Refugee Council of Australia
Child with water bottle in front of man with Australian Border Force uniform

Australia’s asylum policies

Offshore processing

Australia’s asylum policies are now among the most punitive in the world.

Interception: stopping them from getting here

People who seek asylum in Australia are:

  • forced back by our navy if they enter Australian waters
  • turned around at the airport if they come by plane or sent back shortly after being detained
  • sent to Nauru and, previously, Papua New Guinea if they make it to Australia.

Australian policies are aimed at preventing people from making it to Australia to seek protection. For those coming by boat, the Australian Government introduced ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, a more military version of Operation Relex. The Australian Navy was given instructions to intercept boats arriving in Australia and turn them back to where they came from.

In theory, those intercepted would have the opportunity to raise claims for protection. However, there is no detail on how these ‘on-water’ assessments are conducted, and every indication that such assessments are unfair.

This Operation is shrouded in secrecy. From the beginning, the Government has claimed that ‘on-water matters’ would not be discussed, on the basis that these matters were operational and discussion could provide information to people smugglers.

We do know that people have been sent back from sinking ships in giant ‘unsinkable’ lifeboats, and that others have been returned and prosecuted for illegally exiting the country.

Operation Sovereign Borders statistics

The Operation is managed by the Australian Border Force. This was established by bringing together elements of the former Departments of Immigration and Customs with the military, under the authority of a Commander. The Border Force would be given much more power to disrupt people smuggling within the Asia Pacific, and were given powers to control and manage Australia’s immigration detention centres.

The Australian Government has also for many years conducted operations in the Asia-Pacific and other countries to prevent people from reaching Australia. They have run ‘information campaigns’ to tell people not to come to Australia, liaised with officials in other countries to detect and prevent any onward movements, and employ airline liaison officers who spot any passengers who they think might claim asylum and prevent them from boarding.

As well, visa applications are routinely profiled for ‘risk’, meaning that people from countries which have a history of seeking asylum are subject to stringent conditions and often denied visas to enter. Airlines are also sanctioned for any people who arrive without a valid visa, so also act as gatekeepers. These two methods of border control are common in many countries.

If people make it to Australia by plane, immigration officials can cancel their visas at the airport if they believe that the person’s purpose is not that stated on their visa. They have extensive powers to search all property, including mobile phones and other devices. They are then either returned back on the plane, or held in detention. They are not entitled to legal advice and have no lawful status in Australia. As very few people in Australia will ever see them, we do not know much at all about this group of people.

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