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

The Howard Government - the ‘Pacific Solution’

The Howard Government introduced several pieces of legislation in the late 1990s and early 2000s in response to a jump in the number of people seeking asylum. Whereas just over 2760 people had come by boat over the previous 18 years, this climbed to 9500 during 1999 primarily from the Middle East.(6)

The Government introduced the ‘Pacific Solution’ in response to the Tampa affair. This occurred when the Government denied entry to the MV Tampa, a Norwegian ship, into Australian waters. The ship was carrying over 400 Afghan people who had been rescued at sea. Under the ‘Pacific Solution’ the Migration Act was amended to excise certain territories from the Australian migration zone giving effect to a policy of offshore processing. Territories excised included Christmas Island, Ashmore and Cartier Islands and the Cocos (Keeling) islands. ‘Non citizens' arriving at one of these excised territories without valid documentation were unable to make a valid application for a visa to Australia unless the Minister intervened. They were also denied access to legal assistance or judicial review of negative decisions.(7)

Turning back boats and ‘children overboard’
The Government's Border Protection Act gave the Australian Defence Force the power to intercept unauthorised or ‘irregular maritime arrival’ vessels carrying people seeking asylum and transport them to offshore processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG). It also allowed for the removal of any ship in the territorial waters of Australia, the use of reasonable force to do so, to forcibly return any person who has left the ship and guaranteed that no asylum applications could be made by people on board the ship.

Between 2001 and 2008 a total of 1637 people were detained in the Nauru and Manus facilities. 705 eventually resettled in Australia with the remainder settled in New Zealand and 47 to four other countries – Sweden, Canada, Denmark and Norway.(8)

Under this controversial policy the Australian navy intercepted a total of 17 boats and either towed them back to the edge of Indonesian territorial waters or took the passengers to offshore processing centres such as Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus if the boats sank. When boats sank not all passengers could be rescued and two people died as a result.(9) The intercepts were fraught, requiring navy personnel to manage a situation where passengers threatened to self-harm or to sabotage the vessel, desperate to avoid being towed back. The ‘children overboard’ incident represented a new low in the vilification of people seeking asylum which occurred when the Government accused people on the boat of throwing their children overboard to secure rescue and passage to Australian territory. A Senate Committee later found that no children had been at risk of being thrown overboard and that the Government had known this prior to the 2001 election.  

Making it harder to gain permanency - Temporary Protection Visas
Another key element of the Government’s approach was the use of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs). The Government believed that the introduction of this visa type would remove incentives for people to undertake the dangerous journey by sea to Australia. TPVs allowed their holders to stay in Australia for three years, after which time they needed to reapply for refugee status. TPV holders could not sponsor family members for resettlement in Australia, were not allowed to return to Australia if they travelled overseas and had limited access to settlement services. While TPVs did enable the release into the community of many people in detention who had been granted refugee status, they were criticised for their temporary nature and for not allowing refugees to sponsor family members.  It was claimed that TPVs were directly responsible for an increase in family members trying to reach Australia by boat as other channels had been closed off to them. Department of Immigration statistics show a rise in the number of women and children arriving after 1999 which adds some weight to this claim.  The sinking of the SIEV X was cited as a tragic example where 146 children, 142 women and 65 men drowned.(10)

Some softening of the Government's approach occurred in 2005 when two backbenchers crossed the floor of parliament.(11) Some people who had been in long term detention were released and a review of future cases by the Commonwealth Ombudsman was agreed to.  The longest serving detainee was released into the care of a psychiatric hospital on a bridging visa after a total of seven years in detention. While the Migration Act was amended to allow for the detention of children only as a last resort, in reality families continued to be placed in 'alternative places of detention' where they were still denied freedom of movement and faced strict conditions.

The human cost of the Howard Government’s policies
During the Howard years there were protests at detention centres including violence, hunger strikes and lip sewing over the slow processing of applications and poor conditions of the centres.  A Pakistani man granted refugee status self-immolated on the steps of Parliament to protest the 5 year delay in reuniting with his family and the high level of funds needed to bring his daughter who had cerebral palsy to Australia. The Government received criticism from the United Nations for violating human rights.  A report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)) found that children in Australian immigration detention centres had suffered numerous and repeated breaches of their human rights and that children detained for long periods of time were at a high risk of suffering mental illness.(12)



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6. Phillips, Janet and Spinks, Harriet. 2013.  'Immigration detention in Australia'. Background Note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, p. 8.
7. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
8. Ibid., p. 10.
9. Kaldor, Andrew and Renata, 2014. ‘Turning Back Boats Factsheet’.  Centre for International Refugee Law, University of New South Wales, Australia. 4/8/14 viewed 4/12/15.
Refugee Council of Australia. 2014. 'Timeline', p. 4. viewed 23/12/15.
Phillips and Spinks, op. cit., p. 32.
12. Refugee Council of Australia, op. cit., p. 4-6.