Janet Phillips, Social
Policy and Elibritt Karlsen, Law and Bills Digest
Australia has a long history of accepting humanitarian entrants and is one of only a handful of industrialised countries in the world that participate in the formal refugee resettlement program administered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, Australia’s asylum seeker policies, in particular the offshore processing arrangements in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), remain controversial.
Australia’s humanitarian program
Since 1945, when the first federal
immigration portfolio was established to administer Australia’s post-war
migration program, 7.5 million
people have settled here—including over
800,000 refugees and other humanitarian entrants.
Today, there are two formal programs administered
by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to facilitate the entry
of Australia’s permanent migrants—the Migration Program for skilled and
family entrants, and the Humanitarian Program for refugees and other humanitarian
entrants (the Migration Program is discussed elsewhere in this Briefing Book).
The Humanitarian Program has two main components—offshore and onshore. Most offshore
refugees are referred to Australia for resettlement by the UNHCR. The 1951 Convention
Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee
Convention) defines a ‘refugee’ as any person who:
...owing to well-founded fear of persecution for
reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group
or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable
or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that
country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his
former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such
fear, is unwilling to return to it.
These entrants are formally resettled in Australia
under the ‘Refugee’ category. The Special
Humanitarian Program also offers
places to people who may not be refugees, but who face human rights abuses in
their home country and have a connection with Australia.
The onshore component of the Humanitarian
Program offers protection to people who have arrived in Australia, lodged an
asylum claim, and been granted protection. Onshore entrants may have been found
to be refugees under Refugee Convention criteria or may otherwise engage
Australia’s protection obligations under other human rights conventions.
Statistics on humanitarian entrants are available back to the 1940s. The
following table provides figures since
Refugee and humanitarian entrants by
category since 2000–01
||Special Humanitarian (offshore)
||Protection Visas (onshore)
J Phillips, Australia’s humanitarian program: a
quick guide to the statistics since 1947, Parliamentary Library, Canberra,
Responding to irregular maritime arrivals
Australia has a highly managed migration system and public perceptions or concerns
over boat arrivals of unauthorised asylum seekers continue to strongly
influence government policy. In response to rises in the number of unauthorised boat arrivals in Australian waters
between 2001 and 2013, there has been increasing pressure on both Coalition and
Labor governments to adopt and maintain measures that are seen to deter future
boat arrivals, address border security concerns and combat people smuggling.
Both major parties agree on most of the key measures that have been put in place to deal
with these issues, including mandatory immigration
detention for unauthorised arrivals—introduced in
1992 by the Keating (Labor) Government—and offshore processing arrangements in the
Pacific—first introduced by the Howard (Coalition) Government in 2001 and reintroduced by
the Gillard (Labor) Government in 2012. Currently, the only major policy difference centres on whether onshore asylum seekers found to be refugees should be offered temporary or permanent protection visas
Since forming government in 2013, the Coalition has
continued to pursue the regional processing arrangements in Nauru and PNG and there
are currently about 1,300 asylum seeker transferees being
processed offshore. The Government has made it clear that these asylum seekers will not be able to settle in Australia,
arguing that this would act as a pull factor to other unauthorised boat
arrivals. As a result, there are limited resettlement options for this
cohort—most of whom have been accommodated in regional
processing centres since the second half of 2013.
Australia’s offshore processing regime has been the subject of vigorous debate for some time. Critics have highlighted evidence of poor mental health outcomes for long-term detainees and note the
risk of physical harm in the centres, particularly for women and children in
the Nauru centre. With public concerns escalating, and a new legal challenge in the High Court of Australia arising from the recent PNG Supreme
Court ruling that the PNG centre was unconstitutional, there is significant
pressure on the Government to come up with effective
resettlement solutions for those affected by this policy. It is highly likely
that this issue will continue to challenge the Parliament.
The Expert Panel on
Asylum Seekers established in 2012 to advise the Australian Government on
‘the best way forward’, acknowledged the complexities of the issues arising
from the arrival of asylum seekers by boat, noting that there ‘were no quick or
simple solutions’. The panel argued for an integrated suite of short-term and
long-term proposals that included deterrence measures such as the reintroduction
of an offshore processing regime. Long-term non-deterrence proposals included
recommendations that the Government create better migration pathways and
protection opportunities for refugees, coordinated within an ‘enhanced regional
cooperation framework’. However, many of the long-term proposals along the lines of those recommended
by the panel have not been pursued by either of the major parties to date.
Stakeholders and experts in the field
have urged the Australian Government to move forward on asylum seeker policy by creating better
protection opportunities in the region under a variety
of burden-sharing arrangements. Proposals include:
- developing a broader regional cooperation framework that improves
protection more generally for all refugees within the region
- discouraging asylum seekers from engaging the services of people
smugglers by: providing alternative legal migration pathways to safe countries
in the region, including Australia; negotiating agreements to develop
effective processing arrangements with countries in the region, such as
Malaysia and Indonesia; and increasing the number of refugees Australia
resettles from Malaysia and Indonesia and
- closing the offshore processing centres in PNG and Nauru and
resettling the refugees in Australia, but maintaining turnbacks to prevent
further boat arrivals.
J Phillips, Australia’s humanitarian program: a quick guide to the statistics since 1947, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.
E Karlsen, Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG: a quick guide to statistics and resources, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.
J Phillips, Asylum seekers and refugees: a quick guide to key Parliamentary Library publications, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.
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