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'The Australian' falls for Government spin on asylum seekers — again

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In a front-page "exclusive" in The Australian, Geoff Chambers and Joe Kelly uncritically regurgitate the Morrison Government’s talking points on asylum seekers arriving by plane.

Either they are just innocents with no idea how to do the job of a journalist or they see their role as purely to defend the Government.

Of course, the answer could be both and this is just part of the general demise of a once-great newspaper.

Any decent journalist would have asked basic questions such as:

  • How and when did the extraordinary surge in asylum seekers come about?
  • How big is the problem, really, given the Government is saying it is no big deal?
  • Is the Government really getting on top of the problem or are they just spinning a line?
  • What is the surge costing the economy and the budget?’
  • Does the Government actually have an effective plan to get on top of the problem?’

But no, Chambers and Kelly just happily ignore such basic questions.

The fact is the large backlog of asylum applications slowly being processed creates a honeypot for people smugglers and unscrupulous labour-hire companies.

So let’s do their job for them and examine the Government claims Chambers and Kelly are so willing to regurgitate.

The problems start with the first sentence of the article, where it claims there is a "crackdown" on people trying to enter Australia illegally and then exploit protection visas. The fact is the vast bulk of the people involved are not trying to enter Australia illegally. They are people with visitor visas legally granted to them by the Department of Home Affairs.

Chambers and Kelly then highlight the Government’s boast that there has been a huge spike in the number of people "kicked off" international flights in 2018-19. Yet they fail to ask why there was such a huge spike?

Was Home Affairs under Peter Dutton not doing its job the years before and new Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge is boasting that it is doing its job now?

And how does this huge spike in people offloaded from international flights compare to the size of the surge in asylum seekers arriving by plane? The fact is the "huge spike" Chambers and Kelly refer to is a tiny portion of asylum applications over the past five years (see Chart 1).

Chambers and Kelly seem glad to repeat the Government’s claim that in the first six months of 2019-20, there has been a 19% decline in asylum applications from Malaysians and a 16% decline in the first six months of 2019-20.

But this is a tiny reduction on the massive surge since 2015-16. Moreover, Chambers and Kelly fail to notice – presumably because the Minister did not bring this to their attention – that there has been a significant increase in asylum claims from a growing range of countries including India, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The fact is the large backlog of asylum applications slowly being processed creates a honeypot for people smugglers and unscrupulous labour-hire companies.

Chambers and Kelly completely fail to provide their readers with any data on the size of the asylum seeker backlogs — even though this information is provided in the same December report to the Senate they are happy to quote.

Source: DHA Asylum and PV Reports

The December report to the Senate shows that the backlog of asylum applications at the primary stage is now 36,777 and growing steadily. It grew by 1,222 in just December 2019.

The backlog of asylum seekers who were not granted a permanent protection visa but have not been "deported" – or more correctly removed – increased to 46,365. That figure appears to include the backlog of asylum applications at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), which reached another record at 25,104. The AAT backlog increased in December 2019 by 545, with no sign of the AAT ever being able to process more applications than it receives.

That means there are approximately 21,000-plus asylum seekers who have been through both primary and review stages but have not yet departed (minus any that are seeking judicial review). Home Affairs reports that in December it removed only 18 unsuccessful asylum seekers — 17 voluntarily and one involuntarily.

None of the above is reported by Chambers and Kelly, yet it is crucial to understanding the growing size of the problem.

A basic question they could have asked the Minister is, how in the world did the Government allow this problem to get so out of control, given its rhetoric of being strong on border protection?

The fact is much of the problem is of the Government’s own making — by starving Home Affairs of resources and forcing it to rush implementation of the so-called "auto-grant facility", for visitor visas from key Asian markets, such as China.

Chambers and Kelly also fail to ask how long before these three key backlogs (that is, at the primary stage, at the AAT and those who have been unsuccessful at both stages but who have not yet been removed) reach a peak and start to be reduced?

Without a massive injection of additional resources, these three backlog lists will continue to grow and the honeypot will continue to generate illicit profits for people smugglers and unscrupulous labour-hire companies.

Do Chambers and Kelly ask how much the surge in asylum seekers has cost taxpayers to date, or how much more it will cost taxpayers?

Of course not! It is as if readers of The Australian have no interest in wastage of taxpayers' money.

Chambers and Kelly also fail to ask what else the Government is doing to get on top of the problem. While Tudge would be unwilling to say so, the main method Home Affairs has been using is to significantly crank up the rate of visitor visa refusals.

This is an extraordinarily blunt instrument as the evidence shows this has resulted in the refusal of an extra 100,000+ tourists per annum but with minimal impact on asylum application rates.

According to Tourism Research Australia, the average tourist yield is $5,060 per person. Losing 100,000+ tourists per annum thus costs Australia’s tourism industry over $500 Million per annum at a time the Prime Minister says our tourism industry is facing its biggest challenge in living memory.

Chambers and Kelly also repeat the Government’s line that the surge in asylum seekers arriving by air is only 0.25% of the total number of people who arrive by air.

This is government spin 101 that any decent journalist would see through in a flash.

If they had done a little bit of extra work, Chambers and Kelly would find that asylum seekers now represent over 10% of net overseas migration and over 6% of population growth.

A mere trifle according to the Government, yet it is more than double the contribution of the whole Offshore Humanitarian Program to net overseas migration. That is the same program Tudge boasts about to Chambers and Kelly.

Sadly, readers of The Australian seem destined to never get any of these facts from the newspaper they pay for.

Perhaps they just like it that way?

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

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