31 July 2012

Australian immigration milestone as asylum seeking boats hit 100

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The record for the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat in a year was broken earlier this month but more continue to come with the 100 boat marking a disappointing milestone for Australian immigration authorities.

Australia immigration

The asylum seeker issue continues to spiral and still no solution has been found.

The 92nd boat carrying 160 asylum seekers arrived last week, taking the total number in 2012 to 6,557, two more than the previous record set in 2010. While the 6,555 who arrived two years ago did so on more boats, this record has since been broken too as the 100th boat, carrying another 52 asylum seekers arrived in Australian waters yesterday.

The asylum seeking issue in Australia is reaching desperate levels yet with a large proportion of 2012 still to go and no suitable deterrent yet in place, the prospect of more worrying records being broken easily is almost guaranteed.

Yesterday's arrivals took the 2012 total to 6,853, not including crew members.


All asylum seekers are placed in mandatory detention upon arrival in Australia while their claims for refugee status are processed. Australia has detention centres nationwide and those asylum seekers deemed less of a risk can be released on bridging visas which allow them to live in communities and even work.

Much like every aspect of the asylum seeker debate, the method of community detention is a controversial one with critics highlighting the cost of providing for asylum seekers and the flight risk they represent. Supporters typically brush off such remarks but the prosecution of nine asylum seekers in community detention is likely to trigger a fresh debate on the matter.

Meanwhile the alternative method, of detaining all asylum seekers until either their refugee status is confirmed or they are returned to their home country, is equally fraught with difficulties. The nationwide network of detention centres has a maximum capacity and while new centres have only recently been opened, the record rate of arrivals is putting strain on the system; one centre in Queensland is already 35% over capacity.

Overcrowding has been an issue in detention centres as recently as last April 2011 when complains of overcrowding boiled over and riots broke out in Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre, large parts of the centre were burned to the ground.


Australia has so many boat arrivals because there is no suitable deterrent in place. The current Labor government's predecessors, the John Howard-led Liberals, implemented a set of tough policies which reduced boat arrivals to practically zero. However, these policies were quickly abandoned when Labor assumed office and boat arrivals have steadily increased since.

Both the Labor government and the opposing Liberals as part of the Coalition want to use offshore processing of asylum seekers as a deterrent. Labor advocates their Malaysia Solution while the Coalition claim the Pacific Island nation of Nauru is the best location.

While both parties' plans have their merits, with Labor maintaining just a minority government, it needs the support of either the Liberals, who oppose offshore processing in Malaysia as it is not a signatory to the UN's Refugee Convention, or the Australian Greens, who oppose offshore processing altogether.

With no one solution obtaining enough votes to pass, parliament broke for their winter break without a deterrent in place and boats have continued to arrive in the meantime. Prime Minister Julia Gillard formed an expert panel headed by former Defence Chief Angus Houston to formulate a solution during the break and will present his solution when parliament reconvenes in mid-August. Whether anyone listens to the panel however, remains to be seen.

Turning boats back

Escorting asylum seeking boats out of Australian waters is perhaps the most controversial policy of the Coalition's agenda but its effectiveness is rarely debated. However, with people attempting the journey in ever more rickety and unreliable vessels, the potential for putting lives in danger is also certain.

Labor have resisted the calls to implement such policies but calls are beginning to grow louder now with members of the Sri Lankan navy, typically one of the largest sources of migrants, urging Australia to consider the policy.

Even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Australia, Richard Towle, has said the current system does not provide enough of a deterrent to risk the journey,

"You need a fair and accurate asylum process that identifies refugees and the return of those who don't protection," said Mr Towle.

With a lengthy appeal process, detained asylum seekers whose claims for refugee status have been declined can prolong their stay in Australia by lodging further appeals; a process Mr Towle says makes the prospect of the journey much more appealing to those without a genuine need for refugee status.

"The overall integrity of the asylum system needs both of those in play - the rights given to those who are refugees and the return of those who are not. Without returns, the integrity of the whole system is undermined."

The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent migration consultancy specialising in helping people lodge applications with the Australian Embassy.

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