Asylum in Australia

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Australia currently recognises the right of asylum and is a signatory to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The current government policy is to detain anyone entering Australia without a valid visa. Australia is the only country in the world to mandate the strict enforcement of the detention of asylum-seekers.[1]

The right of asylum is a contentious wedge issue in Australian politics. The two major political parties in Australia argue the issue is a border control problem and one concerning the safety of those attempting to come to Australia by boat. Some Australian and international human rights organisations have suggested that Australia's policies are "an appeal to fear and racism".[1][2]


Historically, most asylum seekers arrived by plane, however after increasing levels in the preceding three years, in 2011–2012 the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat outstripped those arriving by plane for the first time, and form the largest number of those successfully seeking asylum.[3][4][5] From 1945 to the early 1990s more than half a million refugees and other displaced persons were accepted into Australia.[6] According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees "2009 Global Trends" report, Australia was ranked 47th on the list of refugee-hosting countries between 2005 and 2009.[7] The Refugee Council of Australia placed Australia 22nd on a per capita basis in a list of countries that accept refugees in 2012.[8] In that year the annual refugee quota was raised from 13,750 to 20,000 people.[9] In terms of resettlement (as opposed to "receiving") asylum seekers, Australia ranks 2nd overall, 3rd per capita and 3rd as a proportion of GDP.[10]


Thousands of refugees have sought asylum in Australia over the past decade.[11] The main forces driving immigration have been war, civil unrest and persecution.[12] Many have arrived via boats leaving from Indonesia en route to Christmas Island, an Australian territory close to Indonesia.[13] The boats are often overcrowded and unsafe. Accidents are common.[11] In December 2010, a boat of refugees sank, killing 48.[14] In June 2012, an accident led to 17 confirmed deaths, with 70 other people missing.[15] More than 600 asylum seekers have been killed en route to Australian territory since 2009.[11]

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations' Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.[16] The prolonged detention of refugees is contrary to the Convention. Detention is viewed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHCR) as a measure of last resort to be used only when national interests are threatened.[17] The UNHCR has found against Australia regarding detention of asylum seekers on multiple occasions. Specifically, the findings concluded Australia had violated Section 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which recognises and protects a right to justice and a fair trial.[1] The longest-held detainee within the Australian immigration detention system was Peter Qasim. Qasim was detained for six years and ten months.[18]

Polling in Australia has shown a continual rise in opposition to boat arrivals.[19] After the wrongful incarceration of Cornelia Rau was made public through the Palmer Inquiry, the Australian public became more concerned with detaining children in remote locations and the resulting potential for long-term psychological damage to minors.[1]

An increase in the level of debate regarding asylum seekers in Australia has resulted in greater deterrence measures and fewer legal rights for those that do arrive.[20] According to Amnesty International, the debate "has been distorted by myths and misconceptions" such as the incorrect use of the word "illegal".[21] Former Prime Minister Paul Keating has attacked the tone of the debate regarding asylum seekers in Australia. In March 2012, Keating suggested race was a motivating factor and that Australia's reputation was being damaged in Asia.[22] Malcolm Fraser has also been a vocal critic of the current political debate on the issue, describing it as a "race to the bottom".[23]


The HMT Dunera transported 2,432 men, including Georg Auer, to Australia from England in 1942.

A compliance interview, often done with the assistance of an interpreter, is one of the first steps taken by immigration officers to determine if a person is making a valid claim of asylum.[20] If a valid fear of persecution is expressed a formal application for refugee status is undertaken. If permission to stay in Australia is not granted they must be removed as soon as possible.[24]

People who arrived by boat on or after 13 August 2012 are not able to propose that their immediate family members also gain entry to Australia.[25]


In the 1930s more than 7,000 refugees from Nazi Germany were accepted into Australia.[26] In the eight years after the end of World War II almost 200,000 European refugees settled in Australia. Australia was reluctant to recognise a general "right of asylum" for refugees when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being drafted.[27] The White Australia policy was responsible for the exclusion of Asians from migration to Australia until 1973.[28]

Three waves of asylum seekers arriving by boat have been identified. The first were Vietnamese between 1976 and 1981. The second wave included mostly Indochinese asylum seekers from 1989 to 1998. The third wave began in 1999 and involved people of Middle East origin and the use of people smugglers.[19]

Tan Le entered Australia as a refugee in 1982 and was named Young Australian of the Year in 1998.

