The Refugee Council of Australia has accused the opposition of political opportunism over its stance on boat arrivals.
Late last year Opposition leader Tony Abbott caused a stir when he suggested the Navy turn back boats attempting to reach Australia, branding asylum seekers a ‘peaceful invasion’.
The Refugee Council says the number of people arriving in Australia by boat has increased but is still comparatively small, with Chief Executive Officer Paul Power calling Abbott’s phrasing a distortion of the facts.
Statistics released from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that at the end of 2008 Australia had 0.3 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers.
The report also showed that people who were granted refugee status in Australia only constituted 0.3 per cent of those recognised as refugees worldwide that year.
Power says former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s policy of sending boats back to Indonesia could result in people being killed if it were to be re-implemented now.
“We got the Navy to tow the boats back to the Indonesian territorial waters, left the boats with enough fuel, food and so on to get to a port in Indonesia, guided them to where to go, and then left them … But we did this without any publicity,” Downer told the ABC last November.
“This sort of rhetoric plays into the hands of the persecutors, I mean they’re the people who have the most to gain from people who are fleeing persecution being returned back to their country of origin without their claims for protection being properly investigated,” Power told SBS radio.
Power stresses that the nation’s annual migration program results in around 200,000 new permanent residents each year, whereas only 2,500 asylum seekers come by boat.
“It’s completely out of proportion, the whole debate is entirely politically driven, it’s opportunistic and it ignores the personal realities of the situation of so many people who genuinely need protection,” Power says.
He adds that many of people granted refugee status are the victims of torture, have been raped or have seen members of their family put to death, but says those facts are rarely mentioned by opposition politicians.
The opposition argues that the increase in boat arrivals is partly because of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s decision to abolish temporary protection visas.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the Global Trends Report from the UNHCR points to a decrease in the number of refugees, worldwide.