Boat people "are not people fleeing persecution ... they are coming here as economic migrants".
Bob Carr on Wednesday, June 26, 2013 in ABC Lateline interview with Tony Jones
Are boat people 'economic migrants'?
As the Labor government changed captains this week, it signalled also a harder line on asylum seekers coming by boat – a line which seeks to match speed with the Coalition’s Stop the Boats campaign.
Soon after Kevin Rudd took over from Julia Gillard, the Foreign Minister Bob Carr said those coming to Australia by boat are not fleeing persecution but are "economic migrants".
His remarks seemed to get traction with Rudd, who told a Canberra news conference Friday that "a whole bunch of people who seek to come to this country are economic migrants, who are seeking to comport themselves as refugees".
Others were genuine refugees, said Rudd, and it took the "wisdom of Solomon" for the immigration system and the Refugee Review Tribunal to distinguish between the two groups. "It’s a hard business. But you would have to be deluding yourself if you thought that there weren’t a bunch of people who are seeking to come to this country for purely economic reasons," said Rudd.
Carr declared the nature of the problem changed. These migrants are being brought here by people smugglers as part of a criminal commercial operation. Tougher assessments were needed in determining their status, he said.
Of course, many who’ve arrived already have been officially found to need protection and many are in the process of having their asylum claims determined.
Can the system be toughened, as Carr says? Isn’t the treatment of refugees determined by international conventions?
Carr made the comments on the ABC’s Lateline program to Tony Jones who asked: "If they are economic migrants, why do 9 out of 10 of them pretty much get accepted as genuine refugees. Are you saying we've got that wrong?"
Carr replied: "Yes, we have reached the view that as a result of court and tribunal decisions it’s coming up wrong. We need a tougher more hard-edged assessment on asylum seekers.
"They are not people fleeing persecution. They are coming from majority religious or ethnic groups in the countries they're fleeing, they are coming here as economic migrants."
PolitiFact Australia recognises that not all political statements can be fact-checked, especially those of opinion. However, parts of what Carr says stand out: "They are not people fleeing persecution", "they are coming here as economic migrants", "they are coming from majority religious or ethnic groups".
From June 2007 to the end of March this year, 14,447 protection visas were issued to those arriving by boat.
About double that number applied over the same time. However, the lag between applying and deciding can be many months, even years.
Are these people, more than 14,000 of them, now to be considered "economic migrants" rather than refugees?
Professor Mary Crock, a specialist in immigration law at at the University of Sydney, says it is incorrect to label them as economic migrants.
"How do you know where they're coming from if since August 2012 we have not been determining them?" she says.
"Bob Carr says they are economic migrants. Says who? If they've not had their cases assessed we don't know."
Australia considers the claims of asylum seekers under the Migration Act 1958 and the Migration Regulations 1994. Decisions on status can be reviewed by the Refugee Review Tribunal.
Australia provides protection to those who meet the United Nations definition of a refugee under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (Refugees Convention).
This convention defines as a refugee someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
"Just because he (Carr) doesn't like what the courts and tribunals are saying does not mean they got it wrong," says Crock.
"There's an international standard which determines refugees status and that's what Australia has been adhering to."
The Problem with the 1951 Refugee Convention, a research paper by the Parliamentary Library in Canberra, says: "The convention has fostered simplistic and unfortunate characterisations of asylum seekers as either political and thus 'genuine' and deserving, or economic and thus 'abusive' and undeserving."
Debate is based on the assumption that clear-cut distinctions exist between ‘genuine’ refugees and ‘economic’ refugees.
The reports says: "Most asylum seekers however come from countries where economic failure and political instability and persecution and poverty are inextricably mixed."
In May alone this year, 3351 people arrived by boat. This is more than came in all of 2009.
Carr says: "There is an unsustainable spike in their numbers. It is not the old days where the numbers were so few a person with noble instincts could say let them just slide into the population."
The Refugee Council of Australia: "It is incorrect to say that all asylum seekers arriving by boat belong to 'majority religious or ethnic groups' in their country of origin."
And Lucy Morgan, information and policy officer at the council, says a person belonging to the "majority religious or ethnic groups" could still be at risk of persecution.
The majority of asylum seekers arriving by boat have been determined to be refugees. Department of Immigration statistics show that, on average, almost 90 per cent of asylum seekers were found to be refugees in 2012-13.
Carr's office did not respond to our inquiries.
Carr’s all-embracing "these are not people fleeing persecution" is not backed by fact. Since 2007, Australia has determined that more than 14,000 have done exactly that – fled persecution.
And since 2012, asylum seekers arriving by boat have not been assessed for refugee status so there is no way of knowing. Carr’s statement that they are "coming here as economic migrants" also doesn’t match with the reality of Australia having regularly formally granted protection visas to many who arrive by boat. And we are not assessing those who have arrived since August 2012.
We rate this Mostly False.
Published: Friday, June 28, 2013 at 4:11 p.m.
Bob Carr, ABC Lateline interview with Tony Jones, June 26
Asylum statistics—Australia, Quarterly tables, Department of Immigration, March Quarter 2013
The Problem with the 1951 Refugee Convention, September 2000
Australian Government assistance to refugees: fact v fiction, September 28, 2012
Phone interview with Mary Crock, Professor of Law at the University of Sydney
Email exchange with Refugee Council of Australia
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