Four countries that treat asylum seekers better than Australia


Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

Facilities at the Manus Island Regional Processing Facility, used for the detention of asylum seekers that arrive by boat.

Facilities at the Manus Island Regional Processing Facility, used for the detention of asylum seekers that arrive by boat. Photo: Getty Images

There’s a bedtime story that Australians like to tell about themselves. ‘We’re a democratic country’, we coo, ‘compassionate, open and with a strong tradition of human rights’. To show how true this story is we compare ourselves with other countries. Unlike China, our government is open to public scrutiny. Unlike the middle-east, we embrace modern freedoms. Unlike the violence of certain African countries, we are a peaceful people. We’re relaxed, easy-going and hospitable to strangers.

It’s a fatuous, narcissistic story which fell to pieces last week when the atrocities of Manus Island made their way into our lounge-rooms. We were suitably outraged at 23-year old Reza Barati dying  and many more being injured because of our failure to provide protection. It made us question what kind of a country we were.

 But since 1992 when Paul Keating introduced mandatory detention we have remained relatively unconcerned by the routinized violence inflicted upon asylum seekers. When Habib Wehedy flung himself on to electrical wires on the day he was to be deported, or when Ahmad Al Akabi joined all the drawstrings of his shorts together and hanged himself in his room in Villawood, we did nothing.  We have failed to exercise the most basic levels of empathy towards those who need it most. Under the inhumane and illogical policy of deterrence, we didn’t need to wait for asylum seekers to be killed by machetes, knives and stones; we created the conditions for them to kill themselves instead.  

Reza Berati.

Reza Berati.

In a global perspective Australia is ungenerous, mean-spirited and cruel. Even China, a country hardly renowned for its human rights record, is chastising us for our treatment of asylum seekers. We congratulate ourselves for being a friendly country at the same time as we subject asylum seekers to indefinite detainment, deportation and abuse. We fret about being flooded by refugees and yet take a mere 1.47% of the world’s asylum seekers. We have an annual quota of 13,750 places for refugees, which is negligible when compared to countries around the world.


 Rather than squinting at our own borders with ignorant, tight-lipped worry let’s go beyond them to see how some other countries, not usually associated with human rights, deal with refugees.


According to academic Jane McAdam, refugees are thought to make up 25% of Lebanon’s population. Yes, 25%. In 2012 there were 172,900 displaced Syrians who made their way into Lebanon, around 20,000 Iraqis and more than 10,000 Palestinians.  Although there were some limitations placed on the rights of Palestinian refugees the law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration and repatriation. Unlike Australia, asylum seekers are not initially detained: they are given two months after arriving in the country to apply for refugee status and during this time 90% of Syrian refugees stay with host families who are not always friends or family. Refugee children can attend school and are given access to health care. Non-Palestinian refugees are granted the right to work and there have been some legislative efforts to extend this to Palestinians. It’s not perfect and Palestinians suffer discrimination. But it’s better than Australia.


Kenya is not a wealthy country and nor is it anywhere near as spacious as Australia. And yet in 2012 the UN estimated that Kenya was hosting 650,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia and Southern Sudan. In 2011 the Government announced an encampment policy for refugees which denies their freedom of movement. But it has granted permission for refugees to attend higher education institutions and receive specialised medical care outside the camps, which can be contrasted to the lack of medical care given to everyone, including pregnant women, at Manus Island. They also made exceptions to the encampment policy for vulnerable groups in need of protection. Kenya is not an example of best practice for refugees. But relative to Australia, Kenya looks humane.


Italy has not been particularly admirable when it comes to refugees. Like Australia, the Government has pursued a policy of turning back the boats, there have been uprisings at immigration and detention centres and they suffer discrimination in the labour market. And yet, with all its shortcomings, Italy is better than Australia. Where our Immigration Act is constantly being amended to deny asylum seekers rights (through policies with odd fascist names like The Pacific Solution) Italy’s constitution provides a degree of security. It guarantees refugees freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration and repatriation.  Where Australia is tyrannically secretive about what goes on in refugee camps, Italy co-operates with the UNHCR and other humanitarian groups. The government provides protection against the return of refugees to countries where their lives would be threatened and it offers temporary protection to those who don’t make refugee status. Again, it’s not perfect. But it’s better than Australia.


Pakistan – that dark, frightful country filled with cold-hearted terrorists –provided protection to 1.66 million registered Afghan refugees in 2012. They have been doing this since 1979. Being weird and Muslim, they haven’t signed all of our lovely sparkling international treaties. The country is a party to neither the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol. Unlike Australia, they generally respect the principle that repatriation must be voluntary and refugees have mostly free movement within Pakistan. Fewer than half of registered Afghan refugees live in villages and nearly 60% live in urban areas. They can also engage in foreign travel to any country except Israel. Pakistan is not wealthy and its population is already many times larger than Australia. Yet they do not bleat about being ‘flooded by refugees’ and nor do they put them in death camps on islands.

Without signing any of the treaties that grant refugees rights in international law Pakistan gives refugees rights as a matter of basic decency.   And this - this respect for the dignity of human life and the right to live without fear - is surely an idea that friendly, democratic, law-abiding Australia could learn something about.

(Research for this article was conducted through the US Department of State Human Rights Reports)



  • And these are just four countries. We all know there are many more.

