Refugee Council of Australia
Charcoal drawing of open hands

With empty hands: How the Australian Government is forcing people seeking asylum into destitution

People seeking asylum in Australia

People seeking asylum in Australia come either by plane or by boat. Australia treats these two groups of people quite differently, with extremely harsh policies for people coming by boat. For example, only people who come by boat are generally subject to our policies of transferring people to Nauru or Papua New Guinea (‘offshore processing’), detaining them indefinitely in Australia (‘mandatory detention’), and granting them only temporary visas even if they are found to be refugees (‘temporary protection’).

People who come by plane on a valid visa (for example, as a student) can claim asylum after they arrive. Typically, people in this group are given visas with the same conditions as the visa they came to Australia on. The numbers of people claiming asylum have been increasing significantly, with 18,290 applications in the 2016–17 financial year. People are now waiting years for decisions under this process.

When the Coalition Government came to power in 2013, there were around 30,000 people seeking asylum who had come by boat. As we explain below, many of them have been subject to extremely punitive policies, including transfers to Nauru or PNG, detention in Australia, and temporary protection. Most of these people have now been in Australia for more than five years and are living in our community with minimal support.

What people seeking asylum have been through

I think if someone has gone to sleep and wants to wake up it is very easy to wake them up. But if they are pretending to sleep you cannot wake them up. Because they don’t want to wake up. The Government is pretending to sleep.

—Kamran, person seeking asylum living in Sydney

Indefinite mandatory detention

anyone (including a child) who does not have a valid visa must be detained. There is no maximum time limit, and there is no independent review of the decision.

nearly 10,000 in 2009–2010, reaching a peak of 38,147 in 2012–2013).

Although the requirement to detain is ‘mandatory’ (because the law does not give anyone discretion), the law also enables the government to grant a person temporary lawful permission (a ‘bridging visa’). This allows the government to release people from detention, but the decision to do so is entirely at the discretion of the government. The conditions and length of the visa are also at the discretion of the government.

On 31 January 2018, there were 29,166 people on a Bridging Visa E.

For those who come by plane, a bridging visa is usually given with the same conditions as the visa on which they arrived (for example, a tourist or student visa). They may also remain on their substantive visa while their protection visa application is being assessed. While these visa conditions are often more generous than for a bridging visa E, they usually do not include a right to access Medicare and may have restricted work rights. Those who come by plane and are granted a bridging visa before their original visa expires are not detained.

Another way for people to be released is through the use of ‘community detention’, by which the government makes a ‘residence determination’ that specifies where a person can live in the community. There was a significant shift towards the use of community detention under Labor between 2010–2012, but since then there has been a rapid decline in the use of community detention and instead the bridging visa has become the much more normal way of releasing people from detention.

Offshore processing

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that, unlike in the previous version of the Pacific Solution, those transferred to Nauru or PNG would no longer be able to resettle in Australia, and that all people coming by boat would be transferred offshore. This led to a dramatic increase in the numbers of people being sent offshore. Meanwhile, many of those already on Nauru and Manus were transferred back to Australia. As well, in the past few years, several hundred people have been transferred to Australia for health or protection reasons, and as of 26 February 2018, there were still 445 of them in Australia. Most of them (357 people) were in community detention, and 62 are on bridging visas living in the community.

Temporary protection

temporary protection to people who came by boat to Australia. In contrast, people seeking asylum by plane receive permanent protection.

This policy was retrospective. It applied to those who came by boat on or after 13 August 2012 and had not been able to apply for protection (as discussed next), as well as to those who came before 13 August 2012 but whose application for protection had not been finalised by 18 September 2013.

Those with a temporary protection visa can never become an Australian citizen. They cannot apply to be reunited with their families, or even travel overseas to visit them without permission. They do not have access to many of the benefits available to people on permanent protection visas, such as a range of social security payments, subsidised education and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. They have to prove they still need Australia’s protection every 3 to 5 years, depending on their visas.

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