A widespread perception in the community that Australia is being swamped by asylum seekers arriving by boat continues to strongly influence government policy and to be an emotive and divisive political issue. As a result, for many years the Labor Government and before it the Coalition Government have been pressured to adopt and maintain effective measures to address border security concerns, combat people smuggling and 'stop the boats'.
Both sides of politics are in agreement on some of the measures in place to deal with these issues (such as mandatory detention for unauthorised boat arrivals), but there are policy differences, some influenced by arguments as to whether 'push factors' or 'pull factors' are the primary determinant of asylum seeker arrivals in Australia. The Labor Government has emphasised that irregular migration is a global challenge and is linked directly to 'push factors' such as conflict and displacement within the region. In contrast, the Coalition attributes the recent increase in irregular boat arrivals (also known as irregular maritime arrivals) to 'pull factors' driven predominantly by domestic policy changes—most notably, Labor’s decision in 2008 to discontinue temporary protection visas, grant refugees permanent residency and discontinue the processing of asylum seekers in Nauru.
So what are the policy differences?
In 2001 the Howard Government introduced third country offshore processing (the 'Pacific Solution'). Unauthorised boat arrivals after that point were intercepted at sea and either to be returned to Indonesia (boat 'turnarounds') or removed to third countries in the Pacific Ocean (either Nauru or Manus Island). Any claims made by those people for refugee status could then be processed outside the jurisdiction of Australian courts, with no guarantee of a resettlement place in Australia. Although there were only ever a few instances of boat 'turnarounds' during the term of the Howard Government, due in part to the practical complexities involved, the Coalition has stated that turning boats around might again be an option 'in the right circumstances'. On 8 February 2008 the Rudd Government announced that the centres on Manus and Nauru would no longer be used and that future unauthorised boat arrivals would be processed on Christmas Island. A total of 1637 people had been detained in the Nauru and Manus facilities from September 2001 to 2008—1153 (70 per cent) were ultimately resettled to Australia or other countries. Past figures (p. 8) show that between 70 and 97 per cent of other asylum seekers arriving by boat at different times have been found to be refugees and granted protection either in Australia or in another country. In 2010 the Gillard Government announced that it was, however, exploring options for creating a regional processing centre in a foreign country—possibly in Timor-Leste. The Coalition however currently favours the reintroduction of a processing centre on Nauru.
In October 1999, the Howard Government introduced the practice of offering temporary, but not permanent, protection for asylum seekers who had arrived unauthorised and had been found to be refugees. In May 2008 the Rudd Government announced that it would abolish the Howard Government Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and offer permanent protection to those still in the country on these visas (around 1000 at the time). The Rudd and Gillard Governments have consistently rejected calls by the Opposition for a reintroduction of TPVs. Some, including members of the current Opposition, have attributed the recent increase in the number of unauthorised boat arrivals to their abolition (along with the ending of the Pacific Solution), claiming that TPVs were an effective deterrent to boat arrivals. However, Labor has argued, along with many commentators and refugee advocates, that the introduction of TPVs was ineffective in reducing the number of unauthorised boat arrivals. They argue that it actually led to an increase in women and children undertaking the risky journey to Australia by boat (as TPVs did not provide family reunification rights so families could not rely on men travelling to Australia alone and bringing their wives and children out to join them once they had been granted protection). Labor argues instead that the major factor driving the arrival of asylum seekers by boat in our region are the ‘push factors’ which have led to an increase in the numbers of refugees worldwide. However, it could be argued that policy changes such as the proposed regional processing centre and the processing freeze for Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers, along with the signing of an MOU covering involuntary returns to Afghanistan may be intended to minimise possible 'pull factors'.
What do both sides of politics agree on?
Anti-people smuggling initiatives
Both sides of politics agree that people smuggling is an unacceptable organised criminal activity that endangers innocent people’s lives. Both have accordingly committed to increased cooperation with Indonesia and other countries in the region and to creating harsher minimum mandatory sentences for certain people smuggling offences. Some commentators though have criticised the introduction of tougher penalties on the basis that they do not effectively target people smuggling syndicates—rather, they simply punish the possibly unsuspecting Indonesian fishermen who operate the boats. Following a surge in unauthorised boat arrivals in the late 1990s and early 2000s the Howard Government introduced a number of new border protection measures aimed at deterring unauthorised boat arrivals entering Australia. These included increased border surveillance, migration excision, offshore processing and a people smuggling 'disruption' campaign aimed at preventing boats from leaving Indonesia in the first place. With another surge in the number of boat arrivals since September 2008, the Rudd Government was under pressure to further address border security and people smuggling issues. In the 2009–10 Budget, the Rudd Government allocated $654 million across several portfolios to fund a whole-of-government strategy to combat people smuggling and help address the problem of unauthorised boat arrivals. The Rudd Government also secured the passage of the Anti-People Smuggling and Other Measures Bill 2010 which created new people smuggling offences. Prior to the 2010 election Julia Gillard made it clear that her Government would continue to pursue these anti-people smuggling initiatives.
In September 2001 the Howard Government introduced the Migration Amendment (Excision from the Migration Zone) Bill 2001. This enabled the excision of Christmas, Ashmore, Cartier and Cocos (Keeling) Islands from the migration zone for specific migration purposes in order to discourage non-citizens from arriving unlawfully on Australia’s shores by boat. The excision was effected with the support of both major political parties. The amendment meant that any unauthorised arrivals at an excised offshore place were barred from making valid visa applications unless the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship determined that it was in the public interest to permit them to do so and 'lifted the bar'. Although the offshore entry processing regime has changed recently in response to a November 2010 High Court ruling on procedural fairness for asylum seekers on Christmas Island, the Rudd and Gillard Governments have nonetheless officially continued the excision policy introduced by the Howard Government.
The policy of mandatory detention (that is the legal requirement to detain all non-citizens that do not hold a valid visa) was introduced by the Keating Government in the early 1990s. The detention population is comprised of unauthorised boat arrivals and others such as those who have overstayed their visa. The issue of providing additional and appropriate accommodation to avoid overcrowding and a deterioration of conditions was a significant challenge for the Howard Government with the surge in boat arrivals in the late 1990s and is proving to be the case again for the Labor Government following the surge in arrivals since 2008. Both governments have made provisions for additional accommodation during their terms. Since 2001 the detention of asylum seekers in often remote locations has received a great deal of public attention. In particular, the duration and conditions of their detention have been controversial issues that have plagued successive governments. The conditions in detention centres, length of detention and the physical and psychological effects on detainees on Nauru and in onshore detention facilities such as Woomera attracted a great deal of criticism during the Howard Government. Refugee advocates and other stakeholders are also critical of the mandatory detention regime that has continued under the Rudd and Gillard Governments. The Rudd Government’s temporary suspension in April 2010 of the processing of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan arriving by boat was criticised on the basis that it might lead to their indefinite detention. The Gillard Government has subsequently lifted this suspension, but over-crowding, delays in processing, and recent protests and rioting in both onshore and offshore detention centres have attracted further criticism.
Authored with Elibritt Karlsen and Harriet Spinks
Key Parliamentary Library publications
Boat arrivals since 1976
Seeking Asylum: Australia’s humanitarian response to a global challenge
Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?
Developments in Australian refugee law and policy 2007-10: Labor’s first term in office
(Image source: http://www.defence.gov.au/opEx/global/opresolute/images/gallery/20091221/index.htm)