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The impact of leaky asylum boats on the Federal Election

  • 19 September 2007

Thankfully, no more leaky asylum boats have arrived in Australia with an election in the air. But the announcement of refugee status being granted to 72 Sri Lankan asylum seekers detained on Nauru throws into relief the policy differences between the major political parties and the differing views of refugee advocates. The issues in contention are the Pacific solution operating out of Nauru and the use of the new Christmas Island detention centre (pictured). Labor is committed to abolishing the Pacific solution, while maintaining Christmas Island. Many refugee advocates want Labor to abandon Christmas Island as well.

On 12 September 2007, Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Immigration, announced the refugee status for the Sri Lankans and said, 'Australia is now exploring resettlement options in other countries for the Sri Lankans that have been assessed as being refugees. They will remain in Nauru while arrangements are made to resettle them elsewhere.'

When he first became minister, Andrews was unaware that his own public servants would continue to process the refugee claims on Nauru, just as they would if the asylum seekers remained on Christmas Island. There are three differences between Nauru and Christmas Island.

Failed asylum seekers on Nauru have no right of appeal to any Australian court. Wisely, the government does not make too much of this difference in public because it leads to the inference that decent Australian public servants are more likely to decide that a person is not a refugee if their deliberations are immune from scrutiny by any court or tribunal. When you are trying to change the culture and the public image of a government department that has had a rough trot with cases like Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon, this is not a good look — particularly for an earnest lawyer like Andrews. Second, Australian lawyers and do gooders can be more readily kept out of Nauru. Third, refugees on Nauru have never entered Australia and thus other countries may be willing to receive them.

The Howard government’s Pacific solution was enacted because it was thought that even those boat people successfully claiming refugee status would never make it to Australia. But 95 per cent of them have eventually made it to Australia or New Zealand. They have just had to wait up to an extra five years. The justification for the Pacific solution has been the need to deter refugees from engaging in secondary movement by employing