A stoush has erupted between Labor and the Coalition government over a surge in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by plane.
Opposition spokeswoman for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally has been blaming the government for the blowout in numbers, prompting Immigration Minister David Coleman to label her criticism a “spectacular own goal”.
But what’s the real story? In this fact file, RMIT ABC Fact Check has a look at the numbers, drawing on a range of official resources and statistics compiled by the Department of Home Affairs.
What’s going on with plane arrivals?
“Plane arrivals” refers to the people who arrive lawfully in Australia who subsequently apply for a protection visa.
For example, a person may arrive by plane on a tourist visa, which is generally valid for three months and does not allow a person to work. That person may then apply for a protection visa — a visa granted to people found to be refugees.
While awaiting the outcome of that application, the person will be issued with a bridging visa, which in many cases allows them to work in Australia.
Experts told Fact Check that many of the people arriving lawfully in Australia by plane who lodge a protection visa do so knowing their claim for asylum will be unsuccessful.
Peter McDonald, of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, told Fact Check that “these asylum seekers come to Australia with the intention of working for as long as possible on a bridging visa”.
“They are aware that their claim will be rejected, so they represent themselves to save money but this slows the court system. The number of cases has clogged the tribunal so that they are able to stay longer.”
Mary Crock, a professor of public law at the Sydney Law School, told Fact Check that a spike in asylum seekers arriving by plane may illustrate a trend towards human trafficking, where people arriving by plane were “pumped into abusive work situations”.
“My bet is that there are a number of agents or lawyer operators who lodge pro forma refugee claims for [plane arrivals],” Professor Crock said, adding that the increased number of these applications had led to a backlog in processing claims.
Senator Keneally has claimed that “over the last five years 95,000 people have arrived at our airports [and] claimed asylum”.
Back in August, she formally asked the Department of Home Affairs for statistics showing the number of people who, since 2014, had arrived in Australia lawfully by air and subsequently lodged applications for protection visas.
Senator Keneally has previously referred to this influx as having arrived “on Peter Dutton’s watch”. Dutton has overseen border protection and immigration in various roles since December 2014.
Utilising various Department of Home Affairs resources, Fact Check found that more than 100,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by plane since July 2013.
Given that the Coalition came to power in September that year, a portion of that number would have arrived under Labor.
However, it is correct that the high numbers have continued. As noted in the Department of Home Affairs’ 2017-18 annual report: “The number of … visa applications being lodged has more than tripled since 2014-15.”
Although there was a decrease in the number of plane arrivals in 2018-19, the figure nonetheless was three times the number who arrived during Labor’s last full year in office.
Where are the asylum seekers coming from?
People from China and Malaysia made up the majority (57%) of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by plane over the four years to 2017-18, according to two documents from the Department of Home Affairs.
The number of people coming from China has risen sharply in recent years, increasing by more than 600% between 2014-15 and 2017-18. The number of people from Malaysia increased by 500% over the same period.
How many people arrived by boat under Labor?
Senator Keneally also claimed that the number of asylum seeker arrivals by plane under the Coalition Government is double the number who arrived by boat under the previous Labor government.
Using a research paper produced by the Australian Parliamentary Library, along with monthly updates under Operation Sovereign Borders, Fact Check calculated that approximately 50,500 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat during Labor’s time in government.
So, it is broadly correct that in the last six years of Coalition Government, the number of asylum seekers arriving by plane (around 100,000) was double the number who arrived by boat under Labor.
Calculating the overall number of asylum seekers arriving under each party’s term of government is made difficult by the fact that the only publicly available plane arrival statistics are according to financial years.
To draw comparisons, Fact Check has apportioned the 2007-08 plane arrival figures to Labor, which came to power in December 2007, and the 2013-14 figure to the Coalition, which came to power in September 2013.
Though inexact, the combined arrivals under Labor and the Coalition were approximately 88,000 and 103,000 respectively.
How many of these plane arrivals are being granted protection visas?
Senator Keneally has said that “in 90% of these particular cases [plane arrivals], the individuals are not legitimate refugees”.
In its latest annual report, for 2017-18, the Department of Home Affairs noted that “a number of [visa applications lodged by people arriving by plane] are attributable to non-citizens making unmeritorious claims for protection as a means of delaying their departure from Australia.”
In that year, the department said, 90% of protection visa applications were refused.
