Refugees seeking hope in sunburnt country find hollow ring to anthem

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2003, 12:00am

Australia is the only nation requiring mandatory detention

Australians have never really warmed to their national anthem but for asylum-seekers hoping to forge a new life in the country, it has a particularly hollow ring.

'For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share,' boasts the second verse of Advance Australia Fair. Tell that to the 1,309 'unauthorised arrivals' behind barbed wire in Australia's detention centres, or to the 14 Kurdish asylum-seekers who turned up on remote Melville island last month, only to be sent back to Indonesia.

When Advance Australia Fair was written in the 19th century, Australians were looking to share their 'boundless plains' not with Iraqi or Afghani refugees but with immigrants from Britain - or 'England, Scotia [and] Erin's Isle', in the anthem's rather flowery words.

Times have changed. While migration from Britain has slowed to a trickle, Australia confronts a world flooded with an estimated 20 million refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Four years ago, the arrival of a handful of leaky Indonesian fishing boats carrying bedraggled groups of asylum-seekers set the alarm bells ringing in Australia.

Since then one of the harshest regimes has been formulated to deal with refugees. Australia is the only country which practises mandatory detention for refugees arriving without valid documentation - locking up 'illegals' in refugee camps, sometimes for years.

This policy enjoys broad public support and helped Prime Minister John Howard win a third term at the federal election in November 2001. Many Australians believe that their northern coast is in danger of being inundated with refugees unless strict controls are applied.

But Australia takes a tiny number of asylum-seekers compared with most countries. Between 2000 and 2001, just more than 1,500 refugees reached Australia by boat or plane. Contrast that with the 382,000 who applied for asylum in the EU last year, or the 2.3 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan at the start of this year.

On a per-capita basis, Australia has one refugee per 1,200 citizens, compared with a ratio of 1:2 in the Gaza Strip, 1:3 for Jordan and the West Bank and 1:11 for Lebanon.

Australia also compares unfavourably with other developed countries such as Germany (1:456) and Canada (1:566), according to the US Committee for Refugees, an independent advocacy group.

'The degree of hysteria and alarm is not borne out by the numbers coming here,' said Melissa Phillips, acting director of the Refugee Council of Australia.

To its credit, Australia has accepted 600,000 refugees fleeing persecution since the 1950s, and more than 100,000 in the past decade. Last year, more than 11,600 asylum-seekers were granted Australia visas under its humanitarian resettlement programme, making Australia the 'second most-generous country' after Canada among nations which resettle refugees.

But Amnesty International and other groups point out that only nine nations participate in the resettlement scheme. 'Second out of nine is commendable but second in the world is a misleading assumption,' Amnesty said.

And relative to its population of nearly 20 million people, Australia still punches well below its weight when it comes to taking in refugees.

The treatment of refugees is also deeply controversial. Mandatory detention has led to riots, arson, suicides, hunger strikes and mass breakouts.

Refugee advocacy groups say there are alternatives: in Sweden most detainees are released within a short time, particularly if they have relatives or friends living in the country. Children can only be detained for no longer than six days. The British government is considering electronic tagging and satellite surveillance as an alternative to detaining refugees in camps.

In Australia, organisations have urged the government to consider such alternatives. 'The long-term detention in purpose-built camps which we see in Australia is pretty unique,' said Ms Phillips. 'It is neither appropriate nor humane.'

Since 1999, any asylum-seeker who arrives in Australia undocumented, and is later granted refugee status, is entitled to a three-year temporary protection visa (TPV).

Of the 8,800 refugees on TPVs, many are being sent letters telling them they have 28 days to leave the country as the visas are about to expire. Last week a delegation of tearful refugees begged the government to allow them to stay.

Australia may have boundless plains, but sharing them with less fortunate souls is another matter.