Refugee and Asylum Seeker Policy in the Federal Election Part.1

By: Charlotte Lever

Part 1: In part 1, I’ll introduce the topic, provide some context (how we got to where we are) and provide an overview of the policies of Liberal, Labor and the Greens.

Part 2: In part 2, I’ll cover One Nation’s policy on asylum seekers, summarise the different policies by each party and provide some resources for you to explore and get involved further.


Hi, I’m Charlotte. Today I’ll be writing about refugee and asylum seeker policy, and each of the major party’s views and promises regarding these issues going into the 2019 Federal election. I am really passionate about this topic and personally think that policies could be improved to better respond to these complicated and globally significant issues.

The policies surrounding refugees, asylum seekers and border protection have been a salient issue in Australian politics since the early 2000’s. The history of political responses to these issues is confusing, complicated and is often emotionally charged. Because of this, it is often hard to determine what action each major party is proposing to take, and why. So to help you get a handle on these issues, I’ve summarised what the major parties are proposing going into the election.

What exactly do we mean by refugee/asylum seeker/border protection policy?

The debates of asylum seeker/refugee policies are usually centred around how Australia should respond to people arriving by plane or boat to seek asylum without a visa or prior approval.

They focus on how asylum seekers can be stopped from reaching Australia by these “irregular” means, how they should be treated or managed when they are on the Australian mainland, or if they should be sent to an offshore, Australian-run detention facility.

Politicians and the media often use terms like ‘irregular’ or ‘illegal’ to speak about refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat or plane outside of Australia’s prescribed process for accepting refugees. It is important to note that under international law (specifically the Refugee Convention, which Australia is a part of), seeking asylum is not illegal. In fact, it is a protected human right. The way a person seeks asylum does not make their claim ‘unlawful’ and does not change their right to do so.

As you may have seen in the news, one of the most controversial aspects of refugee and asylum seeker policy in Australia is how asylum seekers arriving by boat should be managed. This is usually the focal point of each political party’s policy, and is a hotly debated topic in Australian politics.

Separate but interrelated policy areas are Australia’s overseas migration policy and its humanitarian migration policy, which allows for a number of refugees to be settled in Australia each year.



What is the deterrence model?

According to Professor Tony Coady, “Deterrence involves an action or policy designed to instil fear of the consequences of committing some other action.” - The Conversation

Why is the deterrence model relevant?

Deterrence has been used as a tactic and justification for policies presented and implemented by various political parties. It’s important to understand how this is used to frame the discussion and justify the policies that have been implemented previously and that are being presented at this election.

People arriving by boat (i.e. “irregular means”) have been viewed by some as a threat to Australia’s national security due to the fact that they have not gone through the formal processes for seeking asylum. In this view, Australia’s borders need to be secured by any means necessary. This has often resulted in deterrence policies, such as mandatory detention, boat turn backs and preventing some ‘irregular arrivals’ from ever settling in Australia.

The logic of these policies is to both remove the ability to reach or settle in Australia for people who have claimed asylum in an ‘irregular’ manner, while creating an environment where seeking asylum in this manner results in undesirable outcomes such as indefinite detention.

For some, deterrence policies have ‘stopped the boats’, have halted deaths at sea and have secured Australia’s borders.   

For others, Australia’s current deterrence model is cruel and xenophobic, does not adhere to international law and human rights norms, and has directly resulted in the deaths of 12 people in offshore detention. Many argue these policies remove the focus from where it should be – on the people who are seeking asylum, often from unimaginable circumstances of war and violence in their countries of origin.

Refugee and asylum seeker policy is an area of ongoing debate because of the contrasting views outlined above, and will probably continue to be an important policy area in Australian politics.

It is for these reasons that it is important to get an understanding of what each party proposes in response to these issues, and vote for who best represents your view in the upcoming election.

Statistics on Australia’s refugee and humanitarian migration program each year. credits: Department of Immigration and Border Protection/ABC News.

Statistics on Australia’s refugee and humanitarian migration program each year. credits: Department of Immigration and Border Protection/ABC News.

Party Comparisons

The Coalition (Current Government)

Since winning the election in 2013, the Coalition have focused their policy on national security, protecting Australia’s borders, stopping the people smuggling trade and preventing deaths at sea.

Their policies have included:

  • Offshore processing

  • Temporary Protection Visas (which deny people smugglers a product to sell)

  • Boat turn backs when it is safe to do so

The Coalition has claimed that their approach has been working - that irregular boat arrivals have ceased and the people-smuggling trade has reduced. It is for this reason that they are retaining most of their already existing policies for the 2019 election, as stated on their website.

