Developments in refugee law and policy 2007-10 Labor's first term in office

One of the first things the newly elected Labor Government did upon taking office in 2007 was to stop processing asylum claims in the small Pacific Island State of Nauru—which the then Minister described as a 'shameful and wasteful chapter in Australia's immigration history'.

However, in retaining the former Coalition Government's excision policy (which removes the right of asylum seekers to apply for a visa) and use of its purpose built immigration reception and processing centre on Christmas Island, the Government attracted criticism from refugee advocacy groups and academics alike—Adjunct Professor Michael White being of the view that Labor's new approach 'did not fundamentally alter Australia's previous immigration policy and many features of the Pacific Solution remained'.

In 2008, the Government abolished temporary protection visas and granting refugees' permanent residency—a significant regulatory change which appeared to largely go under the radar as it occurred. It also introduced a new policy with respect to immigration detention—seven values that would 'guide and drive new detention policy and practice into the future'. Though asylum seekers arriving without documentation would be subject to mandatory detention, they would henceforth receive publicly funded advice and assistance, access to independent review of unfavourable decisions and external scrutiny by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

2009 saw the introduction of two Bills that proposed to make important and, in the case of the latter—long-awaited reforms to the Migration Act 1958 (the Migration Act). Firstly, the Migration Amendment (Immigration Detention Reform) Bill 2009 which would support the implementation of the Government's new detention policy and formally introduce discretionary detention into the Migration Act. Secondly, the Migration Amendment (Complementary Protection) Bill 2009 which would introduce a formal statutory regime for processing asylum claims that may engage Australia's non-refoulement (non-return) obligations under various international human rights treaties. However, neither of these Bills had been debated before Parliament was prorogued in July for the 2010 Federal election and have now accordingly lapsed.

2010 was a significant year of controversial refugee policy reform for the Government. In April it announced the immediate suspension of processing new asylum claims from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka due to the changing circumstances in both countries - both were subsequently lifted. Following a change in leadership in July, newly appointed Prime Minister Gillard also announced plans to establish a regional processing centre for asylum seekers.

A new Parliamentary Library Background Note provides a snap-shot of significant developments in Australian refugee law and policy under Labor's first term in office. It begins by providing a chronology of key events from November 2007, when the ALP won the 2007 federal election to July 2010, when Parliament was prorogued for the 2010 federal election. It contains an overview of, and links to legislation (including proposed legislation and noteworthy regulatory change) and outlines significant policy reforms as well as a brief overview of significant High Court judgments delivered during the period. In order to understand these legal and policy developments in context, the appendices provide an overview of federal parliamentary inquiries and other independent reports and publications that were released.

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