The Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, said on 6 September 2015 that Australia is already doing a lot when it comes to accepting asylum seekers, and that “we take more refugees than any other through the UNHCR on a per capita basis.”

Shadow Immigration Minister, Richard Marles, repeatedly refused to contradict that claim on Radio National’s AM programme on 7 September.

It is characteristic of the impoverished conversation about refugees in Australia these days that the Prime Minister gets away with such misleading statements and that the Shadow Immigration Minister doesn’t know the facts sufficiently to set the record straight.

To see the way Abbott misleads the public on the matter, it is important to know that there are three streams of refugees who arrive in Australia each year.

First, there is the offshore resettlement stream. Along with a few other countries, Australia handpicks people from UNHCR refugee camps in other countries and brings them safely to Australia. It is an admirable scheme. The quota each year varies, but at present it is set at 13,750 people per year. We resettle them in the community, and it is a scheme we can be proud of. That is the refugee intake Mr Abbott was speaking of.

Second, there are refugees who come by aeroplane. These are people who are able to get travel documents from their country of origin and a visa to come to Australia: typically, a business or tourist visa. Once the person has cleared Passport Control in Australia, they apply for a protection visa. Until their refugee status is finally determined, they live in the community and cause no anxiety at all. Most of them are ultimately assessed as not being refugees. Mr Abbott never speaks about this group.

Third, there are people who are unable to get travel documents from their country of origin or are unable to get a visa to come to Australia. These people are unable to board a plane to fly to Australia, since airlines will not allow a person to board a flight to Australia unless the person is holding an Australian passport or a valid visa to enter Australia. The reason for this is simple: if an airline brings a person to Australia who is not entitled to enter Australia, the airline has to return the person to their point of embarkation at its own expense.

The people who are unable to get travel documents or a visa to enter Australia have no choice but to use people smugglers. They arrive as “boat people”. We lock them up or we take them by force, against their will, to Nauru or Manus Island. Almost all of them are ultimately found to be refugees. Mr Abbott is obsessed with this group and puts his proclaimed Christianity to one side in order to have them treated as harshly as possible.

In order to decide whether Australia is generous in the way Mr Abbot and Mr Marles seem to think, it is important to see which group we are talking about.

Not every country has an offshore resettlement scheme. If we compare our offshore humanitarian intake, we rank well against those other countries which also have an offshore resettlement programme. but this involves comparing us to a small group of countries, and it ignores the reality that most countries receive refugees who are on the move, not sitting in UNHCR camps.

If we compare the number of refugees we receive across all categories, our performance crashes. For example, here are some figures showing the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers in just a few countries, and a calculation of how those numbers look on a per capita basis:

Country: Germany* Turkey* Nauru Australia
population 82,600,000 75,000,000 10,000 23,000,000
refugees        216,000    1,587,374        389          35,582
asylum seekers        350,000    1,500,000        733          21,518
refugees as % of population 0.26% 2.12% 3.89% 0.15%
asylum seekers as % of population 0.42% 2.00% 7.33% 0.09%
* the figures for Germany and Turkey are very recent estimates, taking account of the arrival of substantial numbers of Syrian refugees in the past few weeks

The comparisons become all the more striking when you consider that countries like Lebanon and Jordan now have millions of refugees from Syria, for the obvious reason that those countries are very close to Syria.

So, a few simple facts:

  1. Australia is NOT the most generous country when it comes to resettling refugees
  2. Australia IS the only western country which punishes people for seeking asylum, even though seeking asylum is not a crime: boat people are NOT illegal.
  3. Australia spends vast amounts of money to lock up and mistreat refugees.
  4. Tony Abbott either does not know the facts or he wilfully misleads the public, by pandering to our natural desire to do good. He could encourage us to be generous, but instead promotes cruelty while pretending that we are being generous.
  5. Richard Marles either does not know the facts or sees political advantage insupporting the Abbott government policy.
  6. Tony Abbott is unfit to be Prime Minister and Richard Marles is unfit to be shadow Immigration Minister.

The question all Australians should ask is this: What sort of country are we?  Are we selfish or are we generous?  Are we willing to mistreat terrified human beings who have the courage, and the initiative, to escape to safety?