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Labor on refugees: just as nasty and even more secretive.

Refugees in Australia’s detention camps learnt long ago that hope was an illusion. The new Labor government, endorsing the Coalition’s cruelty, has again shown them the bleak wisdom of hopelessness.

When the new government was elected in May, refugees and their advocates did not expect a sudden rush of humanitarianism into Australian refugee policy. But it had, after all, been so needlessly cruel under Morrison and Dutton that any glimmer of decency would be significant.

That hope seemed to have some foundation. The ALP’s official platform – adopted in 2021 by the party’s federal conference and nominally binding on Labor politicians – promised major reforms. These included abolishing temporary protection visas, assessment in the community rather than in detention, access to government-funded legal support and limiting mandatory detention of “unauthorised arrivals” to 90 days.

Refugee advocates held serious hopes that the new government would quickly take several steps to ease the lives of asylum seekers.

Sanmati Verma ...Labor 'dismaying'
“The first,” said Human Rights Law Centre managing lawyer Sanmati Verma, “would be very promptly and very easily to convert the cohort of people who currently hold temporary protection visas onto permanent protection visas.

“And then to find a solution to the remaining group of people who came by boat and who were subject to the very unfair fast-tracking process”, Sanmati Verma told me. “That has not been done.

“It is dismaying. There is a very substantial number of Afghan people who have been subject to this policy and have been unable to reunite with their families. Family members are being killed [in Afghanistan] because of these delays. And there is obviously concern about a whole number of people from Iran.

“Time means something. It’s not just a neutral bureaucratic word. It has a cost in human terms.”

But before the 2022 election Richard Marles, now deputy Prime Minister, said: “Let's be really clear; there is no difference between Labor and the government when it comes to border protection policy. Labor supports Operation Sovereign Borders and every aspect of it.”

Clare O'Neil ... unresponsive
Despite mollifying rhetoric from the much more junior Immigration Minister, Andrew Giles, Marles’ hard line has prevailed. And it can be seen in Marles’ factional colleague from the Victorian right, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, in her continuing refusal to engage with the nation’s leading refugee advocacy organisations.

“We understand the Prime Minister has maintained a very keen interest in what is happening in the immigration portfolio: Verma said. “The critical element is the Home Affairs minister, Clare O’Neil. And it has been impossible to talk to Clare O’Neil’s office. Absolutely impossible.”

The single bright spot was the release of the Biloela family, the Nadesalingam parents and two children. This was a great media moment for the new government – but it meant nothing for the hundreds in detention, or abandoned in Port Moresby, or for the hundreds of thousands on precarious temporary visas.

Boochani ... 'nothing has changed'
Behrouz Boochani, who fled extraordinary persecution in Iran but arrived in Australia by boat and spent six years in the Manus Island camp, became our highest-profile detainee. Now senior adjunct research fellow at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, he continues to condemn both major parties in Australia.

The Biloela family’s release, he believes, should be celebrated. But what about all the others?

“On the day the Nadesalingam family were returned to Biloela,” Boochani wrote, “Albanese and his ministers represented themselves as saviours, promoting an image of change and justice. These photo opportunities may look good and quieten critique, but they mask the fact that nothing has changed when it comes to hundreds of refugees still in detention.

“The triumphant story of the Nadesalingam family’s return to Biloela is used to mask the current Australian government’s recommitment to populism and hypocrisy. Much of the Australian public, and especially Labor supporters, pretend there has been change, that they have created change, that they have saved lives; choosing to ignore the asylum seekers who remain indefinitely detained in what amounts to systematic torture.

“Nothing has changed until there are 200 more Biloela families returned to Australia from Nauru and Port Moresby, and until threats of deportation, re-detention, or return to PNG or Nauru end.

“Nothing has changed. The system is still working, the mentality that condones detaining innocent people is still entrenched, and the detention industry flourishes.”

One thing, though, has changed: transparency. Under the Coalition, statistics on immigration detention were released every month. Under Labor they have disappeared: the last update was in June, the month the Albanese government took office.

But this is what we know.

At the end of June there were 1,398 people held in onshore detention facilities. These do not include those remaining on Nauru or those formerly in the Manus Island camp who were transferred from the Australian government’s responsibility to that of the PNG government.

Of the 1,398, 203 were boat people – “unauthorised maritime arrivals. That’s 14.5%. But After the peak year of 2013, there were few boat arrivals, so those people have been in detention for a very long time.

Data on nationality also reveals the disproportionate time spend in detention by those most likely to have arrived by boat: those from Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Iraq, as well as those who are stateless.

The costs of detention to the Australian government is immense. The “Pacific Solution” – offshore detention in Papua-New Guinea or Nauru – is by far the most expensive option, at an annual cost of $3.4 million per person.

