Crikey is collaborating with the Centre for Policy Development to track the major parties’ and The Greens’ election promises. Yesterday, we cast an eye over promises around the Newstart allowance. Today, immigration and asylum seeker policy …

Refugee policy and the plight of asylum seekers continues to inflame passions on both sides of politics, nearly 12 years after the Tampa incident. The drama continued unabated this week, after Four Corners exposed sub-optimal conditions on the Papua New Guinean outpost of Manus Island and cost blowouts and cramped lodgings on Nauru.

The arrival two weeks ago at the West Australian port of Geraldton of 66 Sri Lankan asylum seekers shone a spotlight on ethnic Tamils who continue to be “screened out” and flown home before their application for asylum can be lodged. This week 42 Sri Lankans were flown from Christmas Island to Colombo, taking the total number returned since last August’s Houston report to 1071, 862 of which have been involuntary.

Following the Rudd government’s decision to ditch John Howard’s Pacific Solution, the Labor government has copped a sustained broadside over its response to what immigration bureaucrats refer to as Irregular Maritime Arrivals (IMAs).

The government commissioned a report, led by former defence force chief Angus Houston, to address the issue and mollify critics. Released last August, it made 22 recommendations for Australian Irregular Immigration policy, including a “no advantage” principle meant to deter asylum seekers from getting on boats in the first place. This doesn’t appear to have worked. As Four Corners noted, since the recommencement of offshore processing, a total of 15,543 people have arrived on 259 boats.

The Houston panel set out a plan that seeks to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys to Australia. It called for government policy to be “hard headed but not hard hearted” — the full Houston report can be read here. Key points included:

  • An increase in Australia’s humanitarian program to 20,000 from 13,000 places per annum;
  • Continuing bilateral communication with Indonesia so as to improve cooperation on “joint surveillance and response patrols, law enforcement and search and rescue coordination”;
  • Strengthening ties with Malaysia and pursuing amendments to the arrangement negotiated in 2011;
  • Re-establishing detention facilities in Nauru and PNG;
  • Prevent IMAs from applying for family reunion visas, so as to discourage participation in irregular migration.

The reopening of old offshore detention facilities was the government’s response to the increase in requests for asylum over the past 10 years. After reaching a low point in 2004 at 3208 requests, the numbers rose to 11,491 in the calendar year 2010-11. In comparison to other industrialised countries, Australia’s intake has been quite low. Despite having less than half the population of Australia, Sweden received 31,819 applications for asylum in 2010, a number more than double Australia’s 12,673 applications.

The estimated cost of implementing the report’s recommendations will be several billion dollars, to be divided thusly:

  • Increase in the humanitarian program visas — $1.4 billion
  • Increase in the family migration visas — $0.8 billion
  • Nauru processing facility — $1.2 billion – 1.4 billion
  • PNG processing facility — $0.9 billion
  • Implementation of Malaysia Agreement — $80 million

The overall stated aim of the Houston report was to prevent further loss of life at sea by asylum seekers. To this end, the panel has recommended “strategies need[ed] to shift the balance of Australian policies and regional arrangements to give greater hope and confidence to asylum seekers that regional arrangements will work more effectively, and to discourage more actively the use of irregular maritime voyages”.

So where do the parties officially stand on immigration and asylum?


Julia Gillard announced the government’s response to the Houston report on August 13, 2012. Gillard endorsed, “in principle”, all the report’s recommendations and expressed a commitment to “working through those recommendations and the implementation of dealing piece by piece with those recommendations”.

As detailed by the report, the government pledged to:

  • Expand Australia’s humanitarian program;
  • Expand offshore detention facilities in Nauru and PNG;
  • Reopen talks with Malaysia over possible refugee transfers (although this unlikely at this point after the High Court ruled the agreement null and void owing to Malaysia’s human rights’ issues);
  • Only return boats to Indonesia with the full agreement of the Indonesian government.

The Gillard government has not released a detailed policy platform on its Irregular Migration Policy, aside from their initial response to the Houston panel. However, they have expanded the humanitarian program to 20,000 places in 2012-2013 and have announced a refugee transfer agreement with New Zealand in February 2013. The agreement will identify 150 “genuine refugees” from the Australian system, and relocate them to New Zealand for resettlement. The Government has also released many asylum seekers into the community on bridging visas that have been compared to the Howard Government’s controversial Temporary Protection Visas.

The recent 37 nation Bali Process agreed to introduce “more effective law enforcement” measures to crack down on the “vile trade” of people smuggling. Foreign Minister Bob Carr told reporters ”that means these nations are committed to more effective control at airports and more effective border protection, seeing that this is defined as a law enforcement issue with the full weight of the laws of these nations coming down to bear on the people smugglers”.

The Coalition:

The Coalition released a preliminary policy platform for the 2013 election in February. The document advises that a Coalition government would:

  • Establish a dialogue with Indonesia in order to cooperate against people smugglers;
  • Reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas;
  • Order the Navy to turn back boats when it is safe to do so;
  • Give priority for offshore humanitarian visa processing;
  • Offshore humanitarian visa holders to be given preference in obtaining permanent residency;
  • Boost offshore processing;
  • Presumption against asylum seekers who come by boat for refugee status;
  • Denial of benefit of doubt to asylum seekers claiming refuge if they have deliberately discarded their papers;
  • Establishment of mandatory minimum jail sentences for people smugglers;
  • Plus, 11,000 of the 13,750 humanitarian visas would be reserved for those processed offshore.

In relation to the Houston report, Tony Abbott and his shadow minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, have promised to:

The Greens:

The Greens have published a comprehensive list of principles in relation to their immigration policy on their website. These included celebrating diversity, non-discriminatory immigration and an adherence to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The party says seeking asylum is a humanitarian issue, rather than one of border security, and that all applications for asylum must be assessed irrespective of their mode of arrival. It says Australia has additional responsibilities to refugees from countries where defence personnel are deployed in conflict situations, including Afghanistan.

The Greens are at odds with many of the recommendations of the Houston panel. After the release of the report, Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, noted that “the Houston Panel has disappointed many of those across Australia who were hoping for a humanitarian response to refugees, instead backing a return to the brutal policies of the Howard government now echoed by Tony Abbott”. The party opposes offshore processing and maintains that it breaches international law.

Check out the Centre for Policy Development’s Refugee Facts website.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey