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

  1. Richard Barnes says:

    Thanks Abdul for your knowledgeable insights into a very complex problem.
    The fact that these ‘plane people’ reveal the hypocrisy of the Liberal and Laberal approach on ‘boat people’ is only one of the important matters arising.
    The vast majority of the 95,000 are the unfortunate victims of a scam; they want to escape a life of limited opportunity so are easy prey; and it is disgraceful that we know full well that many of these people are doing cooking and cleaning for us at exploitative pay and conditions (or worse, working as sex-slaves). But they are not refugees.
    We could I have no doubt grant an amnesty to them all, but what if a million are then brought in? And what about the millions of people under the care of the UNHCR, who really are refugees, and have nowhere to go?
    Somehow, we have to create a radically different system, which takes as many refugees as we reasonably can (presumably under the aegis of the UNHCR) while at the same time saying to other arrivals – as efficiently as possible – sorry, we are sending you back home.

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    Immigration consultation with the community at large peaked with Nick Bolkus and Philip Ruddock and the appointment of non-legal Immigration Tribunal members were on merits (Migration & Refugee Tribunals). My involvement with NGOs lobbying for refugees started with the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people, then the Chinese Students pre/post Tiananmen incident (Bolkus) and the East Timorese (Ruddock) and liaison with immigration officials over a span of 40 years have been a satisfying experience where care and compassionate for immigration/refugees were the norm. I would consider these major refugee events as de facto amnesties. Australia did indeed benefited from these people that we allowed to remain.
    Post Ruddock days saw an inward looking department created by political leaders who hangs on to power with alt-right policies, nationalistic, populist, scaremongering and bothering on racial politics – this is the major cause of the reverse metamorphosis of a butterfly to the pupae. The structure of DHA is a problem has been discuss elsewhere and it does contribute to inefficiencies in the immigration portfolio. An inefficient clearing house is a problem for the department as applications piled up, higher and deeper. One way to solve this problem is the introduction of a mini-amnesty to get rid of the back log and start again. These over stayers are not criminals but are used as cheap labour for unscrupulous employers. I am sure our economy can absorb them.

  3. Kevin Bain says:

    Abul’s comments on the Chinese students’ situation are interesting. As an outsider tracking this a long time later, I had the idea that the blanket permanent visa issueance was a function of Bob Hawke’s trait of emotional impulsiveness. I’ve met a few Chinese students who didn’t feel at all persecuted or in danger if they returned, but accepted the offer. That it was a generalised cohort offer was similar to what happened at times for the Vietnamese evacuees, as Clair Higgins book documents, and I think in earlier waves after WW2 and perhaps Hungary 1956. Thanks for your continuous insights.

    • Abul Rizvi says:

      I suspect you are right Kevin that some portion of the Chinese students weren’t in fear of persecution (we may never know what portion). Worth noting 2 other points. The temporary stay offered initially by Hawke was criticised as inadequate by the then Opposition. Once bulk of the students had applied for asylum, the view was that the costs of asylum processing would have overwhelmed the Dept. Hence the fast tracking visas which could be processed largely on the papers with no interview required.

  4. Kim Wingerei says:

    Thanks for your always precise insights. The 95,000 seems like a very manageable number for a country of our size and wealth. It seems to me we have got it all wrong in the processing of asylum applications. A humane approach would be to look for all the reasons why we SHOULD allow a person, and then filter out the spurious claims. Instead what we do is look for all the reasons that we should NOT allow an application, using criteria designed primarily for exclusion, not inclusion. It is that mindset that needs to change, we live in one world.

    • Abul Rizvi says:

      I suspect you are right on this Kim although i no longer have access to the evidence. But either way, the costs of dealing with the 95,000 is going to be very large, especially if a large portion continue to be unsuccessful with their applications. I am not sure Govt has a plan for how they are going to manage it.

      • Charles Lowe says:

        Abul – please let me ask you what others may well see as a silly question.

        Isn’t it the case that the onus which Kim suggests be reversed is in fact established as such by Australia’s ratification of the International Covenant on Refugees?

        In other words, just as a knock on someone’s front door is taken to be a request for entry into that person’s house, we expect the occupants of that house to establish that such a person is not posing any significant threat to them, so too should an application from a non-citizen to be allowed at least a temporary stay in Australia address a similar onus?

        Surely it is simply precautionary thinking which impels consideration of whether there are any significant factors which should impede any particular person being allowed to stay (and, if there were, to name them)?

        I add the observation that the filter to be applied should be a coarse one: we don’t want terrorists, felonists (generally), proven abusers nor the indolent. But everyone else – why not?

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