Politics Analysis

Coalition and Murdoch media distort truth about asylum seekers

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Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has weaponised asylum seekers for political gain (image via YouTube)

If the issue of asylum seekers arriving by plane becomes a political football, a sensible policy solution becomes even more unlikely, writes Dr Abul Rizvi

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

AFTER A DECADE of not talking about any asylum seekers other than those who arrived by boat (or scare campaigns about those who might arrive by boat), Coalition Immigration and Citizenship spokesman Dan Tehan has called out the Albanese Government for failing to act on the rising number of asylum seekers in Australia who arrived by plane.

This follows an "exclusive" article on this topic last month by James Campbell in the Herald Sun and another "exclusive" on 19 April by James Morrow.

For many years now, I had wondered when the Murdoch press would start reporting this. It certainly wouldn’t do so while the Coalition was in office. For example, the Murdoch press made no comment when former Agriculture Minister David Littleproud proposed an amnesty as a solution to this situation. A solution that former Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash immediately rejected, arguing the Coalition was committed to visa integrity without ever mentioning the "labour trafficking scam" her Government had presided over.

But with a Labor government now in power, it seems sufficient time has passed since the biggest labour trafficking scam in Australia’s history, a scam that started when Peter Dutton was Immigration Minister, for the Murdoch press to start agitating about asylum seekers who have arrived by plane.

Source: Department of Home Affairs

Both the Murdoch press and the Coalition appear to have decided most Australians will by now have no idea of Dutton’s role in allowing the scam to flourish. But there is no getting away from the fact the overall number of asylum seekers in Australia when the Labor Government came to power in May 2022 was 94,260. That has since increased to 101,747 in March 2023.

These are asylum seeker numbers well beyond anything Australia has ever before experienced. Moreover, the vast majority of asylum seekers are being refused but are not leaving the country.

The Murdoch press and the Coalition will also not want to mention the massive increase in the asylum backlog at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) over the past eight years. The backlog at the AAT will be a huge obstacle to finding a long-term resolution to the issue.

Source: Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

While the number of primary asylum applications from June 2022 to March 2023 (the period the Labor Government has been in office) was 14,645, that is still well below the level at the height of the "labour trafficking scam" in 2017-18 when there were 27,931 asylum applications with 9,319 from Malaysian nationals and 9,315 from Chinese nationals. In other words, almost 67% of applications were from just two nations for whom the success rate was around 2%, a clear indicator of a trafficking scam.

The nationalities applying for asylum today have changed significantly and are much more evenly spread than during the height of the scam. The major source nations in March 2023 were:

  • India: 190
  • China:158
  • Vietnam: 117
  • Malaysia: 88
  • Pakistan: 88
  • Tonga: 85
  • Myanmar: 81
  • Timor Leste: 74
  • Indonesia: 63
  • Thailand: 61
  • Iran: 56

Apart from Myanmar and Iran, the above nations have very high refusal rates for asylum applications. The overall refusal rate remains around 10%. That suggests the current applications are not so much a trafficking scam but more people using the opportunity of the very large backlog and slow processing times to use an asylum application to delay departure.

A large number of asylum applications from Pacific Island nations (and Timor-Leste) – over 304 in March 2023 – reflects the situation of agricultural workers brought to Australia under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme. It is clear these workers are not nearly as happy with their situation as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Department of Agriculture would have us believe.

Finding a solution to this will require much more difficult policy work than DFAT has to date been prepared to do with its new Pacific Engagement Visa (PEV), the so-called lottery visa.

Overseas experience shows that without cooperation across political parties, addressing a very large backlog of asylum seekers is just about impossible. It is indeed a wicked policy problem that, if unaddressed, will keep growing. Just ask the U.S. and European nations.

While it is good that our politicians are at last talking about this, if it becomes a political football, a sensible policy solution becomes even more unlikely. It would be good to see some dialogue between Immigration Minister Andrew Giles and Immigration Opposition spokesman Tehan on policy options rather than just political point-scoring.

It would also be helpful if the Murdoch press stayed out of the issue: the Murdoch reporting style would just create more community angst.

*This article is also available on audio here:

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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