Those costs mount up. In Senate Estimates earlier this year, we found out how much the Australian government had spent in a decade on just one centre – Nauru. The answer: over $5 billion.

The men still on Nauru are now living in the community there, rather than in the camp. But in 2021, the Morrison government signed a deal with Nauru to “establish an enduring regional processing capability in Nauru”.

Detention on Nauru ... a $5 billion bill
And the Albanese government recently signed an agreement with a US private prisons operator to provide “garrison and welfare services” for the 111 or so men remaining on Nauru. The $47.3 million contract is for 62 days, which works out at $450,000 for looking after each detainee for two months.

The next most expensive are APODs (Alternative Places of Detention) such as hotels for people deemed low-risk or needing medical care.

Under community detention, the person lives in the community but is required to sleep at the specified place. They cannot work, and are also subject to curfews and other supervision and reporting arrangements.

The cheapest option is to get people to fend for themselves. Refugees who are placed on insecure bridging visas cost only about $4,000 a year.


The formal path to “legal” refugee status is closed to most people, and to anyone who has already entered Australia. The Immigration Department’s website warns that “the decision process could take many months, even years. The number of applications we receive for resettlement each year is far greater than available visas.”

Three main options remain for those who arrived by boat before offshore processing was instituted.

Bridging visas provide for temporary stay in Australia, while a visa application is processed or another proceeding (such as in court) is concluded. Bridging visas are usually issued to people who arrived by boat through the exercise of personal ministerial powers. Bridging visas often do not allow the holder to work and impose strict behaviour requirements. Once a bridging visa expires, it may or may not be renewed by the minister. If it is not renewed, the former holder becomes an “unlawful non-citizen” available for immediate detention and removal from Australia. Hundreds of people who arrived by boat and were subjected to the fast-track refugee status assessment process currently hold bridging visas, and risk those visas expiring when their court or review processes come to an end. 

Temporary protection visas run for three years. People can work and get Centrelink and Medicare benefits but may be barred from applying for any other visa, or face overseas travel restrictions.

Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs) are similar but for five years.


Offshore detention in PNG and Nauru, as we have seen, is extraordinarily expensive. It has also been described as torture.

In an official report, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment accused the Australian government of violating “the rights of migrants and asylum seekers to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” under international law.

And the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said this:

“This externalization of Australia’s asylum obligations has undermined the rights of those seeking safety and protection and significantly harmed their physical and mental health.

“Over its 70 years UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency has seen time and again the profound harmful effects of long term detention on people seeking asylum – many of them being people who have already suffered great hardship, trauma and danger.

“This is why UNHCR’s advice to governments worldwide is to refrain from externalization and avoid detention of refugees and asylum seekers.”

In 2017 the PNG Supreme Court ruled that Australia’s Manus Island camp was unconstitutional and ordered it to be closed.

After the Manus facility was closed, Australia was forced to pay $70 million to the inmates in recognition of their illegal imprisonment.

But then refugees were transferred from Australia’s jurisdiction into that of PNG. Human Rights Watch noted that “in April, attackers robbed and assaulted around 15 asylum seekers at gunpoint. At least three required medical attention.

“Refugees and asylum seekers in PNG continue to endure violence and harassment, with little protection from authorities. Medical facilities in PNG are woefully inadequate and have proven unable to cope with the complex medical needs of asylum seekers and refugees, particularly their mental health needs.”

But Australia, officially, has no further responsibility for these people.

On Nauru, where the large majority have been found to be refugees under international law, the outlook remains highly uncertain.

Asylum seekers living in Australia have been kept on bridging and temporary protection visas for an extraordinary length of time. In all, 430 people have waited in limbo – out of formal detention but with no security or prospects – for four years or longer. Almost all of these people are boat arrivals.

Many have been subject to fast-track processing, introduced by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison in 2014 as part of the Abbott government’s crackdown.

“It’s a special one-stage-only refugee determination process,” the HRLC’s Verma said. “You go before a decision-maker from the department. If they don’t like you, don’t like your claim, they make a decision against you.

“An adverse decision is referred automatically to a review body. But that is a review body in name only. The rate of favourable [review] decisions by that body is much, much lower in the fast-track process than it is for those who go through the full and proper review process in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.”

These are the most current available figures for boat arrivals who are being kept on bridging visas. Updates were formerly produced every month but these have been abolished by the Albanese government.

Although boat arrivals have essentially stopped eight years ago – it was boat turnbacks that stopped them, not punitive policies – the “irregulars” have not. The vast majority have come by air. Some have come on tourist, student or temporary work permits and now want to remain in Australia. The dysfunction of the visa processing system, and the massive over-reliance on these visas, has resulted in a dramatic blowout in numbers.

“The minister has full control over the legal status of every person who has come by boat,” said the HRLC’s Verma. “People are barred from making visa applications in their own right.

