Political Responses to Asylum Seekers and the Australian General Election

OZ flagHuman Rights in Ireland welcomes this guest post from Siobhan Drislane. Siobhan previously worked in the Law Reform Commission and is currently based in Western Australia. She is a graduate of University College Cork (BCL and LLM). Siobhan is currently based in western Australian, working as a Project Coordinator in the non for profit sector.

With just days to go until the Australian General Election on 7th September 2013, discussion of the big issues and policies are of course now well underway. One of these major issues is that of illegal maritime arrivals (IMA’s), or more colloquially known as “boat people” arrivals.

The term “boat people” is concerning in itself as it tends to dehumanise the individuals it relates to, as well as their plights. By focusing on the vessel and the method of arrival to Australian waters the term effectively fails to acknowledge individuals as asylum seekers in need of assistance. Nonetheless, the phrase is  well-established,  used by Government, politicians, media and the general population alike and is used and understood to be a descriptive term rather than an offensive one. The Parliament of Australia explains that the term originated in the 1970’s in relation to people seeking asylum arriving by from Vietnam following the Vietnam war.

The following decades, and most notably from 1999 to the present time, have seen fluctuations in the number of boat arrivals carrying asylum seekers. 1999, 2000 and 2001 inclusive saw peaks of 3,721, 2,938 and 5,526 of IMA’s respectively. The period from 2002 – 2008 inclusive saw numbers of IMA’s less than 200, and sometimes even less than 100, in a given year. Subsequent to this numbers have steadily increased – with 2,850 arrivals in 2009, 6,850 in 2010, 4,733 in 2011 and 7,120 up to the 31st July 2012.  Three factors relative to these variations include world events (such as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), Government policies and, perhaps more recently identified as a real factor, the role of people smugglers who charge individuals large sums of money to carry them to Australia with the promise of starting a new life there.

As the election approaches political policy on the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat is a hot topic. Both the Labour Party, who sit as current Government (and have done since December 2007), and the opposition Liberal Party have taken a strong stance on the issue in setting out their policies for the electorate. To a certain extent both could also be accused of using the ‘boat people’ as pawns in their election campaigns. But before commenting on the current campaign positions, let us first briefly note past policies which have existed throughout the period from 1999 to 2013.

John Howard sat as Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party from March 1996 to December 2007. The Howard Government took a strict position on the issue of illegal maritime arrivals, and this is notably reflected in the low number of arrivals from 2001 to 2007. The Howard Government continued to support the mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals policy which had been established by the Keating Government in 1992 (prior to 1992 detention of authorised arrivals was a matter of discretion under the Migration Act 1958); this support was contrary to recommendations by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1998 and 2004 to end mandatory detention of asylum seekers. While the position was softened somewhat in 2005, mandatory detention was not abolished. In 1999 the Howard Government introduced ‘temporary protection visas’ which would be granted to unauthorised arrivals found to be refugees  – the visa would last just 3 years and at the end of this period the individual’s need for protection would have to be reassessed. By contrast asylum seekers found to be refugees who had arrived and made their application in the ‘authorised’ manner would be granted a permanent protection visa; this distinction sought to discourage unauthorised arrivals and applications. In 2001 this Government introduced the ‘Pacific Strategy’ which allowed for some of Australia’s territory to be excluded from its migration zone – unauthorised arrivals could be processed by the Department of Immigration at these locations outside of the jurisdiction of Australian Courts.  At the same time a ‘turn back the boats’ policy was employed whereby boats intercepted en route to Australia would be turned around where possible, and where it was not deemed safe to do so those on board would be sent to an off-shore detention and processing facility. In September and October 2001 the Howard Government also entered into agreements with the Governments of Naru and Papua New Guinea to establish facilities on their land where asylum seekers could be accommodated and processed.

In December 2007 the Howard Government was defeated at election by the Labour Party, led by Kevin Rudd. Subsequently the Rudd Government abolished some of the Howard Government’s policies in relation to asylum seekers; in March 2008 the ‘Pacific Strategy’ was ended, while in August 2008 temporary protection visas were abolished in favour of permanent protection visas for persons found to be refugees. Off-shore processing of IMA’s continued, however this would now be carried out at Christmas Island (an Australian territory which remained an excluded migration zone) rather than in the territory of a neighbouring State. To this end the Government commented that “the excision and offshore processing at Christmas Island will signal that the Australian Government maintains a very strong anti people-smuggling stance”.

