Bring Out Yer Dead Policies: The Coalition’s Asylum Strategy

Abbott has pledged to stop the boats at all costs but his policies have been tested by previous Coalition governments — and failed. Real questions remain about the effectiveness and implementation of the Coalition’s line on asylum seekers, writes Kate Gauthier

The Coalition’s election policy on boat arrival asylum seekers has three key elements: bring back temporary protection visas, reopen the detention centre on Nauru, and, where possible turn back boats.

The ultimate goal for these policies is not to improve the system of regional protection for asylum seekers, nor is it to make the system faster, cheaper and more humane, nor is the goal to improve quality of protection visa assessments. The goal is simply to “stop the boats” regardless of the consequences on people who have fled persecution, war or torture, regardless of the impact on children who will be detained and often sent back home to danger, and regardless of the financial cost of such an enterprise to the Australian tax-payer.

Coalition policy is to bring back temporary protection visas (TPVs) because, according to Tony Abbott, “only by denying people smugglers a product can we cripple their business and stop the flow of illegal arrivals.” What has not been articulated is how this policy will be implemented. Will refugees remain on temporary visas for their whole lives, or eventually be moved to permanent visas if the security situation in their homeland remains unstable?

There are so many reasons why a TPV policy is both stupid and cruel. When TPVs were introduced under the Howard government, the policy increased actually boat arrivals because the visa denied access to the family reunion program.  This means that for men found to be refugees, the only way to bring their wives and children to safety was to bring them in on boats.

If we allow refugees to live here, it is in our own best interest to ensure they can integrate well into our society, and not be forced to live on the fringes. For example, it is very hard to get a job or seek employment training if the employer has no guarantee you will even be in Australia next year.

The TPV policy was eventually wound back by Howard in 2005 as it required endless re-processing of claims which was expensive and unwieldy. To be resurrected now, when it has already been tried and tested by a previous Coalition government, is bad policy.

Turning back boats is an unrealistic option that was eventually abandoned under Howard after a mere seven boats were turned back. Boats began to be scuttled and sabotaged so they were unseaworthy and unable to be returned. This leads to endangering the lives of the asylum seekers and the Australian customs or navy personnel involved.

Finally, the policy of sending asylum seekers to Nauru may be feasible, but past evidence shows that it does not achieve its policy objective. In the previous Pacific Solution, 96 per cent of those found to be refugees were settled in Australia or New Zealand. Both Abbott and Gillard have claimed that to stop the boats you must ensure that people smugglers “have nothing to sell” in the form of entry to Australia. If Australia sends people to Nauru, they will still remain the ultimate responsibility of Australia, meaning if nowhere else can be found they will settle in Australia. Only 46 refugees were diverted to other settlement countries. An economic rationalist would have to ask if it is an appropriate expenditure of taxes to divert only 46 people, considering that an Oxfam study found that the Pacific Solution policy as a whole cost over $1 billion.

Overall, these are tired policies that have been tried before and failed before. They are costly, cruel and do not achieve the objective of stopping boats. The only thing they do is to perpetuate the hysteria around boat arrivals and perhaps win a few extra votes. Australians deserve better.

More Than Luck is a collection of ideas for citizens who want real change edited by Mark Davis and CPD Executive Director Miriam Lyons. A to-do list for politicians looking to base public policies on the kind of future Australians really want, More Than Luck shows what’s needed to share this country’s good luck amongst all Australians – now and in the future. Click here to find out more. Like what you’ve read? Donate to help make good ideas matter.

Blog Comments

The extent to which this has become an election issue, is an example of the use of fear to achieve a goal and an indication of how ignorant the electorate is and how this can be used by those in a position to do so.
The question is, is this a form of corruption by politicians or an indication that as with the economy regulation is necessary in this case an electortate prepared to inform itself as for the most part our media is trivial and directed towards aims for which the electorate has little say.

