Junk Explained: When Tony Abbott Says We Take More Refugees Than Everyone Else, Is He Bullshitting Or What?

"No other country on earth takes more refugees on a per capita basis," he says. But is that really the case?

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What is truth, exactly?

It’s a question that has occupied some of our greatest minds, which might explain why Tony Abbott appears to have given so little time to the matter.

Politicians don’t have the best reputation for always being completely honest, but often this takes the form of spin doctoring — one can say the economy is in good health, that coal is good, or that your Cabinet is functioning well, and while the electorate might not be entirely convinced, they’re unlikely to become too incensed; you can’t blame a guy for trying.

But repeating something factually incorrect, something statistically wrong, something easily and quantifiably disprovable? That takes a certain kind of chutzpah. And it’s one that’s been on proud display over the past few days, particularly in the following quote, delivered by Tony Abbott during a press conference in Canberra on Sunday, and re-printed unquestioningly by most of the media who reported on it:

“No other country on earth takes more refugees on a per capita basis”.


There is no statistic, no data set, no definition of ‘take’, ‘refugees’, or ‘earth’ by which this is true. It’s pure and unadulterated crap.

So why do we keep reprinting it? And where do we really sit on the international scale?

All These Pesky “Facts”

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that there are multiple factors at play here, meaning that there is no one definitive ranking. So let’s work through them all, in rough order of what a reasonable person might believe to be the sentiment expressed in Abbott’s quote, by applying data compiled by the Refugee Council.

1) Are more refugees given asylum in Australia, per capita, than in any other country?

Nope. In 2014 — the year for which the latest data is available — that honour went to Lebanon, who accepted 364,129 refugees, or just over 73 per capita. By this definition, Australia’s 14,350 refugees ranks us at 22nd in the world.

2) Are there more refugees in Australia, per capita, than in any other country?

Nowhere near. Countries adjacent to those going at war play that role, with Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iran and Ethiopia all hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees.

We host 35,582 refugees, which lands us in 50th place.

3) Are more refugees resettled in Australia, per capita, than in any other country?

Last year, Australia resettled 11,570 refugees. ‘Resettled’ means that a person had left their country of origin, registered to be recognised as a refugee by the UNHCR, and then been transferred to Australia. By this metric, we rank third in the world.

It’s this statistic by which Australia is usually referred to as generous, and it’s true that we do have one of the highest quotas in the world. But the key factor here is the transferral. The reason Australia (and the US and Canada, who take out the gold and silver in the category) has a higher than average UNHCR resettlement program is that by and large, most refugees aren’t able to actually get here on their own steam. In case you didn’t notice during your gap year, we’re a long way away from pretty much everywhere. Despite successive governments bleating about boat people, a tiny proportion of the world’s refugees make the unimaginably difficult decision to get on a boat and make the journey.

So they join ‘the queue’: the UNHCR resettlement program that processes just under 1% of the world’s refugees annually. Last year the UNHCR submitted 103, 890 applications for resettlement to host countries, of a total estimated 19.5 million refugees worldwide — about 0.005%. It’s not a queue as such, because it’s not first-in, first-served: factors such as the resourcing of the local UNHCR facility, the size and ages of your family, and your own capacity to navigate bureaucracy and/or hire an immigration lawyer will all influence the speed at which you are resettled.

It’s a queue in the same way that waiting for a drink at a packed bar is a queue; sure there’s a vague sense of order, but being babein’ or tall or stacked or pushy or a good tipper or mates with the bartender is really what counts. [Side note: as a former bartender, flirty eye contact will get you there every time].

Because the UNHCR resettlement program constitutes such a miniscule proportion of the global effort to manage refugees, it’s deeply disingenuous to use those stats to make blanket statements about our intake of refugees. It’s kind of like saying you won the Grammy for Best Song without mentioning that it was for Best Song [By A Pop Duo Or Group With Vocals]. And Australia didn’t even win that Grammy; we were just nominated. To stretch the metaphor to its logical conclusion, we’re the equivalent of Paramore’s ‘The Only Exception’.

So that’s the status quo.

But how are we responding to the current European refugee migration crisis, often referred to as the greatest global refugee crisis since WWII?

What Are Our Esteemed Leaders Proposing For The Current Crisis?

