Managing asylum flows

Parliament house flag post

Managing asylum flows

Posted 17/09/2010 by Janet Phillips

Irregular arrivals—what is the solution?
Over the last decade, the immigration debate in Australia has been largely overshadowed by the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat (irregular arrivals). The issue took centre stage in the 2001 federal election when former Prime Minister John Howard asserted ‘we’ll decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they’ll come’. A widespread perception in the community that Australia is being swamped by undocumented asylum seekers continues to strongly influence government policy (see our publications Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts? and Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976 for more on this). Successive governments have been under constant pressure to adopt effective measures to address border security and combat people smuggling. This continues to be an emotive and divisive election issue, the 2010 federal election being no exception.

The Labor Government consistently maintained that irregular migration is a global challenge linked directly to ‘push factors’ such as conflict and displacement within the region. In contrast, the Coalition attributed the recent increase in irregular boat arrivals to ‘pull factors’ driven predominantly by domestic reform—most notably, Labor’s decision in 2008 to grant refugees permanent residency and discontinue processing of asylum seekers in the small Pacific island State of Nauru. However, prior to the 2010 federal election Labor announced that it too was exploring options for creating a regional processing centre in a foreign country. Both sides of politics agree that people smuggling is an unacceptable organised criminal activity that endangers innocent people’s lives. Both have accordingly committed to increased cooperation with Indonesia and other countries in the region and to creating harsher mandatory penalties for those convicted of people smuggling offences. Some commentators though have criticised the introduction of tougher penalties on the basis that they do not effectively target people smuggling syndicates—rather, they simply punish the often unsuspecting Indonesian fishermen who operate the boats.

Can mandatory detention withstand the test of time?
The policy of mandatory detention (that is the legal requirement to detain all non-citizens that do not hold a valid visa) was introduced in the early 1990s. Although it does vary, the majority of the detention population is usually comprised of people who have overstayed their visa or breached their visa conditions. However, the detention of asylum seekers in often remote locations has received greater public attention. In particular, the duration and conditions of their detention have been controversial issues that have plagued successive governments.

Though the policy of mandatory detention has officially remained, it has been somewhat softened in recent years. For instance, in 2005 the former Coalition Government affirmed in legislation the principle that detention of minors would only occur as a measure of last resort. Alternative accommodation was also made available to vulnerable detainees such as families and unaccompanied minors. Upon forming government in 2007, Labor declared that it was committed to treating asylum seekers more humanely. To this end, it removed the statutory obligation to charge detainees for the cost of their detention and announced a series of detention values that the Department of Immigration would follow. These values emphasised a risk-based approach to the management of detainees and thus, in principle, detention centres would only be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time. However, some commentators have criticised the Government’s recent decision to temporarily suspend the processing of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan on the basis that it has led to their indefinite detention. Despite the fact that the Australian Greens and certain former members of the Coalition have strongly advocated for the introduction of a periodic independent review by a tribunal or court of the ongoing need for detention, neither major party has introduced such a mechanism.

A new government will inevitably need to address the enduring and complex problems associated with an expanding detention population. The issue of providing additional and appropriate accommodation to avoid overcrowding and a deterioration of conditions will be a significant challenge.

The bigger picture—how is Australia responding to the global challenge?
Increasing numbers of asylum seekers and others in need of humanitarian assistance pose huge challenges for the world’s destination countries. Australia is one of only about 20 nations worldwide responding to these challenges through participation in the United Nations refugee agency’s resettlement program which involves accepting a set number of refugees on an annual basis. However, the UN refugee agency’s resettlement program currently contributes to resettling only a small proportion of the world’s refugees and about 75 to 90 per cent of refugees remain in their region of origin, placing the burden on neighbouring developing countries.

Australia has a highly managed migration system and formally accepts around 13 000 refugees and other humanitarian entrants each year under its Humanitarian Program. The majority of these grants each year go to refugees referred by the UN or to people subject to human rights abuses overseas who have close ties to Australia. Visa grants for refugees within Australia (boat and air arrivals combined) only make up a relatively small proportion of the total number of refugees accepted by Australia each year—usually in the region of 17 to 20 per cent. See our latest publication Seeking asylum: Australia’s humanitarian response to a global challenge for more on this issue.

(post co-authored with Elibritt Karlsen)

(Image source:, 29 June 2009,

Thank you for your comment. If it does not require moderation, it will appear shortly.
Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Add | Email Print


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

Parliamentary Library Logo showing Information Analysis & Advice




refugees asylum immigration parliament climate change Australian foreign policy elections social security welfare reform women welfare policy school education private health insurance Taxation Indigenous Australians Australian Defence Force health financing higher education emissions trading Australian Bureau of Statistics employment people trafficking statistics Middle East illicit drugs gambling health reform federal election 2010 income management Medicare disability Sport United Nations Asia politics criminal law Afghanistan health forced labour transport aid Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency World Anti-Doping Agency United States federal budget Industrial Relations Carbon Pricing Mechanism dental health OECD Senate Australian Public Service constitution Australian Electoral Commission WADA child protection environment poker machines Australia in the Asian Century steroids National Disability Insurance Scheme detention aged care 43rd Parliament slavery health system multiculturalism ASADA Law Enforcement Australian Federal Police Fair Work Act governance labour force people smuggling debt international relations New Zealand food Australian Crime Commission pharmaceutical benefits scheme leadership electoral reform Census election results UK Parliament Papua New Guinea banking International Women's Day corruption pensions public service reform children's health Aviation federal election 2013 foreign debt gross debt net debt defence capability parliamentary procedure Senators and Members ALP Newstart Parenting Payment Youth Allowance sea farers domestic violence military history by-election political parties High Court skilled migration voting mental health Federal Court terrorist groups science social media Higher Education Loan Program HECS federal state relations accountability youth paid parental leave same sex relationships coal seam gas customs planning doping crime health risks Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling sex slavery Special Rapporteur Northern Territory Emergency Response social policy Productivity United Kingdom firearms public policy Population violence against women China ADRV terrorism transparency research and development welfare ASIO intelligence community Australian Security Intelligence Organisation carbon tax mining employer employee renewable energy regional unemployment fishing European Union family assistance United Nations Security Council Australian economy forestry food labelling vocational education and training Drugs welfare systems Indonesia children Constitutional reform local government codes of conduct terrorist financing homelessness Parliamentary remuneration money laundering Trafficking in Persons Report energy social inclusion human rights paternalism Ireland election timetable citizenship asylum seekers early childhood education Canada Financial sector national security fuel disability employment Tasmania integrity standards NATO Australian Secret Intelligence Service sexual abuse World Trade Organization Australia public health housing affordability bulk billing water health policy Governor-General US economy trade unions export liquefied natural gas foreign bribery question time speaker superannuation public housing expertise climate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry regulation Pacific Islands reserved seats new psychoactive substances synthetic drugs UNODC carbon markets animal health middle class welfare Indigenous constitutional recognition of local government referendum consumer laws PISA competition policy royal commission US politics language education baby bonus Leaders of the Opposition citizen engagement policymaking Australia Greens servitude Trafficking Protocol forced marriage rural and regional alcohol entitlements ministries Hung Parliament social citizenship maritime Iran ANZUS regional students school chaplains federal budget 2011-12 salary Medicare Locals primary care Building the Education Revolution family violence government financial advisers financial planners Financial System Inquiry Murray Inquiry China; Economic policy; Southeast Asia; Africa housing Speaker; House of Representatives; Parliament Defence High Court; Indigenous; Indigenous Australians; Native Title ACT Indigenous education Norfolk Island External Territories emissions reduction fund; climate change child care funding refugees immigration asylum procurement Indigenous health e-voting internet voting nsw state elections 44th Parliament 2015 ABS Age Pension Death penalty capital punishment execution Bali nine Bali bombings Trade EU China soft power education Fiji India Disability Support Pension Antarctica Diplomacy by-elections state and territories Bills anti-corruption fraud bribery corporate ownership whistleblower G20 economic reform innovation Members of Parliament Scottish referendum Middle East; national security; terrorism social services Criminal Code Amendment (Misrepresentation of Age to a Minor) Bill 2013 online grooming sexual assault of minors ACT Assembly smoking plain packaging tobacco cigarettes Asia; Japan; international relations Work Health and Safety Migration; asylum seekers; regional processing China; United States; international relations fiscal policy Racial Discrimination Act; social policy; human rights; indigenous Australians Foreign policy Southeast Asia Israel Palestine asylum refugees immigration political finance donations foreign aid Economics efficiency human rights; Racial Discrimination Act employment law bullying Animal law; food copyright Australian Law Reform Commission industry peace keeping contracts workplace policies same-sex marriage disorderly conduct retirement Parliament House standing orders prime ministers sitting days First speech defence budget submarines workers Somalia GDP world heritage political engagement leave loading Trade; tariffs; safeguards; Anti-dumping public interest disclosure whistleblowing Productivity Commission limitation period universities cancer gene patents genetic testing suspension of standing and sessional orders live exports infant mortality honorary citizen railways disciplinary tribunals standard of proof World Health Organisation arts international students skilled graduate visas temporary employment visas apologies roads Italy national heritage NHMRC nutrition anti-dumping Rent Assistance obesity evidence law sacrament of confession US presidential election international days DFAT UN General Assembly deregulation Regulation Impact Statements administrative law small business Breaker Morant regional engagement social determinants of health abortion Members suspension workplace health and safety marine reserves hearing TAFE Victoria astronomy resources sector YMCA youth parliament Korea rebate Australian Greens presidential nomination Racial Discrimination Act political parties preselection solar hot water Financial Action Taskforce Horn of Africa peacekeeping piracy Great Barrier Reef Stronger futures political financing political education Social Inclusion Board early childhood National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care Murray-Darling Basin sanctions Norway hospitals republic President Barack Obama Presidential visits qantas counselling Korean peninsula Work Choices biosecurity hendra environmental law federalism federation preselection therapeutic goods Therapeutic Goods Administration plebiscites computer games pests suicide nuclear COAG Ministerial Councils floods ADHD stimulant medication advertising electricity extradition conscience votes poverty preventative health rural health coastal erosion Parliamentary Budget Office work-life balance

Show all
Show less
Back to top