The Coalition has ramped up its hardline stance on refugees, announcing on Friday that almost 32,000 asylum seekers who have already arrived in Australia by boat will never get permanent settlement as well as stripping them of the right to appeal to the courts.
The Coalition would also introduce indefinite work-for-the-dole obligations for those found to be refugees.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott channelled former prime minister John Howard from 2001 when announcing the change to the policy in Melbourne.
”The essential point is, this is our country and we determine who comes here,” Mr Abbott said.
The crackdown on asylum seekers already in Australia has outraged the Greens and refugee advocates, with Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young likening it to an ”arms race on who can be the cruelest”.
As part of the toughened policy, a Coalition government will scrap the right of asylum seekers to appeal to the courts, which in the March quarter brought the number of asylum seekers who were granted refugee status from 65.3 per cent to more than 90 per cent.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the Coalition would return to a ”non-statutory” process, in which a single caseworker would decide the fate of asylum seekers.
According to Department of Immigration figures compiled last Friday, 31,986 asylum seekers are either in the community on bridging visas, in community detention, in mainland detention centres or on Manus Island and Nauru.
Mr Morrison and Mr Abbott said on Friday that a Coalition government would deny them the right to ever settle in Australia, creating a crucial point of difference between the two parties, now united on stopping the boats.
He also flagged tough new rules for assessing the refugee claims of those who arrive by boat without documentation, despite it not being illegal to claim asylum in Australia without papers.
The Coalition Leader said he wanted to get back to the ”effectiveness” of border protection that operated during the Howard years.
During the last five years of the Howard government, there were on average, three boats a year, he said.
”I will regard myself as having succeeded very well if we can get back to a situation of having three boats a year,” he said, adding that the ”ideal” would be zero boats.
Mr Abbott said that he was ”confident” that the Coalition would reach the three-boats-per-year level by the time it was ”well into” a first term of government.
Mr Abbott praised Mr Morrison, saying he had showed ”tremendous strength” and ”a touch of compassion” in the shadow immigration portfolio.
Mr Morrison said he wanted to end the ”tick and flick” approach of Labor, ”which is seeing nine out of 10 people found to be refugees”. Mr Morrison said that this did not match what the Coalition was seeing in other parts of the world.
In a tough-talking press conference in Melbourne, the immigration spokesman said that the 30,000 people who are in the processing system at the moment would be the ”most enthusiastic” about a Labor victory.
He said that those already in the system had the opportunity of a permanent visa under Labor but not under the Coalition. ”Kevin Rudd wants you to pretend that those 30,000 people are not here,” he said.
When asked if the policy could withstand a High Court challenge, Mr Abbott said that Coalition wanted to restore the Howard-era approach that he understood, had been able to hold off legal challenges.
Mr Morrison said that it was a ”complicated” area and that details would have to be worked through with officials.
The immigration spokesman said he wanted to end the situation where ”nos” were turned into ”yeses” in 80 per cent of cases.
He said that the courts and appeals process were being ”gamed and used and promoted by the people smugglers to put people on boats”.
He said on Friday that any legal issues surrounding the proposed change to the appeals process would be best worked out in government.
“This is a very difficulty legal area, that’s why we’ve outlined the objective that needs to be achieved by reforming the system,” told ABC radio.
“There are . . . many legal issues that we have to work through. And they are most appropriately worked through with the appropriate and full resources of government.”
Temporary Protection Visas
The Howard government introduced temporary protection visas [TPVs] for refugees in 1999.
They would be kept in an enforced state of limbo, and allowed only a temporary visa for up to three years, after which they could apply for another visa if it was not safe to return to their homeland.
They would be forbidden to apply for family reunion, and from re-entry to the country – meaning they could not leave and return – and would be required to work for the dole.
Ramping up Labor’s controversial ”screening-out” process, which has led to more than 1000 would-be asylum seekers returned before their refugee applications were complete, the Coalition would adopt a scheme by which those with no prima facie prospect of success would be dealt with first.
Those found not to be refugees would face indefinite detention or return to their homelands.
But unlike Labor – which includes boat arrivals in its 20,000 humanitarian intake each year – the Coalition would exempt the 13,750 people it would give humanitarian visas each year from the TPV process.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke said: ”Scott Morrison knows full well that temporary protection visas were a gift to people smugglers and simply pushed more people onto boats. That’s why John Howard ended up providing permanent visas to the vast majority of people who were in TVPs. Like most of what Scott Morrison is saying at the moment it’s a one-liner for the media and doesn’t stack up as a policy.”
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said on Friday that Labor’s asylum seeker plan was starting to work.
He said that it was now four weeks since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the Papua New Guinea plan. He said that in the first week, more than 1000 people arrived in Australia by boat but this week, about 300 people came.
He dismissed Mr Morrison’s announcement as a ”re-announcement of something that the Liberal Party announced some time ago”, arguing there was still the potential for boat arrivals to be settled in Australia under the Coalition’s policy.
Treasurer and former immigration minister Chris Bowen said the Coalition was desperately trying to get the issue of asylum seekers back on the agenda.
He said Mr Abbott’s plan to remove appeal rights for asylum seekers would be ”very, very difficult” to implement.
Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop said that on the contrary, the Coalition’s policy took away the people smugglers’ ”product” – which was permanent residency in Australia.
”We won’t be offering permanent residency,” she told Channel 9. ”When the situation improves [in asylum seekers’ home countries], they can go home.”
‘Race to the bottom’
The Greens immigration spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, said the Coalition’s policy was further evidence of the “race to the bottom” between the major parties on immigration policy.
”There seems to be no depth that [they] . . . aren’t prepared to go,” Ms Hanson-Young told ABC Radio. ”It’s not just harsh, it’s cruel.”
With the Coalition set to release its policy costings only in the final week of the campaign, Ms Hanson-Young said the opposition would need to justify ”blowing the budget out further to justify locking up refugees indefinitely”.
”It’s almost an arms race on who can be the cruelest, who can be the meanest, who can be the toughest [on asylum seeker policy,” she said.
Senator Hanson-Young said Mr Abbott was just trying to ”thump his chest and look tough”.
”People don’t vote for you because you portray yourself to be more manly than another person,” she said.
”The Australian people are smarter than that . . . it’s policies that make the difference.”
Refugee advocate Julian Burnside QC said sending asylum seekers back to ”a place of threat and persecution” would go against Australia’s international obligations.
”They can’t go home and they’re told they can’t make a home here. That’s pretty hard. What’s a person supposed to do?” he told ABC Local Radio.