Is the government’s new “tough on asylum seekers” announcement about targeting bludgers getting an easy ride in Australia? Is it a cruel move targeting babies and pregnant women? Or is it about avoiding court cases? As always with Australia’s asylum seeker policy, today’s announcement is high on rhetoric, emotion and hyperbole, and light on detail. So let’s work out what we know.

The government is trying a new “tough on boat people” announcement, with income support and housing to be cut off to asylum seekers living in Australia, in an attempt to force them back to Manus Island or Nauru, or their country of origin. The Daily Telegraph quotes Immigration Minister Peter Dutton saying “the con is up,” while human rights groups have slammed the move, which they have labelled “cruel”. So what is the government’s aim here? Are asylum seekers getting more in benefits than other pensioners? And why are they in Australia in the first place?

How do we know about this?

On Saturday The Age‘s investigative team of Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie reported that leaked government documents showed a new visa called “final departure bridging E visa” would be issued to up to 100 people, possibly including a pregnant woman, who have been in Australia seeking medical treatment. The asylum seekers would be given three weeks to vacate their accommodation, lose their income support and be expected to sign a “Code of Behaviour” for their release into the community.

The government made the official announcement today through a drop to Sharri Markson in The Daily Telegraph, with the focus on asylum seekers receiving government payments and accommodation, and a focus on four asylum seekers with less serious medical conditions. According to Dutton in this report: “The medical care has been provided and through tricky legal moves they are now prevented from being returned to their country of origin, Manus or Nauru.”

Why have these asylum seekers been moved from Manus and Nauru?

The asylum seekers served with these notices today originally came to Australia from offshore detention in order to receive medical treatment, but because of legal injunctions they have not returned, some for up to years. Unlike the thousands of other asylum seekers in Australia waiting for rulings on their refugee status, these asylum seekers have had access to government housing at no cost because they are technically still in detention. A single person receives $300 a fortnight in government benefits. Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says these asylum seekers represent a tiny proportion of those in Australia’s immigration system, that other asylum seekers who do manage to receive a government payment only get 89% of Newstart allowance, and that it is a myth that asylum seekers are getting a better deal than Australians.

How many people are affected?

Asylum seekers who are in Australia after being transferred from detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru for medical treatment are affected. Some of those transferred have lived in Australia for years, and currently single people are going to be issued the “final departure bridging E visas”, which is where the number of 60-70 people, and possibly up to 100 people, comes from. 

Children are not currently affected, but they are mentioned in the leaked government document, which is why baby Samuel (not his real name) is on the front page of today’s Age, with his parents telling reporters that they are unsure what their future holds and if they will also be served with a notice to vacate and the end of their income support.

Refugee advocates say that up to 400 people are currently in Australia for medical treatment could be affected by the new policy.

Why is the government doing this?

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton says the new visa is all about how much it costs to keep asylum seekers in Australia: “In some cases, this con has been going on for years, costing the Australian taxpayer tens of thousands of dollars for each individual and seeing them receive more welfare, including housing, than pensioners who have worked here all their lives.”

Dutton portrayed the asylum seekers as employing “tricky” legal manoeuvres to stay in Australia, but it is possible the move is part of a ploy to avoid engaging in the legal cases brought by the asylum seekers. The Human Rights Law Centre’s Hugh De Kretser told Sky News this morning that the government had introduced the policy instead of challenging the cases in court.

“At the heart of those claims is a very simple issue, we say that these people would suffer very serious harm if they return to Nauru or Manus Island. The government could choose to challenge those cases in court, it hasn’t done that.”

“Instead what it’s done is announce this policy out of the blue to make them destitute to try and coerce them back to Manus and Nauru.”

The government agreed to pay $70 million to asylum seekers on Manus Island earlier this year, instead of allowing a case challenging their detention being allowed to be heard in court.

Where will they go?

Karapanagiotidis says the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is gearing up to help the asylum seekers, and is expecting that it will cost $1 million to house 200 of them for a year — that’s $15 a night for each person. The ASRC will launch a public fundraising campaign tomorrow to support the costs of extra case workers as well as accommodation and other costs.

What will happen next?

The Greens and Labor have both blasted the government for the move, with the Greens committing to investigate if the move can be disallowed by the Senate, committing to move a motion on the first day the Senate sits. For this to be successful, Labor would also have to vote to disallow the move. Labor immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann told ABC AM this morning that Labor was also looking into what could be done to stop the move, including finding out if the move to the visas could be disallowed. “We’ll take it through our usual processes,” he said, with decisions to be taken through caucus.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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