Asylum policies: How we got into this mess and how we can do better

This paper was developed to provide background information for the Our Voice Their Safety campaign launched by the Victorian Women’s Trust.  The campaign aims to equip and empower Australian women to raise their voices against the unacceptable violence that is occurring against women being held in Australian detention centres, particularly in the Nauru offshore detention centre.  As an active campaigner against domestic violence and a strong advocate for the rights of Australian women, the Trust could not remain as a silent bystander to the appalling harm being done to women detained in those centres. Through promoting the Six Point Safety Plan the Trust aims to bring about a more humane approach for all people seeking asylum in our country.  


Across both Coalition and Labor governments over the past 15 years, several core humanitarian policies have endured. These include; offshore processing, mandatory detention and turning back boats.  A clear trend emerges of increasingly harsh and punitive approaches, where governments of both the major parties have legislated to narrow Australia’s obligations under international covenants and reduce the democratic accountability of agencies acting on their behalf.  Preventing deaths at sea has been put forward as one of the main reasons for the harsh policies.  The fate of those trying to reach Australian shores is now kept secret from the Australian public. In addition, there have been numerous deaths arising from detention and severe psychological harm done to the women, men and children in offshore and mainland detention centres. The policies have resulted in great cost to the people who are seeking asylum, to Australia's democratic processes and to our international reputation. This paper puts forward an alternative and more humane approach which respects the fundamental human right of people to seek asylum no matter how they arrive.

A long history of accepting refugees

Australia has a long standing practice of accepting refugees for resettlement. Since the Second World War over 800,000 refugees and displaced persons have settled in Australia (1). Australia’s first planned humanitarian program designed to deal with refugee and humanitarian issues was established by the Fraser Government in 1977 following the arrival by boat of Indochinese people fleeing conflict during the Vietnam War.  The 2059 Indo Chinese refugees who had arrived directly by boat between 1976 and 1982 without documents or official permission were allowed to stay permanently in Australia, along with over 200,000 more refugees whose claims were processed in camps in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand (2). Prime Minister Bob Hawke allowed 42,000 Chinese students to remain permanently in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Since the 1990s however, Australia's humanitarian policies have become increasingly harsh towards people seeking asylum, particularly those seeking to come to Australia by boat. This is at a time when the numbers of refugees internationally have reached the highest levels on record at 59.5 million people – 19.5 million refugees, 38.2 million internally displaced people and 1.8 million people seeking asylum (4). In 2014 Australia was host to around 35,500 refugees representing 0.25% of the total number of refugees placing us 50th in the world or 67th on a per capita basis (5).



1. Phillips, Janet. 2015. 'Australia's Humanitarian Program: a quick guide to the statistics since 1947'.  Research Paper Series, 2014-15, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, p. 1.  
2. Phillips, Melissa and Boese, Martina. 2013. 'From White Australia to stopping the boats: attitudes to asylum seekers' in The Conversation 21/06/13 viewed 04/12/15.
3. Banham, Cynthia. 2003. ‘Children of the Revolution’ in the Sydney Morning Herald. 26/12/03 viewed 04/12/15. 
4. UNHCR. 2015. ‘World at War’. UNHCR Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2014’ viewed 4/12/15. Geneva, Switzerland, p.1. 
 Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. 2015. ‘Australia vs. the World’ viewed 14/01/16.