The numbers of asylum seekers may well be rising in Australia, but lo and behold, they’re rising everywhere.
Last year, people from 200 countries or territories submitted at least one asylum claim in one of the 44 industrialised countries.
It is estimated that at the end of 2011, there were 42.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Of these, 26.4 million were internally displaced persons, 15.2 million were refugees, and 895,000 were asylum seekers.
In 2012, approximately 479,300 asylum applications were registered in the 44 industrialised countries identified by UNHCR, an increase of 8 per cent from the previous year. The current level remains below those observed at the turn of the millennia or at the beginning of the 1990s.
And what about Australia?
Between 2008 and 2012, Australia received 2.3 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants. That means two (and a bit) out of the next thousand people you’ll meet will be asylum seekers. Scary? Not really. The European Union received on average 2.6 asylum seekers per 1,000 residents. Malta had the most at 21.7, and judging by their jovial little performance at this year’s Eurovision contest, they’re still chugging along fine.
We keep hearing about a recent explosion in asylum seeker numbers — well, there was a whopping 37 per cent jump for Australia from 2011. It may appear like we’re being overrun, but the truth is, our global share in asylum applications that same period actually dropped from three per cent to two.
Out of the 44 industrialised states, the USA topped the rankings by taking 17 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers. Sweden, with a population half our size, welcomed twice as many as we did.
Professor William Maley thinks it’s a shame that we refuse to look at the bigger picture. “It becomes embarrassing abroad when Australia squawks and squeals about boat arrivals because the numbers are utterly trivial compared to what many far poorer countries are absorbing in a graceful way in other parts of the world,” he says.
By the end of 2011, some 220,000 asylum seekers were registered in South Africa. So what of it?
Well, until conflict around the world ends for good, or we get annihilated by three-headed aliens, we won’t be hearing the end of the asylum debate. The number of boat people will inevitably fluctuate with war and injustice.
We can let them stay to the ire of redneck nationalists, turn them away to the condemnation of the international community, or do what we’re doing and oscillate somewhere in between, lost in a labyrinth of morality, xenophobia, obligation, and fear.