Our current intake allotment of 13,750 refugees was set in 2013 when the Abbott government came to power; prior to that we accepted 20,000 per year. Abbott has committed to accepting another 5000 annually, but not until 2018/2019 (and even then offering only temporary protection), which will bring our total commitment to 18,750 — slightly less than when he was elected.

On Sunday, in the same press conference in which he made claims about our comparative refugee intake which we have already identified as crap, Abbott announced that Australia would increase the proportion of refugees we accept from Syria, while taking great pains to confirm that we would not be increasing the overall number of refugees we accept. He’s since suggested that might be flexible and the 2019 increase could happen earlier — without making any firm commitments other than to act with “decency and force”.

While Sunday’s announcement is (relatively) good news for Syrians, it’s less so for the Sri Lankans, Rohingya, and other South Asian refugees for whom Australia is often the geographically closest signatory to the Refugee Convention. So it becomes likely we’ll be flying Syrian refugees in from a camp in the Middle East or Eastern Europe at the expense of a few boats of Tamils left floating in the South China sea indefinitely.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has suggested an emergency intake of 10,000 Syrians, which would mean that this year (and only this year), Australia would accept 23,750 refugees — an increase of just over 18% from our 2013 level. Easy there, tiger! Don’t go breaking the bank or opposing the government or anything!

The Greens, meanwhile, have proposed an emergency intake of 20,000 refugees, which is not to be sniffed at but would still make us one of the smaller contributors to the effort on a per capita basis. (This is the problem when The Greens suggest something reasonable and conservative: such is the perception of them as a party of barefoot bleeding heart vegans that they give the ALP exceedingly little room to oppose the government without risking the impression that they’re socialists or environmentalists or humanitarians or something else crazy and weird and not Team Australia enough).

A Liberal backbencher, Ewan Jones, has called for an intake of 50,000 extra refugees, which may sound rash until you consider that would still put us far behind countries like Germany on a per-capita basis.

This is a good time to recall that it was a Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who orchestrated the safe and apolitical resettlement of Vietnamese refugees, and at no point was refugee resettlement an election issue between Labour’s Chifley and Liberal’s Menzies in the wake of WWII. Historically speaking, the Liberal Party have been more welcoming to refugees, and the Labor Party — as the instigators of both the White Australia Policy and of mandatory detention — are by no means innocent of crimes of institutional racism in Australia. It behoves us to remember such things in times like these: correlating the Liberal Party with conservatism and the Labor Party with progressivism is neither historically correct nor politically useful.

So How Do We Unfuck This? 

It is difficult to see where Australia will go from here: after publishing an emotional and powerful response to the crisis on Facebook, NSW Premier Mike Baird’s comment on Q&A last night — that Australia can accept more than 10,000 extra refugees — will hopefully not go unnoticed by the national members of his party, who might like to consider that the country’s most popular leader has his finger on the pulse of the populace, and not the IPA.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s meeting with the UN in Geneva over the next few days could potentially offer the government a way of extending our commitment without the press accusing them of backflipping, or breaking a promise, or *gasp* lying, as certain leaders of the Opposition did a hell of a lot when a certain government made the apparently unconscionable decision to respond to the desires of the electorate.

There’s also the chance — and going by current polling, the extreme likelihood — that by the time we’re discussing the refugee intake for 2015/2016 we’ll have another government altogether, one which has not so consistently tied their success to securing Australia’s (already naturally very secure) borders.

In the meantime, here’s a fun point of comparison; there’s one field in which Australia has often excelled, on a per capita basis, at ‘stepping up to the plate’: when it comes to war, for a small country usually far removed from the conflict, we’ve tended to do ‘more than our fair share’. Australia was one of the biggest contributors to the Coalition of the Willing in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We were a significant support to the US led Vietnam War, and as we are reminded every January, 416,809 served in WW1 from a population of fewer than five million. Only last week was Abbott caught out begging Obama to take part in more of the Syrian bombing fun.

So let’s ask ourselves the question: if this were a case of sending troops to fight a war, rather than helping those fleeing it, what would this government consider to be our fair share of the burden?

Maddie Palmer is a writer, broadcaster, TV and digital producer. She tweets from @msmaddiep

Feature photo taken at last night’s #LightTheDark rally in Sydney, by Alex McKinnon