The nitty-gritty politics of refugee policy

By Mitchell Thomas. 15th May 2016. 

Our goal is to provide an accurate summary of where the parties stand, but we advise that you also read more broadly and verify other sources of information before deciding who to vote for.

Conversation can get pretty heated when it comes to Australia’s policies on asylum seeker, refugee and border security. The fact that I had to use three different terms in that sentence to describe a single policy is telling.

These issues are all interrelated and it reflects the different ways the parties frame the issue, which we’ll get to shortly. Refugee/asylum seeker/border security policy (call it what you will) is a political issue that never seems to go away - and this election is no different.

What’s more, the emotionally charged nature of this debate makes separating fact from fiction rather difficult.

For some, stopping the boats before they arrive in Australian waters is a humane policy that secures our borders, keeps Australia safe, prevents asylum seeker deaths at sea and discourages the people smugglers that organise the journeys. According to others, stopping the boats has a racist agenda behind it, breaks international law, violates human rights and harms people who have already suffered enough.

But it is important that we attempt to understand this area. Not least because a recent survey of Australian youth has shown that the majority of us deem the issue of asylum seekers as the most important issue coming into the election, followed by same-sex marriage and climate change.

In the end, one thing remains certain: if you have a view on refugees/asylum seekers/ border security, there is probably a political party that represents it.

Terminology 101:

Let’s look at some terminology to make the whole thing clearer.

Border security/protection: Measures taken by a country to protect itself from the entry of people or goods deemed unsafe for its national security or integrity, through managing and securing its borders.
Australia is an island (ten points to Gryffindor) so this obviously happens at sea (another ten points to Gryffindor) and airports.

Asylum seeker: Someone who has fled the country they live in and is seeking safety in another country due to a well-founded fear of persecution. A person is an asylum seeker if they have applied for refugee status to a national government or to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but has not yet had their application processed. Most people who come to Australia to seek asylum arrive by plane.

Refugee:  An asylum seeker is legally considered a refugee after their claim has been processed and refugee status granted by the UNHCR or a national government.

Onshore detention and processing: This is when asylum seekers are detained in facilities on Australian soil while their claims are being processed. Under Australian law, any person who arrives in Australia that is not a citizen and who doesn’t have a visa must be detained.

Offshore detention and processing: Where asylum seekers are detained in a facility that is not in Australia while their claims are being processed. This occurs under an arrangement with the national government of the country that hosts the detention centre. Currently, Australia operates two offshore detention centres, one, on Nauru and one on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

Community detention: Certain asylum seekers deemed to be vulnerable, such as children and young families, are held in residences within Australian communities, instead of being held inside detention centres. They are subject to supervision and curfews and can be moved back into a detention centre at the Minister’s discretion. 

Boat turn-backs:  A policy of turning back boats that are carrying asylum seekers bound for Australia, provided it is deemed safe by the authorities. Authorities include the Navy, the Australian Federal Police or Australian Border Force.

People smuggling/smugglers:  Individuals or organisations who assist others to enter a country in which they are not a citizen or permanent resident in a way other than by official immigration procedures. People smuggling is a crime under Australian law.

Humanitarian intake: This refers to the number of refugees the Government commits to resettling in Australia every year. These refugees are referred to Australia by the UNHCR and it does not include those that arrive in Australia spontaneously whether by boat or plane.  At the moment, Australia’s quota is to resettle 13,750 refugees in Australia per year. For comparison, the USA resettled 69,933 refugees in 2015.

So now that the jargon is out of the way, what are we planning to do about it all? Here’s a rundown of what the Coalition (government), Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Greens said they would do if they were elected.

The coalition (the government) 


At the heart of the Coalition Government’s plans and policies on this issue is the pledge to protect and prioritise Australia’s sovereignty and integrity, which it sees as being threatened by the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. In other words, the Liberal Party’s policies to meet this issue’s challenges are focused on Australia’s national security first and foremost. 

The Liberal Party’s page dedicated to this policy has said that for the most part, it will be sticking with policies that it believes have been working. If the Malcolm Turnbull Government is to be reelected, we can expect to see a continuation of:

  1. Boat turn-backs –when it is safe to do so.  This is to deny people smugglers the opportunity to capitalise on asylum seekers wanting to come to Australia and to prevent asylum seeker deaths at sea.
    The Government claims that this has allowed them to close 17 detention centres, resulting on a saving of $3 billion, and that it has also allowed them to resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq, in Australia (though how these things are connected is unclear). However as of March 2016 only 29 refugees from Syria and Iraq have been resettled since the plan’s announcement in November 2015.
  2. Offshore detention and processing – on Nauru and Manus Island. While its policy page makes no specific mention of offshore detention, it has shown a willingness to continue offshore detention as a solution to boat arrivals.The Manus Island detention centre has recently been declared by the government of Papua New Guinea to be illegal and they intend to close it, but the coalition are yet to announce how they will react to this.
  3. Overseeing resettlement – of asylum seekers in offshore detention to countries like Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. The policy page doesn’t mention this one either, however given that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ruled out the possibility of allowing any of the approximately 1460 asylum seekers held in offshore detention to resettle in Australia, it is reasonable to conclude that that this will continue. Cambodia will not take refugees who are not willing to go there, and only 5 have chosen to go in the past year, three of whom changed their minds shortly after arriving. 

