The plight of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island remains a point of ongoing contention in Australian politics.
Shortly before he resigned as attorney-general, George Brandis appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program, where an audience member put it to him that the Government’s policy of “stopping the boats” was tantamount to murder.
While dismissing the proposition as “ridiculous”, Senator Brandis claimed Australia runs the most generous refugee and humanitarian migration program in the world.
“Australia, per capita, runs the most generous refugee and humanitarian migration program in the world,” Senator Brandis said.
“And the reason the Australian people are willing … to be so generous is they know that it is the Government that decides who comes here and how they come.”
Is Senator Brandis correct? Does Australia, for its population, run the most generous program in the world? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Senator Brandis’s claim is misleading.
Australia’s “offshore” refugee and humanitarian resettlement program — that is, people facing persecution or violence elsewhere who are selected by the Government to come to Australia — is amongthe most generous in per capita terms, although it is currently not the most generous. That title goes to Canada.
In 2016, Australia resettled 27,626 people from elsewhere, a rate per 1,000 of 1.139, compared with 46,702 people resettled in Canada, a rate of 1.286.
However, this represents only a small part of the global response to the problem of displaced people, which according to the United Nations Refugee Agency has risen to an “unprecedented” level.
In addition to “offshore” resettlement, in 2016, 6,567 people arrived in Australia seeking asylum who were recognised as refugees.
Australia’s level of refugee recognition is relatively small compared to other wealthy nations (and also many poorer countries).
In 2016, for example, 443,210 were recognised as refugees in Germany and 532,735 in Uganda.
Sweden and Norway, which both have smaller populations than Australia, recognised 68,090 and 12,147 refugees respectively in 2016.
When figures for refugee recognition at home and resettlement from abroad are combined, Australia slips well down the list in per capita terms.
Assessing the comparative “generosity” of countries goes beyond the numbers.
As some experts pointed out, when making international comparisons it can be problematic to directly equate recognition of refugees at or within a country’s borders with resettlement of refugees from abroad.
In some countries refugee recognition may mean high levels of protection, services and rights; in others it can mean little beyond the most basic, temporary asylum.
When it comes to refugees from offshore, not all the people selected by Australia were on the United Nation’s list of the most vulnerable, with a sizeable proportion selected independently by Australia through its special humanitarian program.
Australia’s refugee and humanitarian migration program
As suggested by Senator Brandis, Australia’s approach is highly controlled, with a predetermined annual intake, offshore processing of boat arrivals and a strong focus on border protection. There are two main components: onshore and offshore.
According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the onshore component “fulfils Australia’s international obligations” by offering protection to people already in Australia deemed by the Australian Government to be refugees according the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
Onshore asylum seekers can either arrive by air or sea. Many of those who arrive by air do so on tourist or student visas, before applying for asylum.
In July 2013, the Rudd government announced that any asylum seekers arriving by boat would not be eligible to live in Australia, but would rather have their asylum claims processed in Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
The department says the offshore component of the program expresses Australia’s commitment to refugee protection by “going beyond” Australia’s international obligations and offering resettlement to people overseas.
“Resettlement” is the term used by the United Nations when referring to people selected from abroad.
There are two subcategories of offshore protection. First, there are those who have been assessed as refugees, having fled their homes fearing persecution or violence.
Most offshore refugees taken in by Australia have been referred by the United Nations Refugee Agency, are highly vulnerable, and are seen as having little hope of returning to their home countries.
Second, there are people admitted under Australia’s Special Humanitarian Program.
These are people seen as facing human rights violations, although they may not have been classified as refugees.
People in this group must be nominated by an Australian permanent resident (for example a family member) or an organisation able to provide support.
UNHCR Senior Resettlement Officer Emad Aziz Sedrak told Fact Check that it was not clear how Australia selected people for resettlements under its Special Humanitarian Program, but stressed that they may not include the “most vulnerable” people from the UNHCR’s perspective.
“For us this would not necessarily be refugees or be the most vulnerable,” Mr Sedrak said.
The number of offshore places each year depends on the number of people granted onshore asylum.
Typically, Australia offers about 13,750 offshore and onshore places combined, although in some years the intake is increased due to special circumstances.
For example, in September 2015, the Government announced an additional 12,000 places for Syrians and Iraqis (visas for all 12,000 places had been granted by March 2017).
Fact Check has made the following graph, using figures published by the department:
Assessing the claim
Fact Check has previously examined a similar claim made by Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer.
In February 2014 Ms O’Dwyer said Australia had “one of the highest per capita intakes in the world … We and Canada generally are either the top one or two per capita who actually take in the most number of refugees … ”
Fact Check concluded that Ms O’Dwyer was incorrect, having included only refugees resettled from elsewhere, not the combined figure that also factors in refugees recognised in Australia and given asylum, either permanently or temporarily.
On the ABC’s Q&A program Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, confronted by an audience member who had almost drowned at sea after fleeing Iran, also defended Australia’s approach, again claiming Australia is among the most generous countries in the world.
“So what we have is one of the most generous humanitarian programs in the world,” Mr Turnbull said.
” … But you know what? We choose them. We decide which refugees come to Australia.”
Senator Brandis was somewhat more precise with his words, referring specifically to the “refugee and humanitarian migration program”.
Fact Check contacted Senator Brandis’s office to ask about the basis for his claim, but did not receive a response.
