New Internationalist

The Facts: Road to Freedom?

Issue 350

A survey of the track records of different countries. Some good practice – and some bad.1


Canada has one the best records for treatment of refugees with innovative programmes and a strong humanitarian ethos. But will it survive?


Refugees and asylum seekers: 70,000

Percentage of world total: 0.47%

Ratio of refugees to total population: 1 to 443

Asylum approval rate:2 58%

Refugees mainly from: Hungary, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, China

Approval rates by nationality: Afghanistan (97%) Somalia (92%) Hungary (27%) Pending asylum cases: 25,800


Gil Moti / Still Pictures /
Gil Moti / Still Pictures /

Fast, comparatively. Within three days an immigration officer decides whether a claim is eligible to be heard; decision-time for refugee status is 10 months. Anyone guilty of a serious crime, human-rights abuses or deemed a security risk can be immediately rejected. Appeals can be made against deportation – but not if the person is being extradited or has come from a safe third country. Some 10,900 refugees were resettled in 2001 – healthcare and immigration loans are available.


In the aftermath of 11 September refugee rights have deteriorated (see article here). In June 2002 Canada and the US signed a preliminary agreement that neither is obliged to accept asylum seekers arriving from a ‘safe third country’. Critics argue that the US system is far harsher than Canada’s and asylum seekers will suffer from such deals.


The traditional country of immigration is now in the grip of paranoia over domestic security. This is dictating refugee policy.


Refugees and asylum seekers: 492,500

Percentage of world total: 3.3%

Ratio of refugees to US population: 1 to 578

Asylum approval rate:2 56.5%

Refugees mainly from: Mexico, China, Colombia, Haiti, India, El Salvador

Approval rates by nationality: Mexico (7%) China (64%) Colombia (62.5%) Haiti (36%) India (57%) Somalia (81%) Afghanistan (89.5%) El Salvador (16%)

Pending asylum cases: 396,000


Spot decisions to deport can be made at the border if the asylum seeker does not have proper documents and no ‘credible fear of persecution’. It takes up to 180 days for asylum claims to be processed or referred to immigration judges. Asylum seekers can appeal against decisions. Temporary Protected Status may be granted to those who face ‘extraordinary and temporary conditions’ that prevent safe return. After 11 September the refugee programme was frozen and the use of detention increased. Data on numbers is withheld. The US also interdicts at sea would-be asylum claimants. Public benefits are not available to asylum seekers but they are entitled to limited cash and medical assistance. Permission to work is given if a claim has taken more than 180 days.


The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 has broadened the definition of ‘terrorism’, providing a mandate to deport or refuse entry to prospective immigrants and asylum applicants. It also enables the indefinite detention of any non-citizen the attorney general considers a terrorist suspect.


Britain’s new asylum policies claim to be aimed at ensuring both ‘secure borders’ and ‘safe havens’. Hypocrisy and confusion are its hallmarks.


Refugees and asylum seekers:* 69,8007

Percentage of world total: 0.47%*

Ratio of refugees to British population: 1 in 972

Asylum approval rate:2,3 11.4%

Exceptional Leave to Remain (ELR): 23% of those rejected are given four-year protection from deportation

Refugees mainly from: Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Iran and Yugoslavia

Asylum applications pending: 39,400


Britain makes use of both detention and ‘dispersal’ or enforced scattering of asylum seekers around the country. Under a new strategy, arrivals are to be held in secure ‘induction centres’, from there to be dispersed to accommodation centres. New large-scale detention centres are also planned. Asylum decisions can take years. Failed applicants can appeal via a new fast-track process. Financial support for asylum seekers is available at 70 per cent of normal income support. After six months asylum seekers may seek work. Deportations are set to rise dramatically. Snatch squads of immigration officers have powers to break into homes and make arrests.


Arbitrary detention and accommodation centres isolate asylum seekers from the community. Britain’s focus on increased border controls and removals rather than protection mocks its position as signatory to the Geneva Convention, while new anti-terrorism measures further erode the rights of refugees.


Australia has gained international notoriety for its harsh treatment of asylum seekers. There are few signs of a softening of approach


Refugees and asylum seekers: 21,800

Percentage of world total: 0.15%

Ratio of refugees to Australian population: *1 to 849 *

Asylum approval rate:2,4 35%

Mainly from: Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Indonesia, Fiji and Iran (‘onshore’); former Yugoslavia, Iran, Sudan (‘offshore’)

Pending asylum cases: 5,385


All non-citizens who unlawfully enter Australia are detained, most until their cases are considered. This can take months or years. Detention facilities are remote and far from legal help. Some asylum seekers may be granted temporary protection visas valid for three years. They may be able to work but are excluded from many benefits. Failed asylum seekers can appeal – but have to pay a fine of $500 if they lose. The asylum system changed in 2001, prompted by the arrival of 1,200 unauthorized ‘boat people’. The Government initiated the ‘Pacific Solution’ whereby Papua New Guinea and the tiny island of Nauru have become ‘offshore’ refugee-screening sites for Australia-bound asylum seekers.


An Australian parliamentary committee has called the detention system a ‘disgrace verging on the inhuman’. The denial of asylum to parched and desperate ‘boat people’ has brought criticism from international refugee agencies.


