Friday 14 October 2011

Onshore asylum processing wins by default

Offshore processing backdown will bring boats: Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen

Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen outline the government's position on asylum-seekers in a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture: Kym Smith Source: The Australian
Julia Gillard has predicted an increase in boat arrivals after yesterday being forced to abandon offshore processing and softening the treatment of asylum-seekers who arrive by sea.

Under Labor's new asylum-seeker regime, increasing numbers of arrivals will be allowed to live in the community and work while on bridging visas as their claims are processed. After failing to garner the support of enough crossbenchers for legislation that would revive her proposed Malaysia Solution, the Prime Minister last night warned "we are at a real risk of seeing more boats" but urged Australians to blame Tony Abbott. "There is only one reason that we are not in the circumstances to have offshore processing and that's because of Mr Abbott and his determination to trash the national interest," Ms Gillard said in Canberra yesterday. "Mr Abbott's conduct leads us to circumstances where we are at real risk of seeing more boats."

Since the August 31 High Court decision knocked down Canberra's Malaysia Solution, four vessels carrying 392 asylum-seekers have made it to Australian waters. In that time, however, the Indonesian police have prevented at least three other departures by intercepting up to 200 passengers travelling on land. Another boatload of 44 people was intercepted at sea last month off Sulawesi after mechanical trouble.

The Prime Minister's comments drew contempt from the opposition, with immigration spokesman Scott Morrison saying Labor had capitulated to the Greens and calling for Ms Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen to resign. The Opposition Leader urged Labor to admit it could not deal with border security and call an election.

The Greens, most refugee advocates and Labor MPs from the Left faction welcomed the move, saying onshore processing was the most humane way of dealing with asylum-seekers. Under the government's plan, most eligible boatpeople will be issued with sub-class 050 bridging visas, the same visa issued to asylum-seekers who arrive by plane.

It is understood the government will begin issuing bridging visas to boatpeople sooner rather than later. Although the government retains spare capacity for about 2400 asylum-seekers in the overstretched detention network, officials are keen to ensure pressure in the system is relieved before it is allowed to build. The bridging visas allow asylum-seekers to be paid 89 per cent of a Special Benefit allowance (roughly the same as the Newstart allowance). This means singles get $443 a fortnight, and families $570.

Refugee advocate Marion Le criticised the move to introduce bridging visas, saying they were just another name for Howard-era temporary protection visas. She said Ms Gillard had put "in place a worse regime than the Howard government ever had". The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said last night that in light of the government's new regime, the priority must be to ensure all asylum-seekers received "fair, efficient and timely assessments of their refugee claims". It urged "a complete and comprehensive review of the Australian asylum system".

Last night's announcement came after a chaotic day in parliament during which Labor backed away from a promise to bring on a debate about amendments to the Migration Act, designed to clear the way for Ms Gillard's deal to send 800 asylum-seekers who arrived off Australia by boat to Malaysia in return for 4000 approved refugees from Malaysia. With the opposition rejecting the legislation and proposing instead to process asylum-seekers on the Pacific island nation of Nauru, Labor needed to win the support of crossbencher Tony Crook, of the West Australian Nationals, to pass the bill.

After Mr Crook sