Why is the problem of asylum seekers an issue in Australia?

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13PROBLEM OF ASYLUM SEEKERS

Why is the problem of asylum seekers an issue in Australia?

Introduction

The intricacy of the issues that arise from the inflow of asylum seekers presages significant challenges to Australia, which is a major destination country for asylum seekers and refugees. Australia has, since 1945, after the Second World War, been struggling to find a balance between securing its national borders and providing protection to thousands of displaced population from other countries. In the face of the long‐term commitment to hosting asylum seekers and refugees, there is an ongoing confusion and propaganda that prevail in public, as well as scholarly debate regarding the implications of asylum seekers in Australia (Parker, 2015). Scholarly researchers have distinguished two variants of perceived threat: realistic and abstract threat (Phillip, 2012). Realistic threat relates to fears that asylum seekers would ultimately threaten the Australians cordial existence, physical and mental wellbeing, economic power, as well as political power (Schweitzer et al., 2005). On the other hand, abstract threat relates to the assumption that asylum seekers would ultimately threaten Australian’s national identity, cultures, and values. The two threats are sources of ongoing debates regarding the legitimacy of asylum seekers in Australia, which will definitely determine their future in the country.

Australia’s policies on asylum seekers has been criticised by different stakeholders, including the Human Rights Watch, for being abusive, as well as principally rooted in abstract threat, and called for a review of the policies (Wroe, 2016). This paper examines why the issue of asylum seekers is considered a problem in Australia. An underlying argument is that asylum seekers are perceived to be a problem to Australia, leading to negative social attitudes towards them. This has in turn influenced policymaking in the country in respect to how the asylum seekers can access resources, certain rights and privilege, and support from the government.

Divergence of opinion in defining ‘asylum seekers’ within Australian context

Australia appears to be facing confusion regarding the legal status of asylum seekers. The issue that asylum seekers who enter Australia via boats are not genuine refugees is an ongoing theme in scholarly debate, particularly in Australia. The illegal entry into Australia is usually perceived to be proof that asylum seekers’ claims to seek protection in a host country are unmerited. The United Nations, to which Australia is a member state, considers an asylum seeker to be an individual who has departed from his country of origin and has made a formal application to live in a host country, while still waiting for his or her claims to be verified and an application to live in the host country to be considered (Refugee Council, 2016). The ‘1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees’ further describes an asylum seeker as an individual who seeks protection in the status of a refugee in a foreign country, yet still waiting for his claims to be verified.

On the other hand, the Convention defines a refugee as an individual, who on account of a well-founded fear of maltreatment or persecution on account of religion, political opinion, race, or nationality, is outside a country of origin and is incapable, as a result of fear, of staying in that country because of safety concerns. The Australian Government applies the definition to determine if it is obligated to provide protection to an asylum seeker. When an asylum seeker is determined to be a refugee, the Australian government considers that it is obligated to provide protection under international law and to make sure that the individuals are not forcefully sent to a country where they run the risk of persecution (Refugee Council, 2009).

In general, ‘illegal immigrants’ are considered individuals entering a country yet do not meet the permissible entry requirements, including having a valid visa. Despite this, Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration Of Human Rights (UDHR) stipulates that all persons, in spite of their country of origin, are provided with a right to seek asylum when their lives or freedoms are at risk. However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) clarifies that the individual should have a verifiable fear of being singled out for persecution, and that such a person should be considered to be “a refugee’ rather than an ‘illegal immigrant.’

However, under the Australian immigration law, asylum seekers, their mode of arrival notwithstanding, are categorised as ‘unlawful non‐citizens.’ This assumption is used to single out unauthorised individuals who arrive by boats in Australian waters, before being transferred to Christmas Island where their reasons for seeking entry into Australia are assessed. On the other hand, Europe, applies the term ‘illegal immigrant’ to refer to visa over-stayers or individuals who are in breach of the conditions of their visa. There is an ongoing concern that asylum seekers face major barriers to settlement and mental wellbeing (Haw, 2015). Indeed, it is such concerns that have intensified criticism on Australia’s treatment of refugees. According to Haw (2015), asylum seekers face social exclusion because of the mandatory detention.

It is widely acknowledged that the experience that asylum seekers undergo in the detention camps cause significant mental disorders, a situation that is aggravated by the mental stresses associated with separation from their families (Robjant et al., 2009; Mann & Fazil, 2006). Studies have indicated that after they leave the detention camps, the asylum seekers’ mental and physical health continue to deteriorate, including the instance of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Australian Medical Association, 2015). However, the federal government has maintained its stance that mandatory detention of the asylum seekers is justified, and that such policies are beneficial to Australia on grounds that asylum seekers who arrive by boats are not legitimate refugees (McHugh-Dillon, 2015).

Unfair consumption of public resources

Asylum seekers are considered as unfairly consuming resources intended for deserving Australians. There are claims in scholarly literature that asylum seekers unfairly consume resources intended for the justified Australians (Pedersen et al., 2005). A study by Foundation House (2015) shows that a majority of Australians viewed tend to unjustly consume resources and services that has to be reserved for deserving needy or deserving Australians. At the same time, 41.7 percent of individuals surveyed in a research by Pedersen et al. (2005) found that asylum seekers are provided with a range of ‘government handouts’. This perception is linked to the concerns that asylum seekers are not necessary legitimate refugees (McHugh-Dillon, 2015). The idea that asylum seekers have a potential of draining on the economy and welfare system of Australia, was also discussed by Phillip (2011), where it was established that a majority of participants were concerned that asylum seekers portended economic problems for a country.

Despite this, it is significant to observe that such threats are perceived to be a concern regarding fairness. According to Phillip (2011), when asylum seekers come to Australia, they are provided with greater number of benefits compared to aged pensioners who pay their taxes for their working life in the country. There has been an ongoing debate whether asylum seeker actually receive higher benefits compared to the Australians who are ‘legitimately’ entitled to social security. However, Phillips (2011) argues that the claims are not true, and instead, the asylum seekers are also entitled to the benefits. However, many authors appear to disagree with Phillips (2011). According to Corbett et al. (2014), as the asylum seekers do not pay taxes, they rely on the government’s aid, as well as other interested parties, like the Australian Red Cross. On the other hand, many other individuals in Australia, such as the populations in Port Augusta, are poor to afford their basic needs, including medical services, food, clothing, and shelter. It is based on this background that Phillip (2011) had earlier argued that when the deserving residents see the illegal immigrants being provided with basic needs for free, they find fault with the government.

Taking away jobs and introducing diseases

There is also an ongoing discernment that asylum seekers would ultimately compete with the deserving Australians for employments in the country. It is also feared that they would drain the country’s public resources, as well as bring violence, crimes and social problems (Phillips, 2011). According to Doherty (2015), there is a popular opinion among the members of the public, as well as democratically elected governments that the influx of asylum seekers in Australia could ultimately lead to the country to unstable political situation by increasing the rate of joblessness in Australia or introducing new diseases in the country. A popular concern regarding the issue of introduction of diseases, and unemployment has instigated need for Australian policies that demand that asylum seekers become segregated in remote detention centres (Tsiolkas, 2014).

The concerns that refugees are likely to take away jobs from the Australian citizens have led to a public debate requiring policies that restrict the refugees from having an option to work (Doherty, 2015). In yet another review, Hartley and Pedersen (2015) examined the Australian social policies that restrict the asylum seekers certain rights in the country, including the right to free movement. For example, asylum seekers in Australia who have no valid visa are subjected to mandatory detention until their protection claims are verified. What this shows is that the social attitudes towards the asylum seeker in a democratic state like Australia affect the policymaking as regards the asylum seekers’ access to resources, rights and support from the host country (Corlet, 2000).

Erosion of Australian cultures and values

Asylum seekers are also considered a threat to Australia’s national identity, values, and cultures. Some commentators have also argued that asylum seekers’ beliefs and cultures are a threat to Australia’s values and singled out Islamic faith to be the key source of threat (Crawley, 2010). The idea that Islam is a threat is largely an ‘abstract’ threat, as the perceived detriment to Australia’s national identity and values. In a study by McKay et al. (2012), a majority of research participants revealed they had become more afraid as a result of the influx of Muslim asylum seekers, and that they were incapable of integrating. McKay et al. (2012) further states that Muslim asylum seekers were found to be unwilling to adjust from their traditions, customs, and dress codes, as well as unwilling to follow Australian cultures and values. Basing on his findings, McKay et al. (2012) concluded that a majority of Australians were, therefore, likely to view the Muslim asylum seekers, as lacking respect for Australia, as a host country, by appearing as determined to enforce their cultures and religion on Australia.

These findings are consistent with findings of later study on the attitudes of Australians towards Muslim asylum seekers by Kneebone et al. (2014), where it was established that there exists a high level of hostility towards Muslim asylum seekers. Studies have also established that a large number of Australians subscribe to a popular and myth that Muslims are determined to make Australia an Islamic state. Such sentiments have been met with opposition, and animosity towards the asylum seekers as portending huge problems to Australia (Parker, 2015). In another report by Scanlon, which was published in 2014, it was established that although the Australian community’s attitudes towards migration has become positive during the recent past, there was still a hostility attitudes towards the Muslim asylum seekers because of fears of cultural erosion and the fact that they seek to enter Australia using illegitimate channels. McKay et al. (2012) concluded that there is a widespread prejudice towards asylum seekers. Suhnan and Pedersen (2012) clarified that widespread prejudice towards asylum seekers is due to the fears that the residents are at risk of losing their identity.

Asylum seekers are associated with terrorism

Asylum seekers are associated with terrorism. On the other hand, terrorism is considered a threat to the country’s physical safety, as well as the community’s infrastructure, yet it is also viewed to be a threat to the country’s democracy (Phillips, 2011; Suhnan & Pedersen, 2012). According to Phillip (2011), while some commentators have argued that Islam tends to be associated with terrorism, others have also expressed that the Islamic faith is not compatible with Australia’s values and customs.

Asylum seekers are also associated with terrorism. According to May (2011), there is an intense social pressures in Australia, which escalated after the 9/11, which has been aggravated the media’s trending hostility towards asylum seekers by associating them with terrorism. May (2011) also cite a study that was conducted in Port Augusta, which showed that 40% of the participants viewed asylum seekers as ‘terrorists.’ May (2011) considers that while such perceptions may not exactly reflect the reality, the negative perception of Islam in Australian negatively affects the Australian’s perception of asylum seekers, a majority who are Muslims, as they are likely to be viewed as being violent. Indeed, another survey of the asylum seekers in Australia revealed that they did not feel secure in locations where the media portrayed them as terrorists (Vicsek et al., 2008).

Some commentators, like Wroe (2016), who examined the state of Australian Islamophobia, also concluded that the fears of terrorism in addition to mass inflow of asylum seekers appear to be influencing Australia to overlook human rights protections, and to in turn confine the asylum seekers in remote detention centres. Phillips (2011) also examined the Australian attitudes towards asylum seekers and concluded that the asylum seekers are usually associated with fears of terrorism, and particularly ‘Islamic terrorism.’ In an earlier study by Pedersen et al. (2007), the research surveyed 653 West and established that 51% of those surveyed had dissenting attitudes towards asylum seekers, while 25% had fears of terrorism. What this shows is that terrorism is a ‘realistic’ threat, as it is considered to be threatening the country’s physical safety, as well as the community’s infrastructure, yet it is also viewed to be a threat to the country’s as democracy.

Conclusion

As established, asylum seekers are generally considered a problem in Australia. This has contributed to negative social attitudes towards the asylum seeker, which have in turn affect the policies in the country that deal with how asylum seekers access resources, rights and support from the government. The reason asylum seekers is a problem is compounded by the fact that Australia appears to be facing confusion regarding the legal status of asylum seekers. The illegal entry into Australia is generally perceived to be proof that asylum seekers’ claims to seek protection in a host country are unmerited. Asylum seekers also unfairly consume resources intended for deserving Australians. Additionally, asylum seekers unfairly consume resources that are intended for the deserving Australians. There is also an ongoing discernment that asylum seekers would ultimately compete with the deserving Australians for employments in the country. They are also considered a threat to Australia’s national identity, values, and cultures. Lastly, asylum seekers are associated with terrorism, which is considered a threat to the country’s physical safety as well as the community’s infrastructure, yet it is also viewed to be a threat to the country’s as democracy. Overall, these issues have made the government to come up with policies that single out asylum seekers for detention in centres like Christmas Island, until their protection claims are verified.

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