On 28 June 2012 the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship announced that the Government would establish an expert advisory panel to consider options for “the best way forward for our nation in dealing with asylum seeker issues”. This followed months of political deadlock over how to best manage the issue of increasing numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, following the High Court’s rejection of the Government’s planned transfer arrangement with Malaysia in August 2011. In February 2012 independent Member Rob Oakeshott introduced a Bill aimed at breaking the deadlock, which was supported by the Government. The Bill passed through the House of Representatives on 27 June 2012 but was defeated in the Senate the following day, with neither the Opposition nor the Greens prepared to support it, albeit for very different reasons. With few options left available to it, the Government announced the creation of a panel to provide expert advice on the best way forward.
Former chief of the Australian Defence Force Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston was appointed to lead the panel, which also comprised Professor Michael L’Estrange, Director of the National Security College at the Australian National University, and refugee expert Paris Aristotle, Director of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture Inc. The panel’s terms of reference were to provide advice to Government on policy options available to prevent asylum seekers from embarking on boat journeys to Australia. Specifically, the panel was asked to provide advice on:
- how best to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives by travelling to Australia by boat;
- source, transit and destination country aspects of irregular migration;
- relevant international obligations;
- the development of an inter-related set of proposals in support of asylum seeker issues, given Australia’s right to maintain its borders;
- short, medium and long term approaches to assist in the development of an effective and sustainable approach to asylum seekers;
- the legislative requirements for implementation; and
- the order of magnitude of costs of such policy options.
The Report of the Panel was released on Monday 13 August 2012. It makes 22 recommendations on the policy options available to prevent asylum seekers from travelling to Australia by boat. The recommendations constitute an integrated approach aimed at reducing pressure on Australia’s humanitarian program, providing disincentives for irregular migration, and furthering regional engagement strategies, including regional processing. Key recommendations include:
· An increase in Australia’s humanitarian quota to 20 000 per year (from the current 13 750 per year) with consideration being given to a further increase to 27 000 in five years time. Within this quota more focus should be placed on asylum seekers in South-East Asia, and in particular more resettlement places should be made available to refugees residing in Indonesia and Malaysia.
· The introduction of legislation to ‘support the transfer of people to regional processing arrangements .... as a matter of urgency’.
· The establishment of processing capacity in Nauru and Papua New Guinea as soon as practical.
· Building further on the Government’s planned transfer arrangement with Malaysia, with a focus on strengthening standards and safeguards and accountability.
· The removal of family reunion concessions under the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) for people who travel to Australia irregularly by boat, as a means of reducing the current backlog under the SHP, and thereby removing the incentive for people to travel to Australia by boat in order to reunite with family members. Irregular maritime arrivals should sponsor family members under the family stream of the migration program, rather than through the SHP.
The Report is makes no concrete recommendation on the subject of turning boats back to Indonesia, stating only that “the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently met, but that this situation could change in the future, in particular if appropriate regional and bilateral arrangements are in place”.
The Government hopes to progress the panel’s recommendations quickly, but how quickly will depend in large part on whether the Opposition and the Greens are willing to cooperate. With Tony Abbott hinting that the Opposition is unlikely to waver from its preferred course of action of turning boats around, processing on Nauru, and the use of Temporary Protection Visas, and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young reiterating the Greens’ opposition to any form of offshore processing, it seems unlikely that the panel’s Report will be the circuit-breaker the Government is hoping for.