From 2009 onwards the number of IMA’s increased significantly (noted above). The following year Prime Minister Rudd was ousted following a leadership contest and Julia Gillard took his place in June 2010. Yet more changes were to follow as the Gillard Government’s attention returned to the issues of boat arrivals and people smuggling. In July 2011 the Government signed an agreement with Malaysia to the effect that, in exchange for increased financial aid, 800 unauthorised boats could be sent from Australia to Malaysia and over the following years 4,000 asylum seekers would be settled in Australia from Malaysia. However the following month, and before any such transfers had occurred, the Australian High Court found the agreement to be invalid. In light of the number of IMA’s to be processed offshore the Gillard Government introduced a further change in October 2011 whereby , following health, security and identity checks, selected IMA’s could be placed within mainland communities on bridging visas while their asylum claims were processed. According to the Australian Parliament, by October 2012 over 6,100 bridging visas had been issued to irregular maritime arrivals. 2012 saw the Gillard Government establish the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers and their report, presented to Government in August of that year, made a number of recommendations which were subsequently put into place by Government. With regard to IMA’s in particular, the report stated that “a range of disincentives set out in this report [seek] to actively discourage irregular and dangerous maritime voyages to Australia for the purposes of claiming protection or seeking asylum”. While not all of the 22 recommendations were implemented, there were 2 notable changes, firstly the establishment of the “no advantage rule” whereby asylum seekers who arrived ‘unauthorised’ and by boat would receive absolutely no benefit by doing this in place of waiting for their claim to be assessed in the authorised manner from another country, and secondly the re-opening of third state processing facilities (Naru and Manus Island). The Gillard Government simply turned back on the changes established by the Rudd Government just 4 years before.

Throughout 2012 and 2013 the issue of ‘boat people’ has continued to be of huge concern and interest to the Australian people, media and politicians. As the election has drawn ever closer, the Opposition and Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott has consistently pointed to the failures of the Labour Government in ‘keeping the boat people out’ and the increased number of boats arriving into Australian waters carrying asylum seekers. The issue has become even more emotive in light of the number of unseaworthy vessels which have sunk as they have approached Australia, and indeed a number of instances of loss of life as a result (The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers Report has estimated that between October 2001 and June 2012, 964 individuals travelling to Australia on people smuggling boats have been found dead or declared missing and presumed dead).

Following months of unrest as to the Labour Party’s leadership, Julia Gillard lost a leadership ballot in June 2013 and Kevin Rudd again took the seat as leader and Australian Prime Minister. Just weeks later, on 19th July, Australia was informed of a radical new development. The very man who had put an end to third country processing in 2008 when Labour replaced the Howard Government announced that Australia had entered into a Regional Resettlement Agreement with Papua New Guinea. Under the agreement, not only would IMA’s be transferred to Manus Island for processing, but if found to be genuine refugees they would be offered the option of resettlement in PNG, but not in Australia. The Government has advised that the policy will be reviewed after 12 months.  Under the agreement no maximum cap has been placed on the number of Asylum seekers arriving by boat who may be transferred to PNG. Further details emerged that in return for the agreement the Australian Government will provide $420 million in foreign aid to support and assist development in Papua New Guinea (something which many have referred to as a pay-off to Papua New Guinea to deal Australia’s problem). The message from the Government has been extremely clear and conveyed through all media forums – “If you come here by boat without a visa, you won’t be settled in Australia”.

Despite concerns from various commentators, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, as to the Government’s failure to comply with its obligations under international human rights law, as well as concerns about human rights standards in Papua New Guinea, it remains to be seen in the coming days whether the decision will influence those who were concerned about the number of ‘boat people’ arriving to Australian waters to vote the Labour Party back into power. It also remains to be seen whether legal action is taken on the matter, as happened with the Malaysia agreement in 2011. The policy of the opposition party in relation to IMAs is arguably even more concerning. The Liberal Coalition’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” has equated the ‘boat people’ issue to one of national emergency and attack, stating that the scale of the problem “requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation”. In addition to establishing a task force headed up by the Department of Defence, Leader Tony Abbott has committed to return to the policies of the Howard Government of temporary protection visas for those found to be genuine refuges, as well as employing the defence forces to turn back boats where it is deemed ‘safe’ to do so. Another interesting suggestion put forward by Mr Abbott was for the Australian Government to buy boats from Indonesian fishing traders whom he believes are targeted by people smugglers in search of vessels to purchase.

With Liberal faring better in the polls in the days leading to the election, as well as satisfaction with prime Minister Rudd decreasing in the weeks since he has reclaimed his title it is very possible that further changes will be seen in the near future in the ‘boat people’ policies.

Pic Credit: Irish Times

Political Responses to Asylum Seekers and the Australian General Election

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