In an email, a spokesperson for the department told Fact Check that the refusal rate had remained the same in 2018-19.
However, the rate of refusal was lower over the long term, according to Mr Coleman’s answer to Senator Keneally that was tabled in Parliament. He wrote:
“Of the Protection visa applications decided by the Department between 1 July 2014 and 19 August 2019, 62,732 persons (84.2%) were refused.”
Did Labor grant more protection visas to plane arrivals?
Labelling Senator Keneally’s focus on the increase in plane arrivals an “own goal”, Mr Coleman said in a radio interview that “in the last three years, we’ve approved 31% less visas for air arrivals than the Labor Party did in their last three years”.
“They approved 6,900 permanent visas in their last three years. We’ve approved 4,800.”
Using a number of Department of Home Affairs publications and reports, Fact Check found that 6,887 asylum seekers arriving by plane were indeed granted protection visas from 2010-12 to 2012-13, in line with the minister’s claim.
While unable to source the figures for protection visa decisions for 2018-19, Fact Check found there were 4,868 protection visas granted to plane arrivals from 2015-16 to 2017-18.
This number, however, is likely to be understated, as source material for the 2015-16 financial year included only those visas granted up to April 2016.
As such, Fact Check’s count is missing visas granted in May and June of that year.
Based on the available figures, there was a 29% fall in the number of protection visas granted to plane arrivals over the three years to 2017-18, compared to the last three years of Labor government.
How long do protection visa decisions take?
According to the Department of Home Affairs’ latest annual report, the average number of days taken to determine a protection visa, from lodgement to primary decision, was 231 in 2017-18, down from 256 days in the previous year.
Fact Check asked the department for the 2018-19 wait times but did not receive a response.
Asylum seekers who are refused a protection visa by the Department of Home Affairs can take their case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).
Mary Anne Kenny, an associate professor of law at Murdoch University, told Fact Check a person has 28 days to lodge an application for review with the AAT. This period is seven days for someone who is in detention.
“The AAT reviews the decision of the Department of Home Affairs to refuse a protection visa,” Kenny said.
“If they disagree and find that a person is a refugee, the decision of the department is set aside and the AAT remits the case to the department with a determination that the person [is a refugee].”
Wait times for a protection visa decision at the AAT currently average 786 days — more than two years.
If the AAT affirms the decision of the department and finds a person is not a refugee, that person can appeal to the Federal Circuit Court on the grounds that an error of law has been made. If that appeal is unsuccessful they can then go to the Federal Court.
Kenny told Fact Check the Federal Circuit Court was currently experiencing significant backlogs.
“Anecdotally, we are seeing 2021 to 2022 final hearing dates [being set] at the moment,” Kenny said.
“From the final hearing the court needs to write the judgment — sometimes those can take a long time to be done — in extreme cases, several years.”
Kenny said a person could also apply directly to the Minister for Immigration to personally grant a visa using his public interest power, but that many of these applications do not meet the criteria and are rejected quickly.
Principal researcher: Ellen McCutchan
- David Crowe, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia on track for new annual record for asylum seekers arriving by air, 8 October, 2019
- Kristina Keneally, Twitter, 9 October, 2019
- Kristina Keneally, ABC Radio, 8 October, 2019
- David Coleman, Press Conference, Sydney, 8 October, 2019
- David Coleman, 2GB Radio, 8 October, 2019
- Department of Home Affairs, Subclass 866 Protection visa, 8 October, 2019
- Department of Home Affairs, Visitor visa (subclass 600) Tourist stream, 1 July 2019
- Department of Home Affairs, Subclass 010 Bridging visa A (BVA), 28 May, 2019
- Department of Home Affairs, Refugee and Humanitarian program, 25 February, 2019
- Kristina Keneally, Facebook, 26 August, 2019
- Department of Home Affair, Annual Report 2017-18
- Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Asylum Trends in Australia, 2012-13
- Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Asylum Statistics, June Quarter 2014
- Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Onshore Humanitarian Programme 2015-16, 30 April, 2016
- Department of Home Affairs, Onshore Humanitarian Programme, 2017-18, 30 June, 2018
- Australian Parliamentary Library, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, 17 January, 2017
- Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Migration and Refugee Division Caseload Report Financial year to 30 September 2019
- Australian Border Force, Operation Sovereign Borders, Operational updates