Why only bridging visas to Biloela family?

May 31, 2022
Woman holds a placard saying Let Them Stay at a rally in Melbourne in 2021
Once nations have allowed a huge asylum backlog to develop, such as the one Australia now has, they become paralysed. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Interim Home Affairs Minister Jim Chalmers has granted the Murugappan family bridging visas to enable the whole family to return to Biloela ‘while they work towards resolution of their immigration status’.

Chalmers could have granted the family any visa he thought appropriate, including permanent visas.

But the bridging visa option was the simplest and quickest way to get the family back to Biloela and give the new Government time to develop a more comprehensive policy framework for managing well over 100,000 asylum and refugee cases that it has now inherited.

This will not be simple or cheap or uncontroversial.

New Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, the man who sent the Murugappan family into detention at a cost of many millions of dollars, made it clear he will continue to use the issue as a political weapon rather than help with development of a sensible policy response – something he and his former Departmental Secretary Mike Pezzullo were incapable of progressing.

The new Government will start by examining the size and composition of the current asylum caseload.

Data on this as at end April 2022 is made public by the Government in two parts.

Firstly, the legacy caseload relates to asylum seekers arriving by boat during the Rudd/Gillard Governments – the ones the media largely focusses on – and secondly asylum seekers who have arrived subsequently, mainly on visitor visas as part of Australia’s biggest ever labour trafficking scam – the ones the media prefers to ignore even though their numbers are much bigger.

This scam started under Morrison/Dutton and Pezzullo from around 2014-15. They were happy to avoid mentioning the scam and preferred it be sweep this under the carpet else it exposed just how hopeless they really were at border protection.

Legacy Boat Caseload

DHA data indicates there were 31,253 people in the legacy caseload at end April 2022. This does not include a few hundred people still on Manus and Nauru who may now be considered for re-settlement in New Zealand – an offer that could have been taken up almost ten years ago thus saving billions of dollars.

Of the 31,253 legacy asylum applicants in Australia, 29,076 had been ‘finalised’ (ie granted a visa or refused) while another 2,177 were still being processed at either primary or review stages.

19,345 people had been granted temporary protection (either a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV)) comprising 6,416 people from Iran; 4,499 from Afghanistan; 2,307 stateless; 2,174 from Sri Lanka; 1,265 from Pakistan; 1,087 from Iraq; 385 from Sudan and 277 from Somalia.

With the new Government’s promise to abolish TPVs, a pathway to permanent residence for these individuals will be developed. That would have been part of Chalmers’ thinking to only grant the Murugappan family bridging visas at this stage.

Of the 2,177 applications still being processed, 644 are from Iran; 373 from Sri Lanka; 358 Stateless; 201 from Vietnam; 180 from Afghanistan; 153 from Bangladesh. These figures do not include people transferred to Australia for medical reasons from a regional processing centre.

Only 36 of these people are still in onshore detention with the rest living in the community.

9,731 boat arrival applications had been refused at both primary and review stages. Legally, most of these people are in an almost identical situation to the Murugappan family before they were taken into detention.

Dutton’s treatment of the Murugappan family was the exception rather than the rule – most likely because Australian Border Force (ABF) does not have the resources or the detention facilities to manage these thousands of other cases in the way it managed the Murugappan family.

I have not been able to find data on what portion of the refused cohort has either departed Australia voluntarily; or been removed or is living in the community.

Given very low rates of voluntary and involuntary removals of asylum seekers in the past 5-6 years, it is likely the bulk of this cohort is still living in the Australian community but without work rights or any form of Government support.

They would be highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The new Government has given no indication of how this cohort will be managed.

Technically, they are still subject to location, detention and removal.

Dutton may have been planning a removal blitz starting with the Murugappan family 5-6 years ago but that was brought to an end after the public and legal reaction to his attempts to remove the Murugappan family.

After that, it is likely the former Government’s plan for this cohort would have been similar to that in the US and Europe – do as little as possible and allow these people to live in the shadows of society for the rest of their lives.

But the new government providing this cohort – that is people whose asylum applications have been refused – with a pathway to permanent residence would result in an endless attack from Dutton and the Murdoch press that the new Government was being ‘weak on border protection’.

There is a risk the Murugappan family gets caught in this potential paralysis unless the Government is brave enough to take on Dutton and the Murdoch press.

Asylum Applications After Early 2014

While there have been no boat arrivals since early 2014, Australia has experienced a massive increase in asylum applications associated with the biggest labour trafficking scam in our history.

This too would have been on Chalmers’ mind when considering the Murugappan intervention decision.

At end April 2022, there were 27,067 asylum applications at the primary stage. On average, these are taking around a year to process.

This backlog had been declining from 34,957 at end December 2021 to 27,067 at end April 2022 as the closed borders resulted in new asylum applications falling to around 800 per month while DHA finalised between 1,000 and 1,500 per month.

But with international borders re-opened, Australia facing major labour shortages and a rising focus on low skill, low pay guest worker visas, including making our student visa into an unsponsored work visa, the risk of labour traffickers resuming their scam by abusing the asylum system will rise.

We are already seeing a rise in asylum applications from Pacific Island farm workers who have run away from their employers.

Unlike the legacy caseload, the vast bulk of asylum applications since the labour trafficking scam started in 2015 have been refused.

Many go onto apply for review at the AAT. The effect of this can be seen in Chart 1 where the backlog of asylum applications has been climbing rapidly. There are no signs of the AAT being able to get on top of this backlog.


Bar chart showing active asylum cases on hand at AAT

Source: AAT Annual Reports and Caseload Statistics

Note that only a very tiny portion of these AAT cases relate to the legacy caseload. Even if the new Government moved to provide more resources to the AAT, it is highly unlikely it could prevent the backlog at the AAT exceeding 40,000 before the end of 2022 and still rising.

Finally, there is the cohort of asylum seekers who have been refused at both the primary stage and at the AAT but have not departed Australia.

This cohort is approaching 31,000 and will keep growing.

Former Agriculture Minister David Littleproud suggested this group should be given an amnesty. But that idea was quickly shot down by Attorney-General Cash.

Apparently she considered doing nothing was far more in line with the former Government’s strong border protection policies. As new leader of the National Party, it would be interesting to see if he still supports an amnesty, especially as that would raise Dutton’s role in allowing the labour trafficking scam that was the origin of the problem.

The new Government has inherited a visa system that is in a mess combined with DHA funding falling rapidly from around $2.6 billion in 2021-22 to $1.7 billion in 2023-24. This decline in funding will take place at the same time that offshore visa applications will be growing quickly now that international travel has resumed.

The new immigration minister will undoubtedly consider a range of options to address the asylum seeker situation within the context of this wider visa system mess. The new minister’s biggest obstacle may be that there is no money to address the chaos that she/he will inherit.

Moreover, the hard reality is that once nations have allowed a huge asylum backlog to develop, such as the one Australia now has, they become paralysed.

The issue ends up going into the ‘too hard’ basket.

The USA for example has for decades had over 10 million undocumented workers, including millions of unsuccessful asylum seekers, that its economy now relies upon but whose immigration status cannot been resolved.

Societies around the world have eventually come to accept, however reluctantly, that there will be an underclass of unsuccessful asylum seekers living on the fringes of society, forever exploited and abused.

My former colleagues and I in the Department of Immigration once thought Australia could avoid that fate.

In the immortal words of Darryl Kerrigan, perhaps we were just dreaming.

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