The Coalition’s policies are:

  • Mandatory detention will continue for all people arriving in Australia without a valid visa.

  • Offshore detention will continue for all irregular boat arrivals, but the Coalition does not state where. With PNG’s Manus Island detention centre now closed, this leaves the detention centres on Nauru or Christmas Island. The Government has also not disclosed any plans for the resettlement of the 915 refugees and asylum seekers still left on Manus and Nauru.

  • Boat turn backs will continue when safe to do so. This involves the Australian Border Force turning back or returning unauthorised boats in Australian waters to the countries that they departed from.

  • Temporary Protection Visas will continue to be issued to asylum seekers who arrive in Australia and are found to be in need of protection. TPV’s do not provide the same pathway to services, rights or residency that permanent protection visas do. The Coalition claims TPV’s deny people smugglers a product to sell, because an asylum seeker who arrives without a valid visa will not have a direct pathway to permanent residency or citizenship.

  • Increase Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program from 13,750 to 18,750 permanent migration places for the year 2018-2019.

  • The Coalition also now pledges to repeal the ‘Medevac’ legislation and close the Christmas Island detention centre (which it reopened in February of 2019).

2014 - Former Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on a vessel investigating hot spots for people smuggling off the Malaysian coast. Credits: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

2014 - Former Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on a vessel investigating hot spots for people smuggling off the Malaysian coast. Credits: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Labor Party

During the Rudd government, Labor’s policy was to dismantle the deterrence model for managing asylum seekers and refugees in favour of what they called a ‘firm but fair’ border security policy. In 2007, Labor ended offshore detention. The Coalition have argued that boat arrivals increased in the months that followed this policy change. The Labor party’s stance on these policies has changed significantly over the years and Labor now shares a very similar approach to the Coalition.

Here are the key similarities:

  • Mandatory detention for anyone who arrives in Australia without a valid visa.

  • Continuation of offshore detention, but, like the Coalition, Labor does not state where or for how long. The party does confirm their previous policy that no detainee who is currently in offshore detention will be settled in Australia.

  • Labor supports the use of boat turnbacks when safe to do so.

And where Labor differs to the Coalition:

  • While supporting mandatory detention, Labor wants to enact a limit on the length of detention (90 days) for onshore detainees, with preference given to community detention.

  • For the 915 detainees living on Manus and Nauru, Labor will pursue regional processing arrangements and agreements with other countries for their resettlement. Labor also pledges to continue the US refugee resettlement deal and accept New Zealand’s offer to accept some of these detainees.

  • All temporary visas for asylum seekers on the Australian mainland will be abolished (including temporary protection visas) and eligible refugees will be transitioned onto permanent visas.

  • Increase Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program to 25,000 people by the year 2025.

  • Pledge $500 million to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (the UN’s programme for protecting and resettling refugees) to improve processing and resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers in our region.

The Greens

The Greens present a different policy agenda to that of the two major parties. On their website, they say the Coalition and Labor party policy ‘abuses and vilifies’ asylum seekers and refugees.

The Greens emphasise that the issue is a humanitarian one, and as such, their policies are directed towards better treatment for all refugees and asylum seekers both in Australia and in offshore detention. The Greens aim to end policies like extended mandatory detention that the party sees as cruel and inhumane.

Here are their proposals:

  • Similar to Labor, the Greens want to continue mandatory detention for onshore arrivals but limit the time in detention to 7 days for health and security checks. After this time, all onshore asylum seekers would be housed in the community.

  • The Greens are the only major party who are campaigning on ending offshore detention entirely, bringing the 915 detainees from Manus and Nauru to Australia immediately. The party says closing offshore detention centres will save $1.9 billion in public money.

  • Like the two major parties, the Greens want to increase Australia’s intake of refugees and asylum seekers under its humanitarian program. The Greens want to increase the number to 50,000 per year.

  • Similar to Labor, the Greens also want to abolish temporary protection visas for asylum seekers living in Australia and provide permanent visas for those who are eligible.

  • They propose to increase support for asylum seekers in the community through better access to housing, employment and monetary support.

  • The party wants to establish a program in which private citizens can sponsor refugees themselves, essentially allowing Australian citizens and permanent residents to pay for an individual or group of refugees to settle in Australia. The Greens propose 10,000 places for this program.

  • Finally, the party would also like to provide $500 million in funding to UNHCR to improve regional processing of refugee claims, and to establish a system that can assess claims for asylum in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Continue reading here for Part 2 of this article, which covers One Nation, policy summaries and extra resources.