Asylum cases in Australia for first time exceed 100,000

Mar 21, 2023
Australian Flag as Background and Silhouettes of People - conceptual Picture about Independence Vote Patriotism political situation and Migrants.

In February 2023, the number of asylum cases in Australia for the first time exceeded 100,000.

Despite the intense attention on boat arrivals for the last decade, note that very few of these 100,000 asylum cases are boat arrivals. The bulk arrived during an intense period of labour trafficking of Malaysian and Chinese nationals from 2014-15 until the start of the pandemic.

After a two year period during the pandemic when monthly primary decisions regularly exceeded new asylum applications lodged, and thus the primary backlog declined, monthly applications have steadily increased subsequently (see Chart 1). The increase in monthly applications is likely to continue. The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) does not have the resources to deal with this situation with monthly decisions well short of new monthly application.

Source: DHA Onshore Protection Visa Processing Report

This has meant that the primary application backlog at end February 2023 had increased to 27,342. Because of a very high refusal rate, there were 72,875 asylum seekers in Australia who had been refused at the primary stage but had not departed.

The very high primary refusal rate, which largely tracks the monthly number of decisions made, has led to a monthly application rate to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) of over 800 per month and a backlog of asylum cases of 39,625 (see Chart 2).

The overall refusal rate is currently around 90 percent with most of those who are approved coming from nations such as Myanmar, Iran, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Overall, there are relatively few applications from nationals of these countries.

The AAT also does not have the resources to deal with the situation. On average it has been making less than 500 decisions per month.

Source: AAT Annual Reports and Caseload Statistics

So why does this matter?

While the labour market remains strong, this will not be a significant issue. But the situation of these people, many of whom do not have work rights, will change dramatically if the labour market weakens. They will be much more vulnerable to exploitation as they will have to accept whatever job they can find at whatever wages. Many will become much more reliant on charity.

They will not be able to afford even the limited places they are living in now. More will become homeless and living in the streets. In some parts of regional Australia, we may begin to see the types of shanty towns of asylum seekers that are common in Italy and Spain.

So why aren’t we hearing more about this?

Firstly, as the issue started when Peter Dutton was Immigration Minister and he did little to nothing about it, there is no incentive for the Coalition to raise the issue in the media and there is no reason for the Murdoch press to discuss the issue, despite its obsession with asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Secondly, the Albanese Government is unlikely to raise the issue given the costs of dealing with it would be astronomical. There are no easy options for dealing with this situation.

Finally, the Greens and asylum advocates would also prefer this issue is not discussed as a large number of unsuccessful asylum seekers, including many who have been trafficked into the country and others who have applied opportunistically, runs contrary to the image of asylum seekers they would like to portray. Indeed, some asylum advocates have been highly critical of me raising this as an issue that needs to be addressed.

Thus the issue will continue to be swept under the carpet.

But can over 100,000 people continue to be swept under the carpet, especially as the numbers will continue to rise?

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