On 27 March 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released the 2011 report on Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries
. After analysing asylum application trends in the 44 industrialised countries included in the report (38 European countries plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Canada and the USA), the UNHCR found that an estimated 441 300 asylum applications were lodged in 2011—the highest level since 2003. In a press release
accompanying the report, the UNHCR noted that ‘rising outflow from older crisis spots such as Afghanistan’ helped contribute to the 20 per cent rise in asylum claims in 2011.
Bucking the global trend, Australia experienced a 9 per cent decrease in asylum applications in 2011—the first decrease in six years. This is a reverse of the situation in 2010
when much of Europe experienced a decline in applications while Australia experienced a 33 per cent increase compared to the previous year.
So how significant are these fluctuations and how useful is it to compare asylum trends between Australia and other receiving countries? What influences asylum trends?
There are a number of factors that should be taken into account when comparing trends in application lodgements, including increased conflict (‘push factors’) in source countries and asylum policies in receiving countries (perceived by some to be potential ‘pull factors’). The 2011 UNHCR report
discussed some of the complexities:
The numbers of people requesting international protection have fluctuated significantly between countries and years, largely depending on political developments in countries of origin or changes in asylum polices in receiving countries. However, other factors may also be of relevance, including the existence of social networks of certain communities in destination countries, improved capacity to register asylum seekers, and the fact that some countries are perceived as being more likely to grant refugee status than others.
Such factors, together with increasingly tougher border protection policies, can markedly affect the share and rankings of receiving countries year by year. For example, Southern Europe (in particular along the coasts of Italy, Malta and Spain) is where the bulk of Europe’s unauthorised boat arrivals (many of whom are asylum seekers) traditionally occur. According to the UNHCR
, people on board boats arriving in Italy usually make up about 70 per cent of Italy's asylum applicants. In 2009, Italy and Libya concluded an agreement to turn boats back to Libya and asylum applications lodged by boat arrivals subsequently plummeted. However, following the ‘Arab Spring’ in North Africa in early 2011 this arrangement collapsed. The collapse of the turn back agreement, combined with the increased unrest across North Africa, led to a large-scale resumption of boat arrivals in Italy, resulting in triple the number of asylum applications in 2011. As a result, Italy moved back up the UNHCR’s rankings to become the fourth highest destination country in 2011.
Application trends are also affected by the distribution of asylum claims from certain regions as some destination countries receive more applications from particular source countries than others. For example, the UNHCR report
shows that France experienced an increase in applications from asylum seekers from Armenia, the Russian Federation and Cote d’Ivoire in 2011, while Germany’s increases were largely attributable to a growth in applications from Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan (three out of ten applications were lodged by Afghans).
So, when comparing asylum trends across Europe, in-country variables such as these should be taken into account before attempting to draw any conclusions. Asylum trends in Australia
Although there was a decline in applications in Australia in 2011, largely due to a reduction in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat, in 2010
the reverse was true. It is difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions based on these year to year fluctuations and it is probably more informative to look at long-term data. Researchers and other stakeholders such as John Menadue argue
that Australia’s asylum trends have roughly mirrored world trends for over a decade. Certainly the bulk of Australia's boat arrivals since 2001 have consisted primarily of people from the conflict zones of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq and asylum seekers from these regions have featured prominently in driving asylum trends in most receiving countries, not just Australia, for many years.
It is important to note that the UNHCR’s asylum trends data demonstrates only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide. Most do not make their way to industrialised countries to seek protection. In fact the vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees are hosted in developing countries (usually in close proximity to the conflict zones), so the burden of assisting the world’s asylum seekers and refugees actually falls to some of the world’s poorest countries. UNHCR data
shows that Pakistan is host to the largest number of refugees worldwide—mostly from Afghanistan.
In comparison, the contribution by industrialised countries is small regardless of the fluctuations in the data each year—and Australia’s contribution is just a fraction of this. As the UNHCR Regional Office pointed out
This report shows clearly that the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Australia are modest - and certainly manageable - when compared to many other countries.