Rohingya crisis: The myth of Australia’s ‘front door’
Share this on

Rohingya crisis: The myth of Australia’s ‘front door’

Tony Abbott seeks to disguise Australia’s discriminatory policy against asylum seekers who arrive by boat with the euphemism of the “front door”. It is an attempt to veil populism and hostility in the language of procedural correctness.

How should asylum seekers, fleeing persecution, aided and abetted by their own government, escape their plight? How may the Rohingya, who suffer mass internment, destitution, malnutrition, starvation and widespread discrimination, find refuge?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s answer, representing the Australian Government’s position: “If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.”

To take Abbott’s statement in isolation would be a mistake. It is not only consistent with the Liberal Party’s unyielding stance against refugees they consider to be undeserving (as if one must earn asylum), it is also good politics at home.

Ever since John Howard won the elections in 2001, refugee bashing has become an easy way to play on the public’s worst fears. With that same desire, though with much less tact, Abbott now seeks to disguise Australia’s discriminatory policy against asylum seekers who arrive by boat with the euphemism of the “front door”. It is an attempt to veil populism and hostility in the language of procedural correctness and we ought to be wary of it for the following reasons.

First of all, it is patently absurd to expect the Rohingya who are fleeing widespread and intense discrimination to first inquire with the Australian Embassy if they may apply for refugee status, go through the tedious process, then buy an air ticket and hop on a plane. They do not have that luxury.

(READ MORE: ‘Nope, nope, nope’: Abbot says Australia won’t take Rohingya migrants)

Second, the notion that there is a right way to escape from a well-founded threat to one’s life and liberty is laughable. If there’s an air raid, it shouldn’t matter whether you enter the bomb shelter through the front or back, and surely no one is obliged to knock and wait for permission to enter either. Life is far too valuable to be subject to the demands of political correctness and procedural rules.

Third, the issue of national sovereignty and border control pales in comparison to the tragedy of thousands of people dying. Nations do have a right to refuse entry to desperate refugees; it’s just unconscionable to exercise it at a time like this. It is indeed a foundational international norm that countries respect each other’s sovereignty; but so is the protection of refugees, not to mention the rescue of distressed persons at sea.

Fourth, it’s almost impossible to deter asylum seekers who have nothing left to lose. Abbott wants to discourage asylum seekers from “getting on a leaky boat at the behest of a people smuggler”. But the Rohingya, and most asylum seekers, do not have any other choice. It’s not a question of the boat or Qantas Airways; it’s a question of the devil or the deep blue sea.

Finally, Abbott’s “front door” is more aptly termed, “a tiny keyhole”. You get in and you get jostled about, and perchance, you might just get through. Abbott’s rhetoric is reflected in his administration’s dismal rate of refugee acceptance—a rate that is lower even then Malaysia’s, Indonesia’s and Thailand’s. On top of that, Australia accepts fewer refugees for its wealth and landmass than Malaysia and Indonesia.

The following charts will hopefully give you a picture of this sobering reality.


The darker portion of each pie chart represents the percentage of asylum seekers that are granted recognition as refugees. Data: UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2013. (click to enlarge)

Australia only recognised 31% of its asylum seekers (people seeking refugee status) as refugees in 2013. This includes those who came by boat – people who Australia routinely diverts to offshore processing facilities. (Since Australia changed its methodology of counting asylum seekers in the middle of 2013, I have taken a conservative estimate by halving the previous year’s number of boat people and added it to the total number of asylum seekers for 2013. See Statistical Annex.)

In contrast, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, countries which are far less economically developed, granted refuge to a greater proportion of those who sought asylum in 2013 – 65% for Malaysia, 76% for Thailand and 32% for Indonesia.

While there are surely differences in the demographics of asylum seekers that reach each country–and these differences may partly explain why Australia recognises a smaller proportion of asylum seekers as legitimate refugees–it is surely no coincidence that unlike Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand do not use the dehumanisation of refugees as a political tool to win domestic support. In fact, the intense media coverage of the plight of the Rohingya refugees have made their suffering palpably clear. This has arguably contributed to Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s decision to grant temporary shelter to the Rohingya refugees for one year.

By contrast, Abbott continues to appeal to deeply entrenched stereotypes of boat people as uncivilised and barbaric. Whereas John Howard scandalously promoted the picture of boat people throwing their babies overboard, Abbott now seeks to describe asylum seekers as queue jumpers who lack the moral scruples to give due regard to their own safety and the well-being of their families. This view is not only demonstrably false–as I have sought to show–it is also toxic.

There is no queue for the Rohingya and they have no choice. Accusing the victim is an atrocious way to deflect attention and we should not allow Abbott’s dehumanisation of the victims to poison our understanding of the Rohingya refugee crisis.

The reality is, given its economic strength and land mass, Australia accepts far fewer refugees than Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Yet, both Malaysia and Indonesia are willing to accept even more refugees while Abbott fiddles.


Ratio of absolute number of refugees recognised to each  nation’s economic strength as measured by GDP per capita (PPP). Data: UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2013.


Ratio of absolute number of refugees recognised to each nation’s land mass as measured by 1000 square kilometres. Data: UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2013.

In short, Malaysia and Indonesia accept more refugees for every dollar and every square kilometre of land it has than Australia. Now, it is willing to go even further while Australia’s prime minister injects his toxic ideas into the discourse.

And if bar graphs are not your cup of tea, simply consider how ridiculous it is of Abbott to be speaking of front and back doors given the scale of the refugee crisis the world faces. It is indeed a problem for the world and Australia simply isn’t doing its part.


Australia accepted only 2% of the refugees around the world in 2013. Data: UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2013.


The UNHCR identified 11.7 million refugees in 2013. Data: UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2013.

The problem is a massive one. 11.7 million refugees need protection. In 2013, Australia recognised 5035 asylum seekers as refugees.

It’s true, the refugee crisis is a global problem; but that’s precisely why Australia must do its part. And so must a small country like my own–Singapore. Unfortunately, my Government is not one to pass up a chance to harp on our small size and remind Singaporeans of our vulnerability. And it seems like Tony Abbott knows a political opportunity when he sees it too. This makes me sick to the stomach.

Remember the intensity of Abbott’s attempts to help the Bali Nine avoid the firing squad? What has happened to it now?

The lives of Australian drug traffickers convicted of smuggling over 8 kilograms of heroin are precious; but the lives of Rohingya Muslims are not.

The death penalty will not deter drug traffickers from making their fortunes off the misery of others; but leaving the Rohingya to sink to their watery grave will deter others from trying to escape ethnic cleansing.

There is no logic to this; only the politics of power.

asiancorrespondent  Follow me on Facebook or Twitter