Cashed-up refugees: Is there such a thing?

13 Jul

Can a person be a refugee if they have UD$100,000 in the bank?

Most people in Australia find it hard to believe that you can truly be a refugee if you have money because, in Australia, having money means having options. If you have enough money, you can go on a holiday to Hawaii, or buy a 4WD and drive around the country. You can send you kids to a different school if they’re being bullied. You can even sell your house and move to another city or country. Having money gives you options.

When people find out that many asylum seekers pay people smugglers $10,000 to come to Australia, they assume that means they can’t possibly be real refugees!

Rather than going into the stories of how asylum seekers from countries like Afghanistan or Sri Lanka come up with those kinds of sums (as a taster – the often borrow the money and agree to pay the smuggler back when they arrive and get a job in Australia, which obviously doesn’t work, adding to their stress while in detention), I want to spend a second thinking about the real issue here…

Imagine if international law (as defined by the various conventions) didn’t distinguish between those afflicted by poverty and those who were persecuted for other reasons.  If 1.4 billion people in the world live on less than US$1.25 a day and there are 51.2 million refugees and displaced persons, then the refugees would be swamped by the bigger issue.

Thankfully, the people who drafted international conventions are smarter than that – they do distinguish between the two groups. In other words, they leave room to contemplate the difference between a person who is an economic migrant and a refugee because of other reasons. That means, of course, that there is also room for people with money behind them to be considered refugees. However, they would need to demonstrate that they have a well founded fear of persecution (on the basis of the things defined in the convention) and that they haven’t got a country where they have a right of return (and can go there safely).

Think about this in the context of ‘enhanced screening’. The process is designed to check whether someone might have a prima facie refugee status claim. If, in answering the questions, it sounds to the interviewer like maybe the person is coming to work, it is assumed that they’re not a proper refugee and they’re sent home. The problem is, many genuine refugees also have trouble finding work and suffer the effects of poverty. In fact, as someone who is genuinely persecuted, they often have trouble finding work safely and so their most pressing need, having fled their country, is to find a job to feed their family (who may be in a different country again, living with no support). So the chances of them sending someone back using enhanced screening who has money, but who is actually a legitimate refugee, is quite high.

I guess the question we all have to grapple with is whether or not we are prepared to make a distinction between the two groups. That is, a lot of people worry that we’re using up the whole Refugee and Humanitarian Program with visa grants for Irregular Maritime Arrivals (‘boat people’). They worry that it means we aren’t able to provide more opportunity for people who need the help more (people in Sudan, for example).

The thing is, if we ask questions like that, we need to make a decision – are we prepared to undo the thing the convention does and start lumping all ‘refugees’ together, regardless of how much money they have? If we start to preference economic refugees (i.e. people who experience poverty, for whatever reason), then we have to focus our attention on the billions of people first, and we’ll almost certainly miss the 51.2 million.

Perhaps a more helpful way to think about it is to ask yourself whether it is better to make distinctions about people based on their bank balance or something else. I know we naturally do that in our own culture, but is that the right thing to do when it comes to working with the world’s most vulnerable people? Perhaps a better approach is to try and help as many people as we can – in other words have strategies to deal with people from developing countries AND try to help vulnerable refugees.

 

 

 

5 Responses to “Cashed-up refugees: Is there such a thing?”

  1. fearlessfreddy July 14, 2014 at 12:47 am #

    The Shah of Persia was a refugee…

    Can a person be an “economic refugee”? Is it not more than enough to just be a refugee?

  2. Matthew Of Canberra July 14, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    Is the $10k figure actually real? Is it a peak that somebody recorded at some point in history? I saw a news report a few years ago which suggested that the figure was in the range of $5k, which is a pretty swag of money for a short trip on a leaky boat, but still isn’t $10k. I guess what I’m wondering is – where do these figures come from? I’m inclined to think that pretty much everything reported about boat-arrivals is half true, so I also to wonder about the “throwing papers overboard” claim. Let’s all agree that at least SOME of the people on the boats have legitimate claims, so why would they throw away their best evidence? And if they’re “throwing them overboard” that also suggests that they brought the papers that far along in the first place – apparently they thought they’d need them, so why the change of heart only once on the water? These are questions I have just from looking at the standard mainstream reporting – they don’t require any inside knowledge, just common sense. Can you shed any light? Thanks!

    • Greg_LakeAU July 14, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

      I am aware of people who have paid more than $10,000 to smugglers (and some who have paid more and less). That information is gathered from asylum seekers during a series of interviews conducted. I saw the figures from intelligence collated from those interviews and have also spoken to asylum seekers themselves. That said, the last time I looked at those figures was a few years ago (2011) so it may have shifted (up or down) since then, I’m not sure.

      On the question of papers – I think the real issue there is that people have somehow decided that throwing papers overboard is evidence of non-genuine claims. Firstly, not everyone has papers. For many asylum seekers, they arrive undocumented because they have never had an opportunity to safely apply for papers of any sort. Secondly, those who throw those papers overboard are often told to do so by smugglers because (the smugglers claim) it makes it harder for them to be returned. Thirdly, we’re talking about a group of people who may have never experienced a government official who isn’t out to get them – after all, many refugee experience persecution from their governments. So the immediate reaction of many asylum seekers is to mistrust governments.

      That last point is particularly important. While they may need whatever identity documents they have to get to the point of boarding a boat, they do not feel that they can trust the Australian government to use those papers to support their claims. They feel that perhaps the Australian government will use that information against them.

      This means that the initial position at interview is possibly an adversarial and untrusting one – so an asylum seeker may not provide all the details of their story to a government official within days of arriving in Australia.

      One of the things I am most concerned about is the enhanced screening process. One of my biggest concern with that process is that it assumed people will tell the truth in detail when answering those questions. However, when we’re talking about people who may have a (perfectly understandable) mistrust of governments, and we’re talking about people who have literally just stepped off a boat, they may not be willing to provide that level of detail at that time. And yet, it is the information gathered in that context which is used to screen them out of the refugee assessment process.

      • Marilyn July 14, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

        The Federal court found in 2000 that the sort of screening out you talk about was illegal when the Woomera lawyers presented claims of 160 screened out Iraqis and Iranians, they were screened in and almost all of them are now citizens of long standing here.

  3. Marilyn July 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

    I read thousands of interview files for the prisoners in Woomera, the first interviews are almost entirely about how people travelled and who they paid, after 26 questions they finally ask why people feel they can’t go home.

    There is no international treaty on the planet that says refugees have to be poor, there is no such thing as an economic refugee, and Greg is correct to say most don’t have papers.

    The Hazara only ever have their registration at their local Shi’ite mosques and for some bizarre reason Australia decided in 1995 not to accept them as ID”.

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