Boat arrivals on the mainland: what difference does it make?

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Boat arrivals on the mainland: what difference does it make?

Posted 12/04/2013 by Ian McCluskey



On 9 April 2013, Customs and Border Protection advised the Minister for Home Affairs that a suspected irregular entry vessel (SIEV) had arrived in Geraldton harbour in Western Australia. The boat is thought to have been carrying 66 people (officially known as irregular maritime arrivals or IMAs) from Sri Lanka.

According to Parliamentary Library research compiled from departmental and ministerial press releases, these were the first IMAs on Australia’s mainland since November 2008. According to the Minister for Immigration, there were 19 undetected mainland arrivals during the Howard Government—mostly prior to 2002. Between 2002 after the introduction of the ‘Pacific Solution’ and 2008 when the ‘Pacific Solution’ was formally dismantled by the Rudd Government there were four according to publicly available information:

  • The first boat to arrive after the wave of arrivals during the Howard Government in 2001 was on 1 July 2003 when the media reported a boat carrying 54 Vietnamese asylum seekers had arrived off Port Hedland in Western Australia. They were transferred to HMAS Canberra and taken to Christmas Island for processing. The then Minister for Immigration, Phillip Ruddock, made it clear in a ministerial press release that although the passengers had ‘not set foot on the mainland’ the boat had entered Australia's Migration Zone.
  • On 5 November 2005 the media reported that a group of seven Indonesian nationals from West Timor (four men, one woman and two children) arrived by boat in Australian waters and came ashore on the Kimberley coast in northern Western Australia. They were considered to be the first unauthorised boat arrivals on the Australian mainland since July 2003 (others had arrived on islands excised for migration purposes).
  • On 18 January 2006 the media reported that 43 Indonesian nationals from West Papua (30 males, six females and seven minors) had arrived at Cape York in Queensland and were later flown to Christmas Island. The then Minister for Immigration, Amanda Vanstone, released a press release in March 2006 announcing that Australia had granted temporary protection visas to 42 of the Papuans.
  • On 28 November 2008, the then Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans, announced that a vessel with 12 people from Sri Lanka on board had arrived undetected on the WA coast at Shark Bay.

What difference does it make?

The place of arrival of unauthorised asylum seekers coming by boat first became an issue when the Howard Government introduced the migration excision regime and the ‘Pacific Solution’ in late 2001. This meant that asylum seekers on board unauthorised vessels could be intercepted (usually by the Australian navy) and eventually transferred to offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Asylum seekers arriving in Australia at Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Ashmore and Cartier Islands could also be transferred offshore.   

Following a recommendation contained in the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, the Gillard Government announced its decision on 13 August 2012 to resume the Howard Government practice of sending certain asylum seekers offshore for processing. At present, unauthorised asylum seekers arriving by boat at excised offshore places after 13 August 2012 can be transferred to Regional Processing Countries (RPCs), currently in Nauru and PNG.

The Gillard Government has also made it clear that there would be a ‘no advantage’ principle, as recommended in the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, meaning that persons removed to RPCs will not be resettled any sooner than asylum seekers who did not travel to Australia by boat. What this means in practice is unclear, but it is likely that those persons removed to RPCs may face prolonged periods of time waiting for their claims to be assessed, as they did under the Howard Government.

By arriving on the mainland and not at an excised offshore place such as Christmas Island, the Geraldton arrivals can still be detained, but under the current law they cannot be removed to Nauru or PNG. They may lodge claims for Protection visas with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) without having to rely upon the Minister exercising his discretion to ‘lift the bar’ to allow them to do so. If unsuccessful before DIAC, the Geraldton arrivals may seek review in the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Under the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012 which has passed the House and is currently before the Senate, the excision regime would in effect be extended to the remainder of Australia. If enacted, seaborne unauthorised asylum seekers who first arrive in Australia on the mainland will only be able to apply for Protection visas if the Minister lifts the bar. They will also be liable to be sent to RPCs for what could be many years.     

Co-authored with Janet Phillips


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