Friday, November 20, 2009

The Rising Tide

If the global recession was the gift that kept giving, then the asylum seekers represent the problem that just won't go away for PM Kevin Rudd and his government. Having staunchly defended Australia's reputation as a tolerant society in India against the perception there that violent assualts on overseas students from that country were race related, he had to defend his government's policy with respect to asylum seekers back home in Parliament.

The heated debate over asylum seekers is an ongoing saga that has played out this year and one where the hapless Opposition has been able to gain some traction in the opinion polls. The policy being the removal of the temporary protection visas being issued to asylum seekers which was the Howard governments solution to the so-called "boatpeople" phenomenon. The allegation is that the reversal of this policy has resulted in a rising tide of asylum seekers being channelled into Australia by "people smugglers".

We can see from the chart below produced using data compiled by the OECD what the flow of asylum seekers into Australia has been through the years. It clearly shows that the flow during the past few years is no where near the highs that were recorded in 1990-91 and 2000-01 both in absolute terms or as a proportion of the overall intake of OECD countries.

Clair Harvey wrote in the Sunday Telegraph back in October:
A total of 4768 "plane people" - more than 96 per cent of applicants for refugee status - arrived by aircraft in 2008 on legitimate tourist, business and other visas compared with 161 who arrived by boat during the same period [...] And plane people are much less likely than boat people to be genuine refugees, with only about 40-60 per cent granted protection visas, compared with 85-90 per cent of boat people who are found to be genuine refugees. In 2007-08, 3987 claims were received and 1930 of these were approved. But whereas boat people are detained on Christmas Island while their claims are processed, plane people live in the community and they are allowed to work under policy changes introduced by the Rudd government.
When taken together with the numbers of foreign-born workers moving to Australia which have doubled in the last five years as shown in the chart below, one gets a sense of how overblown the issue has become. One also gets a sense of the exploitation for political mileage and media ratings the asylum seeker issue has been subjected to.

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