A fact sheet published by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection identifies “offshore” and “onshore” protection as the two components of the “refugee and humanitarian program”.
In making his claim, Senator Brandis referred to Australia’s “refugee and humanitarian migration program”, which could include both offshore and onshore protection.
Those assessed elsewhere
International comparisons are then possible using figures published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The figures have also been analysed by the Refugee Council of Australia.
In 2014, Ms O’Dwyer’s office told Fact Check her claim was based on the Refugee Council’s figures.
The graph below shows “resettlement arrivals” by receiving countries. As previously mentioned, in 2016, Australia’s resettlement intake was unusually high because of a decision to take in an extra 12,000 people from Syria and Iraq.
Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power said in addition to the one-off commitment to take in 12,000 Syrians and Iraqis, the 2016 figure was higher because of delays in the processing of refugee applications, which led to lower arrivals in 2015.
As can be seen, Australia in 2016 resettled 27,626 people, a rate of 1.139 per 1000 people. In per capita terms, this places Australia second to Canada, which resettled 46,702 people, or 1.286 per 1000.
On this measure, the latest figures suggest Australia is relatively generous, although not currently the most generous.
More to the story – those who seek asylum here
However, the resettlement arrivals from elsewhere represent only part of the global equation.
As the UNHCR points out, an “unprecedented” 65.6 million people have been forced to leave their homes, including nearly 22.5 million refugees worldwide, up from 21.3 million in 2015.
In addition to the 27,626 people resettled in Australia from elsewhere, last year Australia recognised 6,567 people as refugees who arrived “onshore” seeking asylum.
That makes a total of 34,193 people who were offered protection.
Many countries offer tens of thousands of people protection each year by recognising them as refugees upon or after arrival.
For example, Germany resettled only 1,239 refugees from elsewhere in 2016, but recognised 443,210 refugees who applied for protection after arriving.
Sweden, a country of about 10 million people, resettled 1,890 people, but recognised 68,090 asylum seekers applying for asylum.
The following table adds refugee recognition to the equation.
As can be seen in the table, Australia resettled and recognised 34,193 people in 2016, a rate of 1.41 per 1000.
This places Australia well down the list, behind other wealthy countries such as Sweden, Germany, Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Canada and Belgium in per capita terms.
Equating recognition of refugees at or within a country’s borders with resettlement of refugees from abroad can be problematic, as some experts noted.
Some countries in which refugees are recognised, for example Sweden and Norway, offer high levels of protection, rights and access to services, while others, for example Malaysia, adopt an ad hoc approach, and can afford some groups of refugees few rights or services.
There is also a question about permanency, with some refugees, including in Australia, offered only temporary protection.
As far as Fact Check is aware, there is no data with which to accurately compare the ultimate outcome for refugees after they are recognised as such.
The Refugee Council’s Mr Power said it could be difficult to accurately disentangle what refugee recognition meant for people.
This makes it difficult to reach a definitive ordinal conclusion about Australia’s global ranking.
What is clear, however, is that generosity goes beyond the process of resettling people selected from elsewhere.
Many other countries provide high levels of protection to tens of thousands of people deemed to be refugees after arriving seeking asylum.
The UNHCR’s Mr Sedrak said while it could be difficult to compare all countries on the basis of refugee recognition, many countries, particularly in Europe, offered asylum seekers who applied for protection after arriving a new life in a way that was comparable to Australia’s offshore resettlement program.
“We just need to look at Sweden and Germany,” he said.
“I don’t think they would provide much less standards than Australia in general.”
What the experts say
Mr Sedrak said globally the number of refugees had risen to an unprecedented 22.5 million, a level not reached since the Second World War.
He said 84 per cent were being hosted in low and middle-income countries.
“Resettlement is just one part, one actually small part, of responsibility sharing towards hosting refugees,” Mr Sedrak said.
“We always say resettlement should not be at the expense of … access to asylum.
“I think if you want to look at contribution to refugee hosting … in my view you would have to look at two things: you would have to look at asylum data … and the other one which is of course smaller in number compared the first one is the resettlement and what you may call humanitarian program admission.”
Paris Aristotle, a member of the 2012 Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers who is currently the Chair of the Settlement Services Advisory Council and the Minister’s Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention, said the statistics were open to manipulation on both sides of the argument.
“Europe has a very small [resettlement program], but they have a lot more asylum seekers,” Mr Aristotle said.
“People will say ‘but Europe has thousands and thousands more asylum seekers each year, and we don’t count that’. That is true but not all of those thousands and thousands are ultimately approved either. That gets left out of the conversation.
“So it is really difficult to be accurate about it because people aren’t comparing apples with apples a lot of the time. It get gets complex and depending on who is trying to make the case and from what perspective, they are selective.”
Monash University Professor Andrew Markus, a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and a expert on immigration, said in terms of housing displaced populations, asylum seekers and refugees, Australia was “not in the ball game”.
But he said his should not be confused with resettlement, and often refugee recognition meant only temporary protection, as opposed to resettlement, which provides strong ongoing support.
“While you might argue with Brandis about the exact ranking of Australia it is definitely true that in international terms Australia does generously in resettlement,” he said.
“If you come to Australia on the humanitarian program that means you are permanent. That means that on arrival you get assistance, you get a high level of support in the initial period that you are in the country, full access to welfare and so on. So at the end the day I think that the claim can be made and justified that Australia actually does well.”