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

Labor and the Coalition – policies in common

Despite differences in stated approaches, Coalition and Labor Governments alike have implemented increasingly harsh deterrence measures to prevent people seeking asylum from travelling to Australia by boat. Both parties support mandatory detention, offshore processing and more recently boat turn backs. 

Mandatory detention and off-shore processing

Over the past 15 years Australia has been found to be in breach of many of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and numerous other international agreements such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Concerns have been raised about the arbitrary and indefinite nature of the detainment, the substandard and cruel conditions of the offshore processing centres and the psychological damage of keeping women, men and children in isolated places, free from independent scrutiny or access to Australian legal processes.  The case of ‘Abyan’ who sought medical care in Australia as a result of being raped while on Nauru highlighted an appalling lack of humanity and sensitivity from the Minister and his department.  The Government flew Abyan to Australia for a termination of the pregnancy resulting from the rape only to return her a few days later claiming she had changed her mind which was subsequently disputed by Abyan. Following a public outcry, the Government allowed Abyan to return to Australia for counselling and medical care.(54)

Holding children in detention remains a serious concern.  The mandatory detention of children continued during the period examined despite the introduction of community based measures during the Howard years which were expanded under the Rudd and Gillard Governments.  While both major parties have acknowledged that children should only be detained as a measure of last resort it is salutary to note that the recent report by the AHRC into the effects of children in long term detainment, some ten years on from an earlier report during the Howard era, was highly critical of the way both major parties have continued to keep children in detainment resulting in significant psychological harm. The Government’s recent announcement that all children have been moved out of detention is welcome but it is important to note that this practice does not extend to children in detention on Nauru or the more than 70 babies and children currently in Australia receiving medical support. The Minister has made it clear that they will be returned to Nauru once they are no longer in need of medical attention.(55)

Mandatory detention is also extremely costly.  A report from the Commission of Audit has revealed that it costs more than $400,000 a year to keep one person in offshore detention whereas it is estimated to cost around $50,000 to allow a person seeking asylum to live on a bridging visa in the Australian community.(56)  

Community processing - an effective alternative to mandatory detention 

The AHRC has called for the system of mandatory and indefinite detention to be ended and in its place a greater use of community based alternatives that are cheaper, more effective and more humane than holding people in immigration detention facilities for prolonged periods.(57) Research undertaken by the International Detention Coalition (IDC) over a five year period has also reinforced the need for more humane, community based arrangements.(58) The IDC has provided a detailed guidebook to assist countries in ensuring that detention is only used as a last resort. In its current platform Labor continues to commit to a more humane treatment of detention and spells out a number of ways that this would occur but it remains committed to mandatory offshore detention.(59) The Greens on the other hand have committed to the elimination of mandatory and/or indefinite detention and the abolition of offshore processing and 'other forms of punitive or discriminatory treatment of asylum seekers and refugees'.(60)

Turning Back boats

Turn-backs were a major area of difference between Labor and the Coalition until the recent Labor Party Conference in July 2015 amended the party platform to leave open the option of turning back boats when safe to do so. (61) The Abbott and Turnbull Governments have been successful in sustaining a consistent story in the mainstream media of the benefits of stopping the boats. These include undermining the people smuggling business, preventing loss of lives at sea and preventing an unknowable number of people seeking asylum reaching Australia through tough border control measures.(62) These so called achievements, however, have come at considerable cost.  The person seeking asylum to whom Australia has denied entry are left with no resolution to their claim for protection and face the prospect of long detention in barely humane conditions or resettlement in hostile communities. This severe punishment of people seeking asylum by boat contravenes the Refugee Convention which clearly states that refugees must not be penalised or punished for their method of arrival in a country.(63) Countries around the world are well aware of Australia's unique and aggressive tow back policy.  More than 60 countries recently urged Australia to end its policies of boat turn-backs, mandatory detention and offshore processing at the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Australia’s human rights record.(64)

Turning back boats also has a negative impact on Australia's relationship with transit countries such as Indonesia. Good relationships with Indonesia and other countries in our region are critical to establishing a sustainable, comprehensive approach to regional policy and yet the Indonesian Government has on several occasions had cause to publicly object to frequent breaches of its sovereignty when the Australian navy entered its waters to intercept or tow boats back.(65) 

Cost to democracy

Secrecy, a lack of transparency and accountability have been particular hallmarks of the Abbott and Turnbull Governments which threaten to erode Australia's democratic processes. Strategies such as refusing to release information or answer questions, criminalising the release of information, and increasing ministerial control without reference to independent review rights undermines the principles and processes that Australian democracy is built upon.  Allowing private contractors to operate detention centres in a shroud of secrecy with little accountability or transparency contributes to this erosion of democracy.  The end result is a community disengaged from any discussion about alternative immigration policies and largely unaware of what is being done in our name.


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54. Symons-Brown, Margaret. 2016. Pregnant Somali asylum seeker Abyan had not ruled out abortion, FOI documents reveal’, ABC News, 02/01/16 viewed 07/04/16.  
55. Gordon, Michael. 2016. ‘Peter Dutton vows children released from detention are still bound for Nauru’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 04/04/16 viewed 04/04/16.
Chia, Joyce and Higgins, Claire. 2014.’Penny wise, pound foolish: how to really save money on refugees.’ 12/06/14 viewed 09/11/15
57. Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Alternatives to detention’
58. The International Detention Centre Coalition. 2015. 'There are alternatives'. Australia.
59. Australian Labor Party. 2015. Fact Sheet: A humane and compassionate approach to asylum seekers. viewed 09/11/15.
60. Australian Greens. 2015. ‘Policy on Immigration and Refugees’.
viewed 09/11/15.
61. Australian Labor Party, op. cit.
62. Reilly, Alex. 2014. 'The Boats may have stopped, but at what cost to Australia' in The Conversation 28/08/14 viewed 14/12/15
63. Ibid. 
Miller, Nick. 2015. ‘UN human rights review: Countries line up to criticise Australia for its treatment of asylum seekers’ in The Sydney Morning Herald, 10/11/15 viewed 10/11/15
Wroe, David  and Bachelard, Michael. 2014. ‘Australian breach of Indonesian territorial waters angers Jakarta’. In The Sydney Morning Herald, 18/01/14, viewed