When the conservative Liberal-National Coalition was elected to government in Australia on 7 September 2013, one of its main pledges was to “stop the boats”. Since 2001, the response to asylum seekers who enter Australia by boat without prior visas has been central to the political battle between Australia’s major political parties. The Australian Labor Party ruled for nearly six years and, in the five years to December 2013, 51,637 asylum seekers arrived by boat. By contrast, over the same period Yemen received 406,061 boat arrivals.
In its pledge to “stop the boats”, the Coalition undertook to expand the offshore detention and processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), to re-introduce Temporary Protection Visas, to reduce options for independent review in Australia’s refugee status determination process and to establish a military-style response to the movement of asylum seekers by boat. These changes built on policies introduced by the previous Labor Government, including the reintroduction of offshore processing in Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island, the application of the so-called “no advantage” test to asylum seekers who had arrived by boat (including the withdrawal of work rights for asylum seekers living in community in Australia) and the commitment that no asylum seeker arriving after 19 July 2013 would have claims assessed in Australia nor be resettled in Australia if found to be owed protection.
In the five months since its election to government, the Coalition has progressed a number of these policies. One of the first steps the Coalition Government took was a rhetorical change: led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Government decided to refer to asylum seekers who enter by boat as “illegal maritime arrivals”, a shift from the previous “irregular maritime arrivals”. More than a semantic shift, the Government signalled that it would be pursuing an aggressive assembly of deterrence-based strategies to “stop the boats”. In fact, the Coalition’s pledge in the lead up to its election was not a regional cooperation framework with its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific; it was a “Regional Deterrence Framework” focused primarily on interrupting people smuggling and intercepting asylum seekers before their arrival in Australia.
A priority for the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison has been the roll out of Operation Sovereign Borders, the military-led border security, interception, deterrence and disruption work led by a Lieutenant General of the Australian Armed Forces. As a military rather than civilian operation, the Government has claimed that it cannot divulge an “on-water operational matters”, a move which has left the public and media without access to information, including how many asylum seekers boats have been intercepted, turned or towed back to Indonesia. Arrangements to stop the movement of people across borders in Malaysia and Indonesia have also been negotiated, but again the clandestine approach of the Government leaves little information available.
For asylum seekers who arrived in Australia without a prior visa before 19 July 2013, the Coalition Government has made a commitment that no one will receive permanent protection. The Government attempted to re-introduce Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) in October 2013; however, the Australian Senate – led by the Opposition Labor Party and the Greens – disallowed the motion to pass the regulation re-instating the TPV. The Coalition has responded with a series of measures aimed at barring anyone who arrived without a prior visa the opportunity to settle permanently in Australia. The latest iteration, the Temporary Humanitarian Concern visa, has similar conditions to the TPV for the visa-holder: limited settlement support, a maximum three-year visa, no family reunion options and no right to return to Australia if a visa holder leaves for any purpose.
While the Coalition has promoted the need for “fair and orderly” migration pathways, it has reduced the options available through both its Refugee and Humanitarian Program and the general migration program. The overall Refugee and Humanitarian Program peaked at 20,000 places in 2012-13 but the Coalition Government reduced the program to its former level of 13,750, with the large majority of places reserved for people registered with UNHCR. The Coalition Government also made further changes to family reunion options for refugees who originally arrived by boat, with those applying for reunification with spouses and children through Australia’s family stream of the migration – with no concessions or waivers on application fees or documentation requirements – relegated to the lowest priority. This lowest processing priority means that men seeking to reunite with their wives and children face waiting times of at least several years (if ever), with most family members living in dangerous situations overseas.
The pressures on people seeking asylum in Australia and the services and voluntary groups which support them have never been greater. The atmosphere of secrecy, confusion and fear has been exacerbated by the Minister’s introduction of a new code of behaviour for asylum seekers living in the community. This code is so broad that any minor misdemeanor (even a traffic fine) leaves a person at risk of being detained again or even sent to detention on Nauru or PNG.
The myopic, inflammatory public discourse about asylum seekers and refugees has led the Coalition Government toward the belief that it has a mandate to implement more extreme policies and practices. These policies coupled with the provocative rhetoric has led to an Australian public that is under-informed, confused and often disenchanted, while leaving Australia’s international reputation in tatters. The impact on the people seeking protection has been profound: people referring to themselves as “illegal” and their health deteriorating rapidly as they worry about their safety and the future of their families in dangerous situations across the globe. The current environment has also had a damaging effect on former refugees who have settled in Australia, even those who have built a life after many years.
Three weeks ago, it was the 60th anniversary of Australia acceding to the Refugee Convention. No one saw any reason to celebrate.