After the change in Government in November 2007, there was a marked change in rhetoric and the treatment of especially asylum seekers by the then new Labor Government. In the four and a half years since then, we have seen significant reforms but also some serious setbacks in the treatment of asylum seekers. On one hand, the Government has implemented significant reforms, only to then react to populist rhetoric from the Opposition with poor policy.
At times under the Coalition, there were up to five different visa categories for refugees, four differed mainly on the basis how someone came to Australia. Until changes were announced in early 2012, there were three different refugee assessment processes, again depending on how you arrived, not on the merits or otherwise of your claims.
Labor’s reforms moved slowly at first with the closing of Nauru in February 2008, and in August 2008, the abolition of the Temporary Protection Visa (TPV). This meant that all those who met the refugee criteria onshore would be granted permanent residence.
Other positive changes included the abolition of detention debt in March 2009, the end of the 45 day rule which restricted access to permission to work on 1 July 2009 and the introduction of complementary protection legislation initially 2009, but it did not start until March 2012. Complementary Protection introduced a joint process whereby a person was first assessed against the Refugee Convention, and then against the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This shorted the cumbersome system whereby previously the only way to access CAT or the ICCPR was through a ministerial request after a refugee claim was refused at merits review.
Where Labor has reached political problems is in dealing with unauthorized arrivals who come by boat, rather than by air. This debate has become increasingly polarized.
The original tone was set by former Immigration Minister Evan who delivered a key speech on reforms of the detention system in July 2008 at the ANU. In that speech, Senator Evans outlined seven objectives and made the following remarks:
At my first meeting with Department officials as Minister for Immigration, I asked who was detained at the immigration detention centre on Nauru and at what stage were their claims for asylum.
I was told there were eight Burmese and 81 Sri Lankans there. Virtually all of this group had already been assessed as refugees but had been left languishing on Nauru.
When I asked why the eight Burmese had not been settled in Australia in accordance with international law there was an embarrassed silence.
Eventually the answer emerged. The Howard government had ordered they stay put. They had been left rotting on Nauru because the Howard government wanted to maintain the myth that third-country settlement was possible.
Sadly, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers had sunk this low.
At the time, there were few people arriving by boat. Those who did arrive by boat were assessed in an administrative process which was seen as outside the onshore protection visa process, but mirrored it in its approach. The excision provisions of the Howard Government still operated but the Minister has power to grant a visa if in the public interest. Cases assessed as meeting the refugee criteria were granted protection visas. As more and more people arrived by boat, the detention centres filled up and Christmas Island was no longer large enough to hold all the arrivals. As detention centres such as Curtin near Derby in WA were reopened, many other centres were established around the country.
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