How has Australia’s refugee processing system changed recently?

The Howard government, in its final term, significantly ameliorated its regime for the detention of asylum seekers, expediting the processing of claims and releasing some asylum seekers into the community while their claims were assessed.

The Rudd government’s biggest change was the abolition of temporary protection visas, on the grounds that they provided no deterrence value for would-be asylum seekers (and in fact encouraged women and children to try to reach Australia by boat). The closures of the Pacific Solution centres on Nauru and in PNG were symbolic given the small numbers at the facilities.

All of the 90 residents of the Nauru facility had already had their claims for refugee status approved, but had been left on Nauru.

The Rudd government’s other major commitment, to “risk-based detention”, has yet to be passed by Parliament.

Major reforms in recent years have been:

  • 90-day limit on refugee claim assessment announced June 2005 and later enacted by the Howard government.
  • Community Care pilot, in which asylum seekers were housed in the community rather than detention while their claims were processed, launched by Amanda Vanstone in May 2006.
  • Offshore processing centres on Nauru and in Manus Province in Papua New Guinea closed on March 31, 2008.
  • Temporary protection visas abolished on August 9, 2008. All applicants for a protection visa who are found to engage Australia’s protection obligations now receive a permanent protection visa.
  • New risk-based detention policy announced on  July 29, 2008.
  • June 6, 2009 government announced regulation amendments to remove the 45-day rule, introduced in 1997, which removed work rights and access to health care for refugee claimants who did not apply for protection within 45 days of their arrival in Australia. Judith Troeth’s crossing the floor on September 8 allowed the amendment to pass the Senate.
  • Abolition of requirement for former detainees to pay debts associated with detention enacted by Parliament on September 8.
  • A Bill to implement the government’s June 2008 changes in detention policy, the Migration Amendment (Immigration Detention Reform) Bill 2009, remains before Parliament.