Asylum Seekers

Policy analysis by Professor Susan Kneebone, Faculty of Law, University of Melbourne

Refugees from Syria

Key points

The Coalition promises to:

  • accept 18,750 refugees each year by 2018-19, along with 12,000 refugees from Syria
  • maintain offshore processing and boat turnbacks
  • maintain mandatory immigration detention

Labor promises to:

  • increase the number of refugee places to 27,000 each year by 2025
  • maintain mandatory immigration detention; and maintain the option of boat turnbacks
  • maintain offshore processing, but with greater oversight of conditions

The Greens promise to:

  • increase the number of refugees to 50,000 each year
  • close offshore immigration detention centres
  • introduce a 30 day time limit for all immigration detention

Resettlement under the Refugee and Humanitarian Program

Since 1996, the quota of entrants under the Refugee and Humanitarian Program has been between 12,000 and 13,750 places.

The policy of the Liberal-National Coalition is to maintain the current quota of 13,750 places with the number rising to 18,750 in 2018-19.  The current government has also committed to resettling 12,000 Syrian refugees in a ‘one-off’ gesture. By comparison, the Labor party has committed to increasing the number of resettlement places to 27,000 in 2025.  The Greens would increase the number to 50,000 places.  Further, the Greens propose to establish a Skilled Refugee program for 10,000 people.

Refugees, asylum seekers and boat people

Since the 1990s, the Coalition and Labor have drawn a distinction between refugees resettled under the official Refugee and Humanitarian Program, which operates in cooperation with the UNHCR, and those who seek asylum ‘spontaneously’ (‘asylum seekers’ or ‘boat people’).  The distinction between resettled refugees and asylum seekers is recognised in the policies of all parties.The Coalition labels asylum seekers (who arrive without a valid visa) ‘illegal maritime arrivals’; Labor uses the term ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’; for the Greens they are ‘asylum seekers’.

Mandatory immigration detention

There is bipartisan support for the mandatory detention of unauthorised asylum seekers (those who arrive without a visa).  This policy, which extends to indefinite mandatory detention, has operated since 1992.  It involves the use of detention facilities on the mainland and on Christmas Island.

The Greens would introduce a 30 day time limit for all immigration detention; that is after 30 days, further detention would need to be authorised.  The Greens maintain that 30 days is ‘ample time to conduct the necessary checks and to assess their claims for asylum’.

Off shore processing, turn backs and tow-backs

Australia’s policy of mandatory detention is pursued through offshore processing.  Both major parties support offshore processing which was introduced by the Coalition government in 2001 and which has been practiced by both parties since that period (apart from 2008-12 under Labor governments).

Offshore processing requires interdictions at sea and transfers of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia to designated offshore processing locations.  Currently these are Nauru and Manus Island in PNG under arrangements between their governments and the Australian government.

A major new plank introduced by the Coalition when it came to power in September 2013 was the 'Operation Sovereign Borders' initiative, and a further policy of turn backs and tow-backs of asylum seeker boats.  The Coalition refers to its successful policy of having ‘stopped the boats’ under its current policies of turn backs and tow-backs, in combination with offshore processing.

Labor is committed to maintaining offshore processing and has announced its intention to enter into new bilateral relationships with Nauru and PNG.  Labor proposes to introduce mechanisms to ensure ‘humane conditions’ in the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and independent oversight of them through the Commonwealth Ombudsman.  Labor will ensure that those working in the immigration system enjoy the benefit of whistle-blower protections to speak out about maladministration and corruption.Labor has also said that: ‘Provided it can be done so safely, a future Labor Government will retain the option of turning boats around’.

The Greens by contrast are committed to closing the detention centres (‘camps’) on Nauru and Manus Is.

Onshore protection for asylum seekers

The Coalition

Since coming to office in 2013 the Coalition government has introduced fast track procedures for Refugee Status Determination and reintroduced Temporary Protection Visas in place of Permanent Protection Visas . TPVs were first used by the Coalition in 1999 until abolished by Labor in 2008.

The Coalition has also amalgamated the Refugee Review Tribunal with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal; and the established the Independent Assessment Authority to provide a ‘fast track’ review of decisions about asylum seekers.


Labor would get rid of Temporary Protection Visas. It would also reinstate the Refugee Review Tribunal and abolish the Independent Assessment Authority.

The Greens

The Greens would remove Temporary Protection Visas.

The context for assessing the policies

The number of people displaced globally is at unprecedented levels, including four million Syrian refugees requiring resettlement.

As a party to the Refugee Convention, Australia has an obligation to share the responsibility for protection and resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers with other states in cooperation with the United National High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UNHCR has nominated 1,153,296 refugees in priority need of resettlement – a 22% increase on the previous year.  Australia works with other countries in the region through the Bali Process (Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime).

Labor is committed to working with the UNCHR and will allocate $450 million over three years to support the work of the UNHCR both regionally and globally.  It intends to develop greater regional cooperation and leadership.

The Greens propose to allocate $500 million to regional processing, for ‘assessment and support organisations in our region to speed up the process and give people access to education and work rights while they wait’ for resettlement.

The financial implications of the policies

The Commission of Audit estimated that the cost of offshore processing and onshore detention had risen from $118.4 million in 2009-10 to $3.3 billion in 2013-14.

Offshore processing costs Australians an estimated 10 times more than allowing them to live in the community.

The Coalition says that by stopping the boats it has enabled the closure of 17 detention centres in mainland Australia saving the Budget $17 million.  It claims that Labor’s ‘failed border policies’ ‘led to an $11 billion blowout’.

Labor's approach is anticipated to cost $450 million over the forward estimates and will be funded from Labor's package of measures which improve the Budget by $2.8 billion.

The Greens say that by closing the offshore processing ‘camps’ they will save $2.9 billion.

Image: Refugees from Syria (UNHCR/Flickr)