Immigration is new to Ireland, traditionally a country of emigration. It’s in no great rush to open its door.

Refugees and asylum seekers: 9,500

Percentage of world total: 0.06%

Asylum approval rate:2,5 9%

Refugees mainly from: Nigeria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russian Federation, Croatia

Pending asylum cases: 8,200 (on first instance decisions)


Howard Davies / Exile Images /
Howard Davies / Exile Images /

The system is slow: in February 2002 one in seven applicants had waited more than a year for a decision. The criteria for rejection is broad: an application may be declared ‘manifestly unfounded’ if an applicant refuses to have fingerprints taken. Free legal aid is available to all asylum seekers. Appeals against decisions must be made within two weeks. Anyone who receives a deportation order may apply for ‘Temporary Leave to Remain’. Asylum seekers are sent to remote accommodation centres on full board and reduced social welfare payments. Free health services and exceptional needs payments are provided. Asylum seekers are generally prohibited from working.


A report by the Irish Refugee Council charges that the authorities have fast-tracked deporting asylum applicants to countries with well-documented histories of human-rights abuses, relying on outdated country information when assessing applications. Accelerated procedures highlight the Government’s priority of preventing abuse of the process rather than protecting asylum seekers.


Aotearoa has shown itself more humane than many countries. However, recent events have tarnished its record.


Refugees and asylum seekers: 2,700

Percentage of world total: 0.02%

Asylum approval rate:2,5 18.7%

Refugees mainly from: Thailand, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka

Applications pending: 1,424


Asylum seekers are rarely deported until their cases are heard and decisions made by the New Zealand Immigration Service. This takes two months. If anyone overstays a visa by more than 42 days they can be deported immediately with no right of appeal. Asylum applicants are eligible for government-funded legal help and hostel accommodation for up to three months. They may receive one work permit per family while their claims are pending, and their children may attend school. Detention was rare in Aotearoa until 11 September, after which nearly all newly arrived asylum seekers are held.


Refugee advocates in Australia and Aotearoa often compare the two countries’ policies. Australia detains virtually all asylum seekers while Aotearoa often lets them live and work in the community, providing comprehensive access to welfare services. When last year Aotearoa admitted 131 Afghan asylum seekers who had been among the 400 Afghans Australian had refused and taken to the remote island nation of Nauru instead, the contrast appeared even sharper. But Aotearoa’s response to 11 September sets a worrying precedent ( see article here).


Iran has taken in more refugees than any country in the world. Its treatment of them has become harsh.


Refugees and asylum seekers: 2.55 million

Percentage of world total: 17%

Ratio of refugees to population: 1 to 26

Mainly from: Afghanistan and Iraq

Iranians seeking resettlement outside Iran: 23,700 living in Iraq, 10,000 seeking asylum in Europe


Martin Adler / Panos Pictures /
Martin Adler / Panos Pictures /

Labour laws used to be ignored and asylum seekers were allowed to work. But with unemployment high, the Government has clamped down. In 2001 refugees were registered as a means to deport those without work permits. Around 82,000 Afghan men and 8,300 families were deported between January and July 2001.6 During this time between around 1,000 Afghans continued to arrive daily in Iran. Around 111,000 Afghans were returned to Afghanistan in the last six months of 2001. As the US and the Northern Alliance began their military campaigns Iran closed its border to new arrivals. Instead it set up two border camps just within Afghanistan which filled up so quickly hundreds of women and children had to be turned away.


Iran’s harsh asylum policy must be seen in the context of the fact it receives around 17 per cent of the world’s total displaced peoples and little assistance from the international community.

  1. All statistics are taken from USCR (United States Committee for Refugees) unless otherwise stated. Figures are based on totals and projections at end of the fiscal year 2001.
  2. Approval rates calculated on basis of interview decisions, excluding closed or withdrawn cases.
  3. Not including appeals or ELR cases.
  4. Onshore applications, primary stage.
  5. Not including appeals.
  6. UNHCR figures.
  7. Figures stated in the Keynote are for the beginnng of 2002.

WARNING: statistics on refugees are often inexact and controversial. Those used on these pages represent USCR’s ‘best judgement’.

  1. All statistics are taken from USCR (United States Committee for Refugees) unless otherwise stated. Figures are based on totals and projections at end of the fiscal year 2001.
  2. Approval rates calculated on basis of interview decisions, excluding closed or withdrawn cases.
  3. Not including appeals or ELR cases.
  4. Onshore applications, primary stage.
  5. Not including appeals.
  6. UNHCR figures.
  7. Figures stated in the Keynote are for the beginnng of 2002.

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This article was originally published in issue 350

New Internationalist Magazine issue 350
Issue 350

More articles from this issue

  • No room at the inn

    October 1, 2002

    Could entry to the countries of the rich world have something to do with race? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown looks at what lies at the core of the refugee issue.

  • Run for your life

    October 1, 2002

    Hotspots of the world currently producing most refugees.

  • Refugee! Criminal! Terrorist!

    October 1, 2002

    Damien Lawson assesses the impact that September has had on asylum seekers.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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