“When a bridging visa expires, it will be uncertain whether the minister grants a further bridging visa.

“The tendency of the previous government, and which has not been changed by the current government, has been to put a stranglehold on the status of everyone who came by boat. They are on the most precarious footing possible.”


A policy centrepiece of both major parties has been that nobody coming to Australia without a valid visa will ever be allowed to live here. Even after the boats stopped, this presented a problem: what to do with those who were already here?

After all, there are a lot of them. According to Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary at the Department of Immigration, there are almost 130,000 asylum seekers living in Australia

“The 130,000 is in two parts,” he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. “There are more than 31,000 asylum seekers associated with the legacy boat arrival caseload and another 100,000 who have subsequently arrived by aeroplane.”

The answer was continued deterrence through maximum cruelty. If they were kept here, and seen in other countries to be suffering, that would deter other desperate refugees from trying their luck.

But the financial and political costs mounted. As Australians stopped fearing asylum seekers, public concern over their distress grew. The hard line, once a potent political asset, was becoming a liability.

There had been previous attempts by Labor and Liberal governments to find other countries willing to take the refugees to whom, under international law, Australia owed protection. The Gillard government reached a deal with Malaysia to accept 800 refugees – but Malaysia had not signed the UN Refugee Convention and the High Court knocked the deal over.

Morrison and Hun Sen ... an expensive farce
Then there was the farcical Cambodian solution. The Abbott government paid $55.5 million to the Cambodia’s Han Sen dictatorship to take Australia’s unwanted refugees. In the end, just seven refugees went to Cambodia. One is believed to be still there.

The only significant deal has been with the United States. Barack Obama agreed to take 1,250 refugees from Australia: the deal was reluctantly endorsed by Donald Trump. The program will soon end.

Some people have also found safe havens in Canada and, circuitously, in New Zealand.

As this chart shows, the US deal accounted for almost all transfers. When it ends, the problem for the Australian government will escalate further.

And as the following chart shows, the program was never going to be anywhere near enough.

By February 2019, 265 people had been rejected by US authorities. The number is believed to have increased since then but the government has not released any further details.

Of the 3,127 people sent offshore – mainly to Nauru and PNG – since 2013, just 1,084 had been resettled in a third country by early this year.

In March, just three months before it was kicked out of office at the federal election, the Morrison government finally agreed to take up a long-standing offer by New Zealand to take up to 450 refugees at a rate of up to 150 a year. By September this year, just 36 people had taken up the option.

A senior UNHCR official, Emily Chipman, explained why.

“The mental health impact of what these individuals have experienced over the past nine years has significantly affected their capacity to engage in the resettlement process and has led to a general lack of confidence in the processes,” she told the Guardian.

“Refugees have evoked concerns about leaving family members behind in Australia, and about not being psychologically strong enough to rebuild their lives in a new country after all they have gone through over the past nine years.”

And anyone who has expressed an interest in settling in another country, such as the US, is barred from applying to go to New Zealand.


For the past 21 years, Labor has outsourced its policy on asylum seekers to the coalition. It need not have happened this way.

There were two critical points: the Tampa affair before the 2001 election and soaring boat arrivals before the 2014 election. In each case, the coalition – first John Howard, then Tony Abbott – weaponised fear and hatred of refugees into election-winning advantage. It was cynical and it was inhuman, but it worked. Voters fell for it.

In 2001, the Tampa affair and – more significantly – the September 11 attacks, produced a fear of foreigners that had not been seen since the end of the White Australia Policy. Shock-jocks like Alan Jones and John Laws pushed the line that Osama bin Laden could send terrorists on boats to attack Australians in their homes. And they were believed.

These irrational scare campaigns won the election for the Liberals and went on doing so.

Death on the Christman Island rocks
After Labor was elected in 2007, Labor again tried a more humane approach which was eventually defeated by soaring numbers of drownings at sea. An unknown number – perhaps as many as 1,000 – died trying to reach Australia in overcrowded, leaky boats. One key crunch came in 2010, when a boat carrying Iranian and Iraqi refugees crashed onto rocks on Christmas Island in stormy weather. Fifty people – 35 adults and 15 children – died.

There was pressure on the government from all sides, including from some refugee advocates, to stop the boats. Tony Abbott, sniffing victory, was strident, destructive and lethally effective. So just before the 2013 election, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that “as of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”

And so the electoral requirement to match the Coalition’s cruelty became entrenched within the Labor Party. It still is.

But the practical need for this approach has disappeared. The boats have stopped – not by offshore detention but by turnbacks. The Australian public no longer fears refugees. The terrorism monster no longer infiltrates our dreams.

Even before the election, the justification – that continuing the cruelty was necessary to avoid being wedged by the Liberals – was threadbare. Now there is no justification at all. There are just highly vulnerable, traumatised people in need of our help.

And the Labor government is refusing that help.

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