Politics Analysis

Albanese Government inundated with growing asylum applications

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With asylum applications on the rise and an increasing backlog, the Government must develop policies to maintain control, writes Dr Abul Rizvi.

THE ALBANESE GOVERNMENT has inherited an unprecedented backlog of asylum cases which grew by another 1,040 primary applications in June 2022.

This is still significantly less than the average of over 2,000 per month before the pandemic but 200 more per month than during the depth of the pandemic (see Chart 1).

(Source: DHA Onshore Protection Visa Processing report)

As the volume of international travel begins to return to normal – we are currently at around 25% of pre-pandemic levels – should we expect the monthly asylum application rate to continue rising?

There are essentially three types of asylum applications.

Firstly, those people who are genuinely in fear of persecution. These people generally come from nations facing serious political or other unrest and have a high asylum approval rate. In June, there were 17 Myanmar nationals granted permanent protection at the primary stage; another six from Afghanistan; and less than five from each of Ukraine and Libya.

The approval rate for primary decisions made in June for nationals from these countries was 100%. This compares to an overall approval rate in June of less than 3% with a 0% approval rate for decisions made in June for nationals from countries such as India, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga. 

The second type of asylum application is associated with people who are part of an organised scam to supply low cost labour, mainly to farms but often also to sex shops or restaurants. This phenomenon has been around for decades but accelerated sharply from 2015 when Australia experienced its biggest ever labour trafficking scam — it dwarfed anything that happened previously.

This scam mainly lured people from Malaysia and China into work on farms based on exaggerated promises of well paying jobs. Having had their asylum applications refused, these people no longer have work rights and must work unlawfully. This makes them even more vulnerable to exploitation.

Surprisingly, this scam started under former Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Secretary Mike Pezzullo who pride themselves on their ability to manage borders and visa systems.

Thirdly, once there is a substantial backlog of asylum applications and lengthy processing times at both the primary stage and at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), there is a honeypot effect that attracts opportunistic asylum applications. Lodging an asylum application will secure the applicant a bridging visa with work rights while the application takes years to process.

People who lodge an opportunistic asylum application still require lawyers/agents (some registered others not registered) to put the idea into people’s minds and assist with the lodgement of asylum applications which are complex and require considerable expertise to put together. Note agents generally do not put their names on these applications making them difficult but not impossible to investigate.

The large increase in asylum applications from Pacific Island nationals since February 2022 is likely to be more opportunistic than organised although there will be lawyers/agents involved (see Chart 2).

(Source: DHA Monthly Asylum report and AAT)

As the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme continues to grow in size, so too will asylum applications from Pacific Island nationals unless effective measures are taken to reduce exploitation of these workers. Very few of these asylum applications are being approved.

The increase in asylum applications from Indian nationals in May (120 new applications) and June (150 new applications) is also likely to be opportunistic and possibly linked to the increase in arrivals of Indian nationals over the past six months. It may also be linked to students who are unable to secure another student visa and/or another temporary graduate visa and cannot find a pathway to permanent residence.

There will also be people on the pandemic event visas who may opportunistically apply for asylum when these special visas begin to expire later this year and next year. To avoid this, there may be merit in the Government encouraging employers to sponsor these visa holders and/or state governments to nominate these visa holders for migration.

Note that even opportunistic asylum applications are complex and expensive to process. The very large backlog of asylum applications is a substantial drain on DHA resources which is limiting its ability to process other visa types more quickly.

While the backlog at the primary stage has now fallen to 26,227 at end June 2022, the backlog at the AAT continues to grow strongly (see Chart 3) as does the number of people refused at both primary and AAT stages and now living in Australia unlawfully — they now number around 32,000 and growing strongly.

(Source: AAT annual reports and caseload statistics)

Department of Home Affairs and Australian Border Force devote very few resources to locating and removing unsuccessful asylum seekers. They have largely given up on this task. In any month, a tiny number of unsuccessful asylum seekers are removed voluntarily and even fewer are removed involuntarily (see Chart 4). Removal of large numbers of unsuccessful asylum seekers is an impossible task — it won’t happen.

(Source: DHA Asylum Seeker report)

Unless the new Government can develop effective policies to deal with the asylum backlogs and prevent these growing even further, there will be two consequences.

Firstly, the number of unsuccessful asylum seekers in Australia, people who must live in the shadows to avoid detection and must work illegally to survive, will continue to grow.

Secondly, it will continue to draw resources away from other visa types and make the critical task of returning to an efficient visa system even more difficult.

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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