ABUL RIZVI. Current surge in asylum seekers is not normal for Australia

Writing in The Conversation, Regina Jefferies and Daniel Ghezelbash argue the current surge in onshore asylum applications is not ‘unprecedented’ because tourists or students often lodge claims for asylum due to circumstances beyond their control. They give the example of the Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square massacre. But Jefferies and Ghezelbash fail to note the very stark differences between the two situations.

For the Chinese students who were in Australia on 4 June 1989, or had applied for a student visa to Australia on or before that date, the Tiananmen Square massacre was indeed a dramatic change in circumstances that was beyond their control that led to them having a genuine fear of persecution by the Chinese Government.

But for the over 30,000 Malaysian citizens who have applied for asylum in recent years, and continue to do so in very large numbers, there is no such change of circumstances. It is hardly surprising the refusal rate for Malaysian asylum seekers is 98 percent. By contrast, there was little chance of asylum applications from the Chinese students in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre being refused.

Jefferies and Ghezelbash rightly point out the current dysfunction in the Department of Home Affairs and the politicisation of the AAT. This has undoubtedly opened up opportunities for criminal syndicates to bring in large numbers of vulnerable people and then abuse the asylum system to get these people into work in exploitative conditions as indentured labour.

The authors suggest “if people seeking asylum can have their claims assessed quickly and fairly, then those who are not refugees can be sent home, while those needing safety could receive it”. And indeed this was the case with past outbreaks of the Malaysian ETA/asylum seeker scam where numbers were able to be kept to a few hundred with fast processing and targeting of criminal labour agents.

But once the numbers get into the 10,000s, the situation becomes very different to the ideal Jefferies and Ghezelbash suggest.

In the case of the Chinese students, where the number of asylum applications was over 40,000, the Government decided it would be far too costly to put these through the asylum process. The Government avoided having to process the asylum applications by fast tracking the cases to permanent residence through what was called the ‘1 November’ categories. This saved millions of dollars in visa processing.

For the over 95,000 asylum applications in recent years and growing at 65 per day, however, following the Jefferies and Ghazelbash’s suggested approach would see costs rise quickly into the many billions of dollars especially if the refusal rate is high which it inevitably would be. This takes into account costs for:

  • Initial visa processing, processing at the AAT, any requests for ministerial intervention and possible judicial review;
  • Asylum seeker assistance; and
  • Location, detention and removal of failed asylum seekers – as the Biloela family case shows, these costs can mount very quickly if the Government persists with removal.

The number of potentially failed asylum seekers currently in Australia and working in exploitative conditions is a crisis – there is no other way to describe it.

Australia is at another turning point on asylum policy.

If the Government recognises the issue it has on its hands it will need to spend billions of dollars to get the situation back to where it was just five years ago. It will not want to do that for both political reasons, budget reasons and sheer logistics.

The Government is more likely to adopt the same attitude as countries in Europe and the USA and pretend the problem will go away and/or look for someone else to blame. This will mean Australia develops a growing and permanently exploited underclass of failed asylum seekers who are unable to go home, often due to costs and what they may owe to the unscrupulous labour agents who brought them to Australia, but also unable to become fully part of Australian society.

The suggestion by Jefferies and Ghazelbash that Australia should be encouraging more people to follow the route taken by the recent surge in asylum seekers rather than enter via the formal Humanitarian Program would not only exacerbate the current crisis but it would play into the hands of authoritarian politicians who are only too eager to undermine the refugee convention further.

It is important the asylum system remains available to non-citizens in Australia who do experience a major change in circumstances that puts them in genuine fear of persecution.

Jefferies and Ghazelbash should be careful what they wish for.

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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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 the reshaping of Australia's intake to focus on skilled migration, slow Australia's rate of population ageing and boost Australia's international education and tourism industries. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia's immigration policies.

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