Global asylum trends 2012: how does Australia compare?

Afghan girl ina refugee camp near Kandahar
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently released its latest report on the number of asylum applications lodged in the 44 industrialised countries that provide statistics to the UNHCR.

The 2012 report, Asylum levels and trends in industrialized countries, recorded the second highest number of applications this decade with 479 300 asylum applications lodged (the highest level was in 2003 when there were 505 000 applications). Afghanistan remained the main country of origin of asylum-seekers in 2012, followed by Syria with a 191 per cent increase in asylum claims.

The High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, noted that both new (Syria) and old (Afghanistan) conflicts were contributing to the rise in claims and that wars were ‘driving more and more people to seek asylum’. However, Guterres also pointed out that the asylum claims lodged in industrialised countries were only a drop in the ocean compared to the levels of displacement experienced closer to the regions of conflict:
In most cases people seeking refuge from conflict choose to remain in countries neighbouring their own in hope of being able to return home (an example is Syria, where the figure of 24, 800 Syrian asylum claims in industrialized countries compares to more than 1,100,000 registered Syrian refugees currently in neighbouring countries). 
Australia compared

Although Australia experienced a rise in asylum applications largely due to a rise in the number of boat arrivals, the total number of applications registered in Australia in 2012 was a relatively modest 15 800 compared with the 355 500 claims received in Europe and the 103 900 received in North America.

Since 1999–2001, when Australia last experienced a surge in boat arrivals during the Howard Government, irregular maritime arrivals lodging asylum claims have consisted primarily of people from Afghanistan followed by Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka. However, Australia has not shouldered a significant burden of asylum flows from these countries—much higher asylum caseloads have featured prominently in the UK and other destination countries for many years.

In fact, as Guterres notes, none of the industrialised countries, Australia included, shoulders a significant burden compared to the developing countries neighbouring most of the world’s conflict zones. The vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees are hosted in such countries such as Pakistan, so the burden of assisting the world’s asylum seekers and refugees actually falls to some of the world’s poorest countries.

It is unlikely that the current levels of asylum applications, including those lodged by Afghans, will decrease any time soon. Recent analysis of the situation in Afghanistan predicts that there will be continuing instability, causing increased displacement to neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran. The UNHCR agrees and notes that while more than 5.7 million refugees have voluntarily repatriated to Afghanistan in the last 10 years, ‘due to the continuing volatility, returning refugees struggle to achieve sustainable reintegration’ with the result that internal displacement in Afghanistan and asylum flows from the region have continued to increase over the last three years.

Given that the majority of Australia’s boat arrivals have originated from Afghanistan over the last decade, it is quite possible that Australia may also experience increased, not decreased, asylum flows if the instability in Afghanistan escalates.

For further analysis of these issues from the Parliamentary Library see Asylum seekers, refugees and people smuggling—links to the key Parliamentary Library papers.

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Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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