Photos courtesy of Australia for UNHCR

Since 2001, the number of refugees, asylum seekers and people displaced by conflict has risen globally from 19.8 million to 45.2 million.

We’re in the middle of a refugee crisis.

About a third of Asylum Seekers end up in the Asia-Pacific region, among countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia that practically criminalize them, they are left with nowhere to run. Except Australia– a country with greater means and space that is attempting to refuse them also. All this “do unto thy neighbor which thou would not have him do to thee” business, do we really believe it? The issue of asylum seekers is a major political platform in Australia, equivalent to the issue of immigration in the US.

This subject is hotly debated via political platforms, with the newly elected Abbott government attempting measures to have all boats of asylum seekers turned around and held in squalid off-shore detention centers in Indonesia, Papua new Guinea and Nauru. Watch the viral video here about the Liberal Party candidate that ignorantly blamestraffic jams on Asylum Seekers.

Let’s clear up a few terms. An Asylum Seeker is a person who physically flees from one country to another due to some sort of legitimate threat upon their life. A refugee, however, is a person who applied for protection in another country based on a threat upon their lives, and had that protection granted.

Australia is one of a handful of countries acting as a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, meaning that they agreed by law to protect all legitimate refugees that turn up at their door, or in Australia’s case, shore. Our problem comes from the belief that Australia is not upholding its share of this agreement.

As you’d suspect, being a first world country located smack dab in the middle of the still-developing region, Australia is the dream of many Asian and Middle Eastern asylum seekers, yet it is known for taking very few relative to its capacity.

In 2010 Pakistan accepted 1,740,711 refugees. Iran accepted 1,070,488. Syria accepted 1,054,466. Germany accepted 593,799.

Australia accepted 13, 790.

With these poor countries taking on the greatest share of burden, certain questions need to be asked. Why shouldn’t Australia want to help people in need?

Largely, it breaks down to perception… refugees are a demonized group in Australia. Myths surround with false ideas that asylum seekers are stealing Australian jobs, are entering the country illegally, or don’t contribute or acclimate properly. These accusations are widely unfounded, not unlike issues of migration in the US. Indeed, asylum seekers often take jobs Australians do not want, are all legal entrants according to the UN Refugee Convention, and acclimate just as well as anyone else when they are welcomed. Indeed, Australia cannot even claim being overcrowded, being approximately the same size as the US with 13 times smaller of a population.

In reality, I would argue that the perception problem with asylum seekers goes a little deeper than just rumors. The burden of asylum seekers is that they ruin what is left of the white Australian dream. My informal survey of Australians, including those from my work at Australia for the UN refugee agency has made it clear that open-minded individuals agree with this assumption. Although a once majority white-ruled country in its colonial days, this has not been true since. Migrants from all over the world and especially parts of Asia have become citizens ever since the end of the White Australia policy in the 1970s. Asylum seekers come from “unsavory” countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Vietnam, Sudan, and DR Congo to name a few. Countries that do not support this archaic dream. Author and activist Christos Tsiolkas argues that “the reality is that there isn’t ‘one nation’ that makes up Australia, only competing notions of ‘nationhood’.”

UNHCR_Sokol_Zaatari_Winterization_08 (2)

So where do we go from here?

The Australian government thinks that ever more punitive and inhumane methods are needed to deter people from coming by boat. Asylum seekers believe that boarding a boat to Australia is a way out of the daily misery of living on the run from the authorities.

The solution needs to start with the root of the problem- perception. Negative attitudes among the public need to change enough that policy is forced to bend with it. Myths need to be busted widely to open to floodgates. Along with the realization that we are all one people, all just humans. The realization that those who are fleeing for their lives should not be persecuted within ‘safety’.

Share the knowledge. Or support those that do. Groups like the UNHCR or the Asylum Seeker Resource Center work toward these means. You should, too.

Here are some of the resources I used to help me write this post!

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