Time running out for Albanese Government to fix asylum system

Jan 31, 2024
Australian flag visible through a hole in a concrete wall.

Despite its $160 million package to better manage asylum seekers, time is running out for the Albanese Government to get on top of the asylum seeker issue prior to the 2025 election.

Asylum applications at both the primary and AAT stages fell in December 2023 but the number of applications processed also fell leading to an increase in backlogs at both levels. The additional funding allocated to process asylum applications faster at both levels has not yet taken effect. Removal rates for unsuccessful asylum seekers remain low.

There were 1,942 primary asylum applications in December 2023, down from 2,196 in November 2023 and 2,322 in October 2023. The main source nations remained largely stable with 371 from Vietnam (Government has cranked up refusal rates for visitors and students from Vietnam to try and stem the high rate of asylum applications from Vietnam); 203 from China; 157 from India; 86 from Vanuatu; 82 from the Philippines; 71 from Malaysia; 62 from Indonesia; 59 from Thailand and 59 from Tonga. Approval rates from all of these nations are very low, generally well below 10 percent.

Only 1,002 primary asylum applications were processed in December 2023. This is the lowest monthly applications processed since July 2022 and led to the primary backlog increasing to 32,404. This is the largest primary backlog since July 2021 when it was 32,877. The primary backlog peaked at 39,424 in February 2020.

There were 612 asylum applications to the AAT. Asylum applications to the AAT have been trending down since August 2023 when it was 930. But processing of asylum applications at the AAT has also fallen leading to another new record of on-hand asylum applications at the AAT of 41,616. The asylum backlog at the AAT has been rising since at least 2016 when it was around 5,000.

The total number of asylum applications refused at the primary stage and not yet departed Australia is now a new record of 76,574 and the total number of asylum seekers in Australia is also a new record of 108,978. This increased from 94,260 at the change of Government in May 2022.

Removal of unsuccessful asylum seekers in December 2022 was 15 with one of these being an involuntary removal. This is around the average monthly removal rate for the last few years, including prior to the pandemic.

Over the next few months, we should see faster processing of asylum seekers at both the primary level and at the AAT as extra staff are recruited and trained. But there is also a risk there may be a rise in asylum applications as covid visa stream holders see their visas expire over the next 6 months and find an asylum application is one of the few means of extending stay in Australia.

The Albanese Government has also indicated it aims to increase refusals of onshore student visa applications where students are using this to extend stay to access a strong labour market as well as allowing PALM visa holders to bring dependents (but not providing them with a clear pathway to permanent residence). These two measures may also trigger a rise in asylum applications.

Despite its $160 million package to better manage asylum seekers, time is running out for the Albanese Government to get on top of the asylum seeker issue. The risk of this being used by Peter Dutton in the lead up to the 2025 Election as a political wedge, despite Dutton’s role in originally allowing the problem to boom, remains high.

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