ABUL RIZVI: Asylum Seekers and Character Checking

Government has expressed concern that under the Medevac Amendments, serious criminals will enter Australia. Immigration Minister Coleman said at Question Time that a backpacker from Norway passes a stronger Character test than the people entering under the Medevac Amendments. While this is superficially correct, in practice the Government is being quite misleading. Let’s unpack the issues.  

The people who may enter Australia under the Medevac Amendments have been extensively interviewed by the Australian Government, the US Government and others. Their backgrounds have been checked in extraordinary depth. While they are required to meet a lesser test than the standard Character test if they enter under the Medevac provisions, those who are allowed to enter will do so as ‘detainees’ who are ill and need treatment. According to media reports, they will at all times be watched over by a security guard while they are being treated.

The backpacker from Norway, or indeed most of the estimated 60,000 asylum seekers who have come to Australia in the last three years, predominantly on tourist visas, have gone through a very different process.

When most people apply for a tourist visa (or a working holiday maker visa), they go though a two step test in terms of Character. They are firstly checked to ensure they are not on the Movement Alert List (MAL). If they are not on MAL, which is inevitably limited to people who have been placed on this list by Government agencies, the vast majority will receive a visa without any further check of their criminal or related records.

When they arrive at an Australian airport, they are required to sign-off their incoming passenger card attesting to their claim they do not have a criminal record. We take their word for this.

If they then apply for asylum, as record numbers have in the last three years, they will be granted a bridging visa to remain lawfully in the community while their asylum application is considered. Because of the extraordinary backlog of such cases (an estimated 60,000 or more in just the last three years), it will take a very long time before Home Affairs will get around to their case. Like citizenship applications and other massive visa application backlogs in Home Affairs, these asylum applications can sit in the queue for months before they are touched.

During this time, the Government has no information on the criminal record of these asylum seekers, even though these people are living in the community and not under the supervision of a security guard.

So should we be more worried about a relatively small number of ill asylum seekers who are under constant supervision while they receive medical treatment, or about the estimated 60,000 asylum seekers living in the community since the last three years, most of whom have not been checked in terms of their criminal record?

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.

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