are desperate for help. No doubt we will continue to increase the numbers of asylum seekers that we take and we should aim to take people through a fair process and asylum seekers should get that.

  7. stubbornmule Post author

    Sam: You are certainly correct in saying that Malta is finding its high intake of asylum-seekers very challenging and this is all the more reason for larger, richer countries to take more. There is an interesting quotation in this article about treatment of asylum-seekers in Malta:

    Malta currently keeps those seeking asylum in detention for 18 months. UN guidelines state clearly that asylum seekers should not be detained except in very specific circumstances, and children should not be detained at all.

    Although conditions in Australian detention centres may be better than in Malta or Malaysia, the policy of using detention centres at all should really be re-examined.

  8. Pingback: A Better View of the Asylum-Seeker League Tables | Stubborn Mule

  9. Micksky

    Why is our illegal immigrant focus only on those who arrive by boat? What about the far more numerous, and far less needy, and far more indulged, plane people?

    Oh that’s right, they’re white and middle class….. what about them Mr Taxpayer?

  10. David Ready

    Please do a graph of the number of homeless on any one night in Australia, overlaid with hospital waiting lists, and the Public Housing waiting lists in each State. A special line with the number of women and thier children living in cars would be a bonus.

  11. colleen

    The comparison is unfair. Australia has land space but not enough water for a huge population. We don’t have enough taxpayers to support comparable sized programs as what more populated countries can afford to take in. We are too often compared with countries that take refugees because they can’t stop it and they also don’t pay money to support the refugees, as in developing countries. Amongst developed countries which support the refugees they take in, we compare well, only beaten by Canada for how many we re-settle per capita of our small population.

  12. Stubborn Mule Post author

    This comparison is based on population not area, so there is no suggestion that Australia’s large area could support a larger numbers. Also, the fact that it’s based on population effectively adjusts for the different sizes of each country’s tax base.

  13. Zebra

    Colleen, it might be true that initially asylum seekers require a contribution from existing tax payers to get on their feet however they will immediately become consumers and add to demand, and eventually productive economic units and add to the economy and increase GDP. This is an old furphy that immigrants are “taking our jobs”. This might be true in times of high unemployment but Australia has plenty of employment opportunities for immigrants, even ones, such as asylum seekers, who have not been admitted on the basis of their skills but humanitarian grounds. Both the US and Australia have benefited historically from large scale unskilled immigration.

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