The expert panel composed of Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle charged with finding a solution to the impasse on asylum seekers has unveiled 22 recommendations at a press conference early this afternoon.

Noting that over 900 people have lost their lives in boats since 2001 and emphasising that the panel was aiming for short, medium and long-term proposals, it recommended a strong effort to establish an “enhanced regional cooperation framework” through which Australia would need to engage with regional states on protections and processing of asylum seekers via “wider and deeper international linkages”.

However, until such such a framework was established, “circuit breakers in Australian policy” were needed to discourage maritime arrivals and encourage regular arrivals.

These consist of:

  • a greater humanitarian intake to give confidence for asylum seekers to pursue regular entry — lifting the current humanitarian intake to 20,000 pa (with a greater regional focus) — eventually rising to 27,000 pa in five years;
  • family reunion no longer permitted for successful asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Instead, they would only be able to seek family reunion via the standard family migration program, which would be increased by 4,000 places a year;
  • the establishment of capacity on Nauru and Papua New Guinea for offshore processing of maritime arrivals, with no resettlement for maritime arrivals any faster than they would have otherwise been resettled through existing “regular” processes. There would be greater oversight of detainees while they awaited resettlement via a combined government-NGO mechanism;
  • detainees who are determined to be at-risk would be transferred to Australia and remain on a form of temporary protection visa until their case was resolved;
  • the negotiation of amendments to the existing agreement with the Malaysian government to strengthen protections for asylum seekers, with the ultimate goal of establishing a legally-binding agreement. However, Malaysia signing on to the UN Refugee Convention was not necessary.

The panel also concluded that turning boats back can work as a deterrent, but only if certain diplomatic, legal and operational conditions are met. As those conditions currently don’t exist, turning boats back is not currently an option.

The panel costed its proposals as follows:

  • increase in humanitarian program to 20,000 places per annum: $1.4 billion over forward estimates;
  • increase in family migration stream of the migration program by4,000 places per annum: $800m over forward estimates;
  • a Nauru centre containing up to 1,500 people: $1.2-1.4 billion over forward estimates, including capital costs;
  • a PNG centre containing up to 600 people: $900 million over forward estimates, including capital costs;
  • implementation of Malaysia Solution: $80 million over forward estimates; and
  • research program on irregular migration: $3m pa.

The panel notes that the costs will be offset by savings from the reduction in maritime asylum seekers currently forecast to cost $5 billion over forward estimates.

Keane’s comment:

The Houston Panel has provided the government with a package of measures that incorporates elements from all sides in the debate, but with a strong focus on deterrence. It has rejected the Coalition’s proposal to turn back boats as currently unworkable but has also raised significant concerns about the government’s Malaysian Solution and put a clear emphasis on getting Nauru (favoured by the Coalition) and an offshore centre on Manus Island in PNG up and running. However, its long-term goal of an expansion of the humanitarian assistance category to 27,500 people per annum takes the number up to and even beyond the level proposed by the Greens. It has also refused to embrace a full-blown Temporary Protection Visa, instead adopting a crucial element of the Howard Government régime: preventing maritime arrivals from seeking family reunion.

It has also sought to address concerns about aspects of the deterrence régime.

In order to overcome the problem that removing the right to family reunions has been demonstrated to encourage the families of asylum seekers to try to make the same boat trip, it has proposed opening the usual Family Migration process up to successful asylum seekers and expanding that process by 4,000 in order to accommodate greater demand. It has also tried to address the criticism that Nauru or any other offshore processing without a regional agreement would mean asylum seekers would eventually end up in Australia anyway, by requiring that maritime arrivals are held until they would have been resettled under “regular” processes.

However, significant concerns remain about the practicality of some proposals, and in particular the detention of successful maritime asylum seekers for an undefined period until they have gained no advantage from pursuing irregular arrival over regular arrival. The panel itself admitted at today’s media conference that this would be a highly subjective process and the specific length of time for which successful asylum seekers would be held before being allowed to settle permanently in Australia would be determined by the government.

This proposal is the most significant in the package, and amounts to the prolonged detention of successful maritime refugees essentially for a deterrent effect to others. In response to a question about the mental health implications of holding people indefinitely, refugee advocate Paris Aristotle said that while he still worked with people who had been traumatised by their experience of being on Nauru, he also worked with people who had lost families in boat sinkings.

Nonetheless, the government may well embrace this package in full, using the political cover of the independent panel and the mixture of positive and negative proposals from the perspective of both sides in order to advance it, first through the opposition of the Labor Left and then through Parliament with the independents, putting pressure on the Coalition to compromise on what may well be sold as a package that, with a few tweaks, doesn’t look too different to the final Coalition position when Parliament rose for the winter recess at the end of June.

Whether it works to end the problem of asylum seekers dying in boats, however, is another issue.


The government has accepted in-principle the report’s recommendation and said it will introduce legislation tomorrow (Tuesday August 13) to permit offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, and to lift Australia’s humanitarian intake to 20,000.

The government has also accepted in-principle the recommendation relating to family reunion, and will be moving to limit family reunion for successful maritime asylum seekers to the normal family migration process.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has noted that the Nauru facility will require considerable work to be re-established, but stated that from this point forward, anyone who comes to Australia by boat runs the risk of being transferred offshore.