Politics Analysis

System fails to protect migrants — asylum applications soar

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P.A.L.M. scheme workers have been running away from their employers (Screenshot via YouTube)

Is the ongoing rise in asylum applications from Pacific Island nations a case of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) shifting risks and costs to other agencies?

In September 2022, there were over 313 asylum applications from Pacific Island nationals. Total asylum applications from Pacific Island nationals since November 2019 are now approaching 5,000 (see Chart 1).

 Source: Department of Home Affairs and Administrative Appeals Tribunal

At 94, Tonga became the third largest source nation for asylum applications in September 2022 behind only India (176) and China (117).

 Source: Department of Home Affairs (Onshore Protection Visa Processing Report)

While overall asylum applications have also resumed increasing after the reopening of international borders, these remain well below the peak of the labour trafficking scam out of Malaysia and China that started in 2015 (see Charts 2 and 3).

 Source: Department of Home Affairs (Asylum and Protection Visa reports)

Overall, at the end of September 2022, there was a backlog of 26,315 asylum applications at the primary stage and almost 40,000 at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). By far the highest level ever — 70,056 asylum seekers have been refused at the primary stage but have not departed. In September 2022, nine asylum seekers departed Australia voluntarily with none departing involuntarily.

The biggest shift in source countries since international borders reopened has been from Pacific Island nations associated with the growth of the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (P.A.L.M.) scheme as well as a slow increase in asylum applications from Indian nationals.

Apart from asylum applicants from Papua New Guinea, almost all other asylum seekers from Pacific Island nations are being refused.

These asylum seekers would be a subset of those P.A.L.M. scheme workers who are running away from their employers. DFAT prefers to use the term "absconders" which shifts the blame to the workers (who are generally the victims in this) and away from DFAT and employers.

While DFAT has policy responsibility for the P.A.L.M. scheme, the costs of processing asylum claims are borne by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the AAT. Asylum applications are by far the most costly type of visa application to process at a time DHA is struggling to cope with the pressure to speed up processing visas across the system.

The costs of locating and removing unsuccessful asylum seekers are borne by Australian Border Force (ABF) which does not have the resources to do that work and the costs of ensuring the workers are not being exploited are borne by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO).

While the FWO is giving higher priority to checking migrant farm workers are not being exploited, it is completely overwhelmed by its workload.

In other words, DFAT takes all the glory for the PALM scheme – telling its ministers that everything is going swimmingly – while other agencies bear the costs. This is fundamentally poor administrative architecture.

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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