New Ministers Andrews/Hawke keen to make their mark on asylum seeker debate

May 10, 2021
Barbed wire feature
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New Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews and new Immigration Minister Alex Hawke will be keen to stamp their mark on the asylum seeker debate – a debate that has won the LNP many elections and led to the promotion of relevant ministers, including Morrison and Dutton.

Andrews and Hawke have decided to carry on Dutton’s practice of highlighting asylum seekers who arrived when Labor was in Government while sweeping under the carpet the much bigger asylum seeker labour trafficking scam that took place under Morrison and Dutton.

To that end, the Department of Home Affairs has recently advised the Refugee Advice and Casework Service has encountered a sharp increase in the number of interviews for fast-track applicants for the remaining 1,000 or so asylum seekers who arrived when Labor was in power but have yet to be interviewed. That’s right – almost ten years after these asylum seekers arrived and have been living in the community, the Department is now in a mad rush to interview them.

This interview blitz is to be completed by end June 2021. That is in less than two months while almost 35,000 asylum seekers who arrived under the LNP and also have not received a primary decision on their asylum application will continue to slowly wind their way through the system. That of course doesn’t include another 30,000 or so at the AAT and over 26,000 who have been refused at both the primary stage and at the AAT but have not yet departed vast majority of whom arrived under the LNP Government.

So why the sudden rush to interview the remaining 1,000 asylum seekers who arrived under Labor?

It is possible this initiative has been triggered by a recent Federal Court decision. Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow has said of this Federal Court decision that “when a person seeks asylum in Australia, it’s vital that their application be processed quickly, fairly and transparently. This judgment will remove administrative barriers for a vulnerable group of people who have been waiting too long to have their claims assessed.”

Santow and the Federal Court may well be stating the obvious but to date it has not been obvious to the Department of Home Affairs.

The mad rush that Home Affairs has now adopted may be aimed at catching the legal representatives of these asylum seekers off guard and leaving them limited time to prepare. This would increase the likelihood more of the asylum seekers are refused at both the primary stage and the more limited review stage that applies specially to this group.

The approval rate for asylum seekers who arrived under Labor has been around 90 percent – that is the vast majority have been found to be genuine refugees under a Morrison/Dutton visa processing regime. That is quite unlike the ones arriving under the LNP. The vast majority of asylum seekers who arrived under the LNP and have been processed at both primary and review stages have been found not be genuine refugees but still remain in the community without work rights and subject a high risk of exploitation.

If the strategy is to catch out legal representatives of the 1,000 remaining asylum seekers who arrived under Labor unprepared and thereby increase the refusal rate, will Andrews and Hawke seek to make an example of the refused cases for the media? That would be a similar strategy to the one used by Dutton for the Biloela family – and look what a triumph of public administration that has turned out to be!

As with the Biloela family, Andrews and Hawke may try to put the blame for the difficulties in removing these people onto Labor. The spectacle can be highlighted in the lead up to the next election with Andrews and Hawke developing their own ‘tough on borders’ credentials – but only as long as no one in the media highlights the situation of the asylum seekers who arrived under Morrison and Dutton.

Another possible explanation for the rush is that Andrews and Hawke have been horrified at learning how long it has taken to deal with the asylum seekers who arrived under Labor and simply want the matter resolved quickly rather than be accused of sitting on their hands. With the Home Affairs budget under severe pressure in 2021-22, the Department may have agreed to get the interviews done this financial year.

If the interviews are to be done in a rush for financial reasons, then the likelihood that most of the 1,000 will be approved rises. If individual decision-makers are under pressure to process applications quickly, they are much more likely to approve. It takes much more effort and time to sustain refusal of a complex asylum application than to approve it.

Refusals also create additional downstream costs to locate, detain and remove the unsuccessful asylum seekers. We know that Home Affairs has very limited available detention space in the remaining operational mainland detention centres with the average length of stay of current detainees blowing out. Organising removals given covid restrictions would be both extra difficult and time consuming – further adding to costs.

From a financial perspective, the bean counters in Home Affairs would be very happy to have all 1,000 of the remaining ‘Labor’ asylum seekers quickly approved and off their books.

But is that what Andrews and Hawke will want in terms of furthering their careers?


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