Humane treatment of genuine refugees is clearly an issue we have to deal with. It is unfortunate that both sides of politics are feeding national paranoia to muddy the waters for political advantage. It seems that where there is a will, refugees will find a way. So people will inevitably get into boats and end up on our shores. Most of these people will end up being accepted. These people are using very risky methods of getting to the top of the queue. Why is this so ? Is it because it is very difficult to come to Australia. What are the numbers of people who apply through the official channels. What is their strike rate. Is it so low that they are driven to the high risk option. If you make the process easier and more people apply and are accepted, where and how do you set a limit as presumably there has to be a limit. If people qualified, and there was an annual quota, they would wait until their number came up. If you try to jump the queue, you would go to the end of line. Offshore processing looks like an exercise in making life even tougher for disadvantage people. Christmas Island clearly has limitations, Norfolk Island may be an option to support the role of Christmas. Both Christmas and Norfolk are outside the Aus. Immigration zone. Both of these small island economies would benefit from involvement in the process and be able to provide humane and Australian controlled and operated processing. Outsourcing one nation’s humanitarian responsibilities to another nation is fraught with danger.

Politicians say that asylum seekeres take the place of those waiting longer “in the queue”, but the whole concept of an orderly queue is a myth. It is not like going to the deli counter and taking a number and then people are served in order. When we take people from camps, they may have been waiting for years, or merely months. Australia goes through the cases and cherry-picks the ones we want to settle in Australia, based on a whole range of information. We do not simply take the most needy peope who have been waiting longest. This means that before they make the boat journey to Australia, some asylum seekers have been waiting in Indonesia much longer than those resettled from camps. To be granted asylum in Australia, you have to go through exectly the same screening process as an offshore refugee. Using the same criteria, you have to prove you are a victim of persecution, torture etc.

So when a pollie makes the argument to you that that boat arrival asylum seekers are taking the place of more deserving refugees, they are either ignorantly perpetuating a lile, or deliberately doing so. Either way, it is a lie.

I agree that we have to stop the boats at all costs since the current policy encourages people to enter Australia illegally and may cost lives. On top of that, it is a kind of joke to Australia Border security and unfair for Family reunion migration such as my daughters had not met my Father since they were 18 months and 3 year old, because terrorism incidents backhome.

Dear Marianna,
Entering Australia by boat without permission in order to seek asylum is not illegal. There is no Australia law that prevents it, indeed the Migration Act specifically allows for it. All countries who are signatory to the Refugee Convention allow for asylum seekers.

The Family Reunion component of Australia’s overall 13,750 refugee and humanitarian program does not have any places reduced because of asylum seekers – their numbers are reduced from the refugee component.

Excellent article. That “stopping the boats” is one of the coalition’s 4 key policy platforms is blowing the significance of the issue way out of proportion and simply pandering to public hysteria over 5000 needy refugees per year (most of whom will be eventually accepted into Australia). If only one of the major parties would stop and consider the humanity of the situation – desperate people resorting to desperate means to escape persecution and unbearable hardship – and factor this into their policy

I disagree that “There are so many reasons why a TPV policy is both stupid and cruel”.

Just so you don’t think “here’s another nutter”, I hasten to add that I’ve been sending donations to Amnesty International every year ever since I got a job, although (unlike a certain former Minister for Immigration) I don’t wear a badge on my lapel.

The concept of “asylum” is that one offers safe haven and protection. However, that protection is only required whilst ever there is some risk to the person seeking it. A woman who enters a womens’ refuge does not expect to live there for the rest of her life, only until such time as she can arrange her affairs so that she no longer needs that protection.

Similarly, if an asylum seeker has a well-founded fear of persecution from a repressive regime, we should provide asylum, whatever way they arrive on our doorstep. However, if that regime is subsequently overthrown by a democratic one and the grounds for that fear of persecution are removed, the person no longer needs the safe haven we provide, and should return to their country (or wherever else they choose to go) in due course.