    Up until recently, I've never really considered myself as'left wing'; actually never thought about wings at all. But this stance and 'stop the boats' rhetoric is just so backward. And a quick view of some social media sites (take a look at the Australian Tea party facebook page) shows that these 'initiatives' are applauded by some in our society. What's worse is that both sides of politics are involved; both clearly chasing the 'stop the boats' vote.

    I do believe a test of a nation's character can be determined by how it treats the less priviledged. Frankly, I think our government is embarrassing. And they are embarrassing us internationally.

    Date and time
    February 24, 2014, 9:29AM
    • One word - 'ASHAMED'

      And to think we believe we are better than all or most of the countries listed above. Ah yes we are, we are better at being greedy, ruining the future generations and younger population with our greedy antics like negative gearing and all other BS that goes on in this country. We are better at buying million dollar houses and boats and what note, and we are better at complaining when things don't go our way. What we are NOT good at, is realizing what being a citizen of the world means and what responsibilities it entails.

      I will now go back to my well paid job and drink my four dollar coffee made by my awesome barrista who was a refugee, and then I will take a cab driven by an immigrant to the airport where I will be checked into my flight by someone who most likely was an immigrant too.

      Who needs boat people... or immigrants for that matter.

      Rant Over

      Yes Really
      Date and time
      February 24, 2014, 10:01AM
      • Whilst I think Australia certainly should be a lot more humane about our treatment of refugees it is worth pointing out that if we are taking in 1.47% of the worlds refugees then that is actually 5 times our proportion of the world population. In the case of almost all of the countries you have mentioned the vast majority of those they have taken in are ethnically and culturally very similar to their own population, and the refugees are from a neighboring country. I’m confident Australia would be far more willing to take in refugees if they were from New Zealand And quite frankly China criticising us about refugees is blatant hypocrisy considering their treatment of North Korean refugees.

        Almost all of the people I know don't have a problem with immigration, refugees or asylum seekers, however as in most areas of life they do not like people who are portrayed as being queue jumpers wanting to use money to push their way in. It may not be fair to think that of boat people but that is the perception many Australians have.

        Date and time
        February 24, 2014, 10:18AM
        • True that we are taking in less than our fair share based on population, but to include poor countries in this proportion is a bit rich, pardon the pun. The idea of sending refugees to Cambodia is almost surreal.

          And are you also suggesting we use racism as a means of determining who we allow in?

          Date and time
          February 24, 2014, 12:00PM
        • Agreed. Also, do the countries you mention allow permanent residence to refugees ?

          They certainly don't give them houses and welfare (not that their own people, with the exception of Italy get welfare) as we do

          Date and time
          February 24, 2014, 1:43PM
        • Hurrow
          You are quite right all the countires listed have land borders. Italy was a colonist country and part of the charter is to take in african refugees, add France. Which country has Australia colonised. Other countries do not really care what Australia do. We are countries that are attached to no certian area we are no in Asia, Europe, Americias not even Polynesia. So we are an big Island 25 milllion, where most of the population live on the coastal fringes.

          Date and time
          February 24, 2014, 1:55PM
      • Very enlightening article about how Australia is copying the Anglo-Saxon colonialist tradition of England and the USA of appalling aborigines and maintaining little concentration camps as has occurred in the American base of Guantanamo bay (Cuba) without human rights scrutiny. Refugees are product of an economic system traversed for poverty, wars and (pretention of) nationalism. Countries can accept or send refugees back, but at least give them temporary assistance for humanitarian reasons.

        Date and time
        February 24, 2014, 10:42AM
        • I take issue with the notion that we collectively "did nothing" about these atrocities. It's more that plenty of us did something, but it didn't really help because our elected representatives are engaged in a race to the bottom on this entire issue.

          There are great organisations out there working to in advocacy for asylum seekers - ChilOut springs to mind as an example - and countless researchers, ancillary workers and volunteers trying to raise awareness. I can't begin to count the number of petitions, rallies, articles etc. devoted to this issue since Tampa, but it's enough to suggest that many, many Australians are outraged about the treatment of asylum seekers and do NOT see the current policies as representative of our nation or its people.

          The problem is, frustrating, there's absolutely f--- all we can really do about it except continue to write letters, sign petitions, go to rallies and vote for the least-worst candidates when they come up for election. Short of actually storming Manus Island, what do you expect the average Australian to do? Our voices are being ignored by our so-called "leaders".

          Red Pony
          Date and time
          February 24, 2014, 11:51AM
          • My problem is, what about the refugee in some Sudanese refugee camp who couldn't afford the boat fare and who gets kicked back in line and told to wait because some guy with money just stepped to the front.
            If you want to feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for them.

            Idin Doit
            Date and time
            February 24, 2014, 12:30PM
            • OK, Manus island is horrible. Playing with people's lives is atrocious...but what do you do when people turn up who have avoided the visa-entry system altogether? Just let them roam free in our country with no checking of their bona fides at all? What about all the other refugees who register to come into this country? You know, the ones that have had their good conduct proven by the granting of a passport and visa?

              You have to have a place to process people and keep them whilst you check out their stories, their identity, their suitability to enter the country...You can bleat about the 'terrible' conditions in these detention centres all you like, but are they any worse than those in Pakistan, or Lebanon? I think not. And the alternative - that the Greens would have - to just let anyone and everyone into this country carte blanche is just plain idiotic.

              Date and time
              February 24, 2014, 12:50PM
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