As far as new or expanded policies goes, the Government has also announced that if reelected, it will:

     5. Increase humanitarian intake– from what is currently 13,750 to, and peaking at 18,750 in 2018-19, which will become our yearly intake



The ALP is more outward-looking in its approach to asylum seekers. Where the Coalition frames this issue as primarily a matter of Australia’s national security, Labor sees the record number of people fleeing conflict or persecution worldwide world as a humanitarian problem that Australia can do more to address. In doing so, it says that it wants to seek a humane and compassionate approach.

Here are key similarities and differences in their policies:

  1. Continue boat turn-backs –a policy that Labor also believes has worked to reduce the flow of boats arriving in Australia and deaths at sea.
  2. Continue offshore detention and processing – however they also wish to introduce…
  3. Independent oversight of offshore detention facilities – to ensure they are operated safely and humanely.Increase humanitarian intake – by almost double the current intake, bringing it to 27,000 by 2025.
  4. Increase funding to UNHCR – bringing it to $450 million over three years. By contrast, the Coalition has committed around $258 million since 2011.
  5. Foster greater regional cooperation – among South East Asian and Pacific governments to build a regional humanitarian framework.
  6. Protecting children seeking asylum – by removing them from detention as soon as possible and appointing an independent children’s advocate to ensure their rights and interests are protected.
  7. '90 day rule’- to be reinstated into the Migration Act because it was repealed by the Abbott Government. The ’90 day rule’ was a requirement under the former Rudd Labor Government, which required that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection report on how many claims were processed within 90 days. This was put in place to ensure government would be held accountable to processing asylum claims efficiently and fairly. Currently, asylum seekers in offshore detention currently spend an average of over 440 days in detention, which has proven to damage their mental health.

The Greens


Like Labor, The Greens are treating this as a humanitarian as opposed to a national security issue, and have said that their policies are about giving full dignity and respect to asylum seekers. However the Greens believe that both the Coalition and the Labor Party have offered no meaningful alternative to what it says are ineffective and inhumane policies driven by cruel conditions in offshore facilities and by boat turn-backs. The Greens say that their solution is a better way and here’s they would do instead if they were elected:

  1. End boat turn-backs – while creating a system that allows asylum seekers to be flown here from Malaysia and Indonesia instead of undergoing boat journeys facilitated by people smugglers.
  2. End offshore detention and processing– by closing Nauru and Manus Island detention facilities, claiming it will save $2.9 billion in doing so.
  3. Introduce a '30 day rule’- for those held in mandatory onshore detention. If their claims are not processed within 30 days they are to be released into community detention.
  4. Introduce a ‘dignity package’ – for asylum seekers who are awaiting processing in community detention. This grants them access to healthcare, education, English classes and work permits.
  5. Increase humanitarian intake – to 50,000 per year, plus introduce a…
  6. Skilled refugee visa program – open to an additional 10,000 skilled asylum seekers, made up of the places that are currently being offered under Australia’s permanent skilled migration scheme.
  7. Protect children seeking asylum – through their immediate removal from detention and the establishment of a Royal Commission into children in detention.
  8. $500 million in funding – towards regional support organisations in order to assess and process asylum claims more efficiently while sharing responsibility across the region.

Where to from here?

Deciding which party best reflects your views on this issue depends on how you view Australia’s role in global community. Should we be treating this as part of a global humanitarian issue that Australia can do more to alleviate, as the ALP and the Greens think? Or should we continue with the Coalition government’s approach of limiting our involvement and focusing primarily on our own national security and border protection?

Perhaps you feel Australia should accept more refugees? If you do, then it is worth noting again that the Coalition, ALP and the Greens are all planning to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake, and so you will have to decide how many more you would like Australia to take. Keep in mind, the numbers we take are still very low compared to other countries. 

Other things that you might consider are your thoughts on offshore processing. Is it a solution that you believe is working and should continue? Perhaps you think that it is working but needs improvement and oversight. Or maybe it isn't working at all and needs to be scrapped in exchange for something else. There are plenty of reports that have been released about the conditions in the camps to help you make up your mind (eg ‘Forgotton Children’ by the Human Rights Commission, or  ‘protection denied, abuse condoned’ by Australian Women Supporting Women on Nauru).

Ultimately you have to express your view at the ballot box according to the party you think has the best approach in achieving the outcome that you’d like to see. You make that decision based on their track record, what they say they will do and how they plan to do it. It pays to do your own research, too, because we’re old enough to know our pollies will all frame the facts to support their policy response. 

One can safely assume that given the scale of the problem globally and how prominently this issue has been featuring in the election campaigns, come next election, this will still be a topic. I would even bet my house on it… if I had one that is.