As with any real-world issue, there are complications; if a refugee has been here for a lengthy period of time (eg 5 – 7 years) or has children born here going to school, then it is probably unreasonable to send them back, and an offer of permanent residency is appropriate, assuming they are not disqualified for other reasons.

Your point about a lack of certainty for the asylum seeker is a reasonable one, and so their need for asylum should be reassessed periodically but not too frequently (eg every year or two).

Your point about a lack of access to family reunion is arguably a valid one, but it has nothing to do with TPVs as such, just their implementation. There is nothing to stop any government issuing TPVs and allowing spouses or children to join the refugee, so long as they leave when the refugee leaves.

Your point about integrating into society is a very valid one, but again is nothing to do with TPVs per se; other countries provide far more extensive services to integrate refugees into their societies, and there is no reason why we could not do the same under a TPV system.

The UNHCR does not expect countries to automatically grant permanent residency to genuine refugees, and Australia is one of the few which does.

Ranging slightly more widely: whilst ever the “problem” is seen as “lack of border security”, the “problem” is insoluble, which is of course why oppositions love it so much: “the country has a problem and the government isn’t solving it!!!”, because of course it is for all practical purposes impossible to stop boats entering our territorial waters.

We have both a moral and a legal responsibility to accept asylum seekers, whether they arrive by leaky boat or 747, to assess their claims promptly, and to provide safe haven and protection for those who have a well-founded fear of persecution for as long as that may reasonably be necessary. And a barbed-wire-topped fence surrounding a compound in the desert may be “safe”, but it’s not a “haven”.

Our real problem is the same as for most other developed countries: people who wish to immigrate to Australia for economic reasons masquerade as asylum seekers, and to get here borrow a fortune they cannot hope to repay unless they are granted permanent residence and obtain work here. This is unreasonable for both them and us. The only practical way I can see of reducing (but not eliminating) this is to assess refugee claims promptly (which I believe we do), deal with appeals and appeals-to-appeals promptly (which I believe we don’t) and to send those who falsely claim asylum back to their countries of origin as promptly as possible.


Dear Michael,

With a woman in a shelter, while she would not expect to live their forever, those shelters also allow for her children to come with her for the time she is there. Yes, you could allow for family reunion under TPVs – but the Coalition has specifically said they will not. The worst aspect of TPVs is the fact that it makes fathers choose between staying alive and raising their children. What is humanitarian about that? That’s the cruel part of the policy

The stupid part of the policy is that if we are going to have people settling in Australia (let’s be realistic… when is the political situation going to change so much that you can return people to Afghanistan, Sudan or China?) then for the benefit of our society and community security we should make sure that they can make a successful settlement and not become either a welfare burden or crime threat. Making people live on the fringes, making it even harder to get a job, keeping them fearful of their future and what is happening to their children, and removing any incentive they have to integrate into our culture is a sure fire way to create the above problems.

As for people masquerading as asylum seekers to migrate here for economic reasons – the same argument can be made for anyone who comes to Australia under the refugee program. In fact, Australia’s onshore screening is much more vigorous than UNHCR’s so you are more likely to get economic migrants from the offshore ‘queue’ than from boat arrival asylum seekers.

Kate – I think we are in vigorous agreement.

Yes, If we accept a father as having a well-founded fear of persecution, it is likely that his family members also have a well-founded fear of persecution.

Yes, it is fairly likely that a genuine refugee from Afghanistan, Sudan or China will be unable to return safely to their country of origin in any reasonable period of time, and thus is a likely candidate for permanent residency.

Someone arriving by boat is probably no more or less likely than someone arriving by ‘plane to falsely claim refugee status, however someone arriving by ‘plane is much more likely to have the financial means to survive if they are sent back, as they are less likely to have borrowed to the hilt to get here, and have probably had the means to arrive here for legitimate reasons (eg as a foreign student). That’s not to draw any ethical or legal distinction between boat arrivals and ‘plane arrivals, merely to point out that they are likely to be people with different backgrounds and situations.


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