Politics Analysis

Boom in unsuccessful asylum seeker applications

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Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has overseen the weakening of Australia's visa system and border (image by Dan Jensen)

A backlog in assessing asylum seeker applications remain and the Government isn't adequately managing the plight faced by many asylum seekers, writes Abul Rizvi.

WITH INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL severely limited, the Department of Home Affairs appears to at last be making some slow progress in processing the application backlog associated with Australia’s fifth and largest ever wave of asylum seekers.

Primary stage processing

New primary stage asylum applications received in September 2020 fell to 956 while the number of primary decisions made was 1,616. As a result, the backlog of asylum seeker cases at the primary stage fell to 36,549. This is still massive by historic standards, but gradually falling due to the limits on international travel.

The overall grant rate fell to 8% with the highest grant rates for asylum seekers from Yemen (100%), Iraq (94%), Iran (a surprisingly low 37% noting a high set aside rate at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal) and Libya (100%).

There was a surprising increase in the grant rate for Malaysian nationals to 9%. This is likely to fall back in future months to the long-term average of around 1-2%.

The primary stage grant rate for applicants from China was 1% and India 5%.

For some unknown reason, Home Affairs focused on the China backlog in September, refusing 730 cases in the month compared to only 128 from Malaysia even though the backlog of Malaysian cases is much larger.

Is there some security concern with the Chinese applications or is it just that Minister Peter Dutton and Secretary Mike Pezzullo don’t like the Chinese Government any more — although wouldn't that suggest a higher grant rate?

Home Affairs also refused 186 cases from Indonesia, 77 from Taiwan, 59 from the Philippines, 50 from Vietnam and 28 from Bangladesh, with a grant rate in September of zero for asylum seekers from all of these nations.

AAT stage processing

New asylum appeals to the AAT in September were 943 with only 336 decisions made leaving a rising backlog at the AAT of 29,055. Over 72% of this backlog is now over nine months old.

The backlog will inevitably continue to grow to much higher levels unless the Government allocates significant additional resources to the AAT. At current rates, the backlog at the AAT may approach 40,000 by end 2021 and possibly 50,000 by end 2022.

The asylum backlog at the AAT continues to be dominated by Malaysian nationals (44%), China (19%), Vietnam (6%), Thailand (5%) and Fiji (3%).

The set-aside rate for major source countries at the AAT in September was Malaysia (4%), China (2%) and Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan and Fiji all zero.

Nations with high set aside rates at the AAT were Iran (60% noting the relatively higher refusal rate at the primary stage), Afghanistan (75%) and Iraq (30%).

Asylum seekers refused by the AAT

This leaves asylum seekers who have been refused at both the primary stage and at the AAT at 24,087.

Assuming the AAT continues to process applications at around 300 per month, a set-aside rate of around 5%, a court remittal rate of around 20 per month and a departure rate of around 10 per month, the number of asylum seekers who have been refused at all levels and have not departed Australia could rise by over 250 per month.

With a wave of mostly non-genuine asylum seekers (unlike the four previous major waves where most of the asylum seekers were found to be genuine refugees), processing the application backlog is the easy bit.

What then happens to the asylum seekers who don’t secure a protection visa is much more difficult.

15 former asylum seekers left Australia in September, 14 voluntarily and one involuntarily. This may seem small but it is actually higher than in most previous months. It may suggest some asylum seekers are finding it hard to get work and are choosing to go home.

But this will never be in large numbers as most will not have the money for the airfare and many will be in significant debt to the agents and labour-hire companies that brought them to Australia. They have to find work of any sort and at any wage rates to pay off those debts as well as to survive.

What is the Government’s plan to deal with the rising backlog of unsuccessful asylum seekers who are becoming destitute?

The answer seems to be nothing as compliance activity is in sharp decline and farmers are crying out for farm labour.

Because so many farmers are now using unsuccessful asylum seekers on farms, their lobby groups are asking for amnesty. This would help farmers avoid breaking the law – employing people without work rights – but wouldn't increase the overall number of people available to work on farms.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud seemed to be prepared to consider this, but Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge has poured cold water on an amnesty. He would be worried that an amnesty would highlight the extent to which the Government has lost control of the visa system.

Australia has not used an amnesty since the 1980s.

The irony is that under Dutton and his fellow Coalition members, Australia is becoming more like Europe and the U.S. as a place that has lost control of its visa system and its borders in a way that has never before been the case.

Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration, currently undertaking a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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