The first recorded instance of asylum seekers arriving in Australia via unauthorised boat occurred in April 1976. Fleeing South Vietnam after the Communist Party victory of 1974, an estimated 2,000 "Vietnamese boat people" followed from 1976–1982. The sporadic arrival of unauthorised boats was a cause of concern for the Australian people.[29] The initial controversy regarding asylum seekers in Australia was mostly because of family reunions.[28] Employment and security concerns were also raised with the Waterside Workers Federation calling for strikes on the matter.[19] This led to the first detention of boat people. In response, the government of Malcolm Fraser authorized the immigration of more than 50,000 Vietnamese from Indian Ocean refugee camps. At the time, the "open door" immigration policy enjoyed bipartisan support.[29]

Mandatory detention: the 1990s[edit]

During the early 1990s, asylum seekers from Cambodia began to arrive in Australia. In response, the government of Paul Keating instituted a policy known as mandatory detention aimed at deterring refugees.[29] Under mandatory detention, anyone who enters the Australian migration zone without a visa is placed in a holding facility while security and health checks are performed. Additionally, the validity of the person's claim to asylum is assessed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

In 1990, a number of asylum seekers arrived from Somalia without documentation. They were detained at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre for 18 months without any progress on their status. Some began a hunger strike in response to the prolonged detention. Eventually, all were determined to be genuine refugees.[17]

In the mid-1990s, numerous boats carrying Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese refugees were returned to their place of origin after asylum claims were denied. The rapid repatriations meant that many citizens were unaware of the refugees.[29] During this period a refugee from Indonesia was detained for 707 days before being granted refugee status.[17]

In 1999, Middle Eastern immigrants fleeing from oppressive regimes in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq began to arrive in large numbers.[29] The government of Prime Minister John Howard extended the time they spent in mandatory detention and introduced temporary protection visas for boat arrivals.[1] The deterrents did little to stop immigrants; roughly 12,000 asylum seekers reached Australia from 1999 to 2001.[29]

Pacific Solution: 2001–2007[edit]

Main article: Pacific Solution

"We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."

John Howard[30]

In August 2001, a Norwegian tanker, the Tampa, picked up 438 people whose vessel was sinking off the coast of Indonesia. According to the captain, he tried to return the Afghan refugees to Indonesia, but they threatened to throw themselves overboard if he did so. Consequently, he agreed to take them to Christmas Island. Howard's government refused to allow the boat to land, saying it was a matter for Norway and Indonesia to work out amongst themselves. Neither made a move, creating a three way diplomatic standoff which became known as the Tampa Affair. Australia seized control of the ship, drawing international criticism but strong support in the country. After ten days, Australia struck a deal with New Zealand and Nauru to have those nations temporarily host the refugees while Australia processed their asylum claims.[31] Following the September 11 attacks in the US, racist rhetoric against Muslims, who were the primary asylum seekers at the time, increased in Australia.[28]

Following the Tampa Affair, the Commonwealth Migration Act (1958) was amended by Howard's government in September 2001.[32] The amendments, which became known as the Pacific Solution, prevented refugees landing on Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef from seeking asylum.[29] Instead, they were redirected to nearby island nations such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru. There, refugees had to undergo a lengthy asylum process before they could immigrate to Australia.[11] At the time, the minority Labor Party opposed the policy. In 2003, Julia Gillard promised that Labor would end the Pacific Solution "because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle".[33]

The Pacific Solution was intended to remove the incentive for refugees to come to Australia. While detained offshore, asylum-seekers under the Pacific Solution were denied access to Australian lawyers and to protection under Australian law.[1]

A Christmas Island boat transports rescued refugees

The policy was highly criticised by human rights groups.[11] The primary concern was that abusive process could potentially develop in remote locations.[34] In 2002, the arrivals dropped from 5,516 the previous year to 1.[19] From 2001 to 2007, fewer than 300 asylum seekers arrived.[29] The program cost Australia more than AU$1 billion during that period.[35] In July 2005, Australia ceased the practice of mandatory detention of children.[34]

Open immigration: 2007–2012[edit]

In 2007, the Labor Party under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd abandoned the Pacific Solution, installing a more liberal asylum policy.[11] Rudd's government pledged to settle all asylum claims within three months and closed the Nauru detention facility.[29] The Rudd government abolished temporary protection visas in 2008.[1] Only 45 of the 1,637 asylum seekers detained in Nauru were found not to be refugees.[12]

Over the next few years the number of asylum seekers arriving in the country increased substantially.[11] In 2008, there were 161 immigrants under asylum laws; in 2009, claims jumped to 2,800.[11][29] The issue quickly became a political problem for Rudd. He tried to claim it was a change in the international political environment that caused the increase, not the abandonment of the Pacific Solution. When that idea failed to gain ground, he proposed what became known as the Indonesian Solution. Under the plan, Indonesia would receive financial aid and intelligence in exchange for cracking down on the people smugglers that transported the asylum seekers. In October 2009, the customs boat Oceanic Viking picked up shipwrecked asylum seekers and attempted to return them to Indonesia, as agreed. However, the attempts to unload the refugees failed and Labor's poll numbers dropped significantly.[29]

Australia's refugee
and humanitarian program
Year Grants
2006–07 13,017
2007–08 13,014
2008–09 13,507
2009–10 13,770
2010–11 13,799
2011–12 13,759
2012–13 20,019
Source: Department of Immigration and Citizenship[36]

Ahead of the 2010 election, Tony Abbott campaigned on the asylum issue, and with Rudd refusing to engage with him in "a race to the bottom", polls showed the public strongly favouring Abbott's anti-asylum views. By this time, Rudd was struggling in the polls for a number of reasons and had lost the confidence of the Labor Party Caucus, which, fearing defeat in the upcoming election, installed Julia Gillard in his place. Gillard argued it was wrong to give special privileges to asylum seekers. She was against a return to the Pacific Solution, instead arguing for the establishment of a regional offshore processing centre. Gillard's new position was welcomed in the polls, and in the August 2010 election, Labor retained power in a minority government supported by a number of independents.[29]

In May 2011, the Gillard government announced plans to address the issue by swapping new asylum seekers for long-standing genuine refugees in Malaysia. The so-called Malaysian Solution was eventually ruled unconstitutional.[37] In 2011, Australia received 2.5% of the world's total number of claims for asylum.[38] During 2012, more than 17,000 asylum seekers arrived via boat.[16] The majority of the refugees came from Afghanistan, Iran, and Sri Lanka.[11]

Crackdown, PNG solution: 2012–2013[edit]

See also: PNG solution

In June 2012, Gillard appointed an expert panel to make recommendations on the asylum issue by August 2012.[39] The report included 22 recommendations.[38] Following their recommendations, her government effectively reinstated the Pacific Solution, and re-introduced offshore processing for asylum seekers. Some Labor members complained that Gillard had abandoned her principle for the sake of politics. Greens' Senator Sarah Hanson Young called offshore processing "a completely unworkable, inhumane, unthinkable proposition".[33] The Nauru processing facility was reopened in September, and the Manus Island facility in Papua New Guinea reopened in November.[13][40] However, the centres could not keep up with demand, creating a large backlog.[11] The first 6 months of the policy did not see a reduction in immigration attempts — in the first half of 2013, there were more than 15,000 asylum seekers.[16] For the 6 months to June 2014 however, the number has appeared to sharply reduce, with the immigration minister Scott Morrison claiming that there "had (not been) a successful people smuggling venture" in the period.[41]

In July 2013, Rudd, who had recently returned to power as Prime Minister, announced that anyone who arrived in Australia by boat without a visa would not be eligible for asylum.[11] In co-operation with Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, the Regional Settlement Agreement was drafted. Under the agreement, new asylum seekers would be sent to Papua New Guinea where legitimate cases would be granted asylum in that, but would lose any right to seek asylum in Australia.[42] To accommodate the refugees, the Manus Island processing facility would be enlarged significantly. In exchange for taking the asylum seekers, Papua New Guinea will receive financial aid from Australia. Like Australia, Papua New Guinea is a signatory to United Nations Refugees Convention.[16] Rudd said the policy was not intended to be permanent and would be reviewed annually.[11]

Part of the Manus Island regional processing facility in October 2012

Announcing the new policy, Rudd remarked "Australians have had enough of seeing people drowning in the waters to our north. Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas."[11] Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott praised the substance of plan, but said Rudd's government was incapable of making it work. Greens leader Christine Milne, however, called the plan "absolutely immoral".[42] Human rights groups criticized the decision. "Mark this day in history as the day Australia decided to turn its back on the world's most vulnerable people, closed the door and threw away the key," said Graeme McGregor of Amnesty International Australia.[11] Human rights lawyer David Mann called it a "fundamental abrogation of Australia's responsibilities" and doubted the legality of the policy.[11] He has also questioned the record of human rights in Papua New Guinea.[43]

The New York Times described Rudd's decision as likely "part of a concerted effort" to nullify opposition attacks ahead of the 2013 federal election.[11] He had been under fire for the unpopular programs of Gillard that led to his return to power, and immigration had become a major issue in the election campaign.[11][16]

Many have expressed concern that rather than being about the safety of those attempting to reach Australia by boat, the policies of both major parties are "an appeal to fear and racism" among swinging voters.[2][44]

Concurrent with Rudd's announcement, Indonesia announced it would toughen requirement for Iranians seeking visas, a change that had been requested by Australia. An Indonesia spokesperson denied that the change in policy was because of an Australian request.[11]

See also[edit]


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