Are all refugees genuine?

I wrote recently that one of the reasons I keep posting things about refugees is because it is an issue that is in the public discourse, and being used as a political chip, and yesterday’s policy announcement from Australian Prime Minster Kevin Rudd just proves that point. From what I’ve been reading, it’s a terrible policy (and quite possibly in breach of the International conventions to which we are signatories) and arguably the harshest from any politician I’ve seen. Do take a moment to read Nathan’s letter to Rudd, not least, to see just how inconsistent he’s being with his own values.

One of the great problems with the public discussion on this issue is the way the well has been poisoned with terms which are often misleading, and sometimes blatantly false. I think it’s important that we are careful with our language, especially in complex issues such as this one.

One term that I’m seeing a lot is references to ‘genuine refugees’. This is an unhelpful and misleading term. To see why, we should note the distinction between a refugee and an asylum seeker.

On the website of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees it states:

The terms asylum-seeker and refugee are often confused: an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.

In other words, there’s no such thing as a non-genuine refugee – an  asylum seeker will either be assessed to be a refugee, and thus granted the protections and rights under the UN human rights convention, or their claim will be assessed and rejected, and they will be sent back to their home country.

The UN’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who:

…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.


If someone has been recognised by the assessment process as a refugee, then they are, by definition a genuine, legitimate refugee.

The UNHCR site continues:

National asylum systems are there to decide which asylum-seekers actually qualify for international protection. Those judged through proper procedures not to be refugees, nor to be in need of any other form of international protection, can be sent back to their home countries.

Not everyone who claims asylum will be given refugee status. The reality is that there are people who are not in need of asylum who will claim it. Statistically, more people who arrive by air and claim asylum are rejected (approx. 70%)  than those who arrive by sea (between 5 -10% are rejected) Both means are legitimate (it appears that the more desperate the mode of transport, the more likely it is that the person is in real need, which makes sense, though I don’T see anyone calling to ‘stop the planes’). While we need to ensure that the processing is fair and thorough, what we shouldn’t do is just assume that asylum seekers arriving by boat are making fraudulent claims. Given the statistics, it overwhelmingly more likely that they will be seen to be refugees, and those who are not will be assessed as such.

As I wrote previously, there are no easy solutions, but we can choose to put aside the (often racist) prejudice and cynicism which pervades the public discourse, and approach the issue with compassion and wisdom. This is a global problem which has gotten worse in the last few years. Despite the harshest policies in decades, the number of asylum seeking arrivals has increased, because the number of displaced people globally has increased (if we weren’t so keen on patting ourselves on the back all the time, we might realise that the reason is not simply that we’re so good and everyone wants a piece our our cake). So-called ‘deterrent’ policies are bound to fail because they profoundly misread the problems. While we all want to save lives and see an end to sinking boats, the reality is that for many people, this risk outweighs the risk of staying where they are. (Moreover, the search for solutions doesn’t absolve us from our responsibilities to those who have come.) They know the dangers of getting on these boats, but they also know the dangers of not getting on it.

Indeed, the UNHCR states that:

The efficiency of the asylum system is key. If the asylum system is both fast and fair, then people who know they are not refugees have little incentive to make a claim in the first place, thereby benefitting both the host country and the refugees for whom the system is intended.

That’s pretty much the opposite of the Prime Minister’s policy.

One response to “Are all refugees genuine?”

  1. Dave Roberts says:

    Cheers mate – always interesting. If you follow Bob Carr’s “economic migrant” comment to its natural conclusion he is effectively questioning the validity of those 90% of claims being approved. The suggestion is that they are not being approved because they are valid, but because it is too expensive to process those claims through legal channels. Surely if this were true then the government would be re-thinking the indefinite mandatory detention policy. More likely Bob Carr is telling porky-pies and it is another example of spin-doctoring and deliberate attempts to confuse on this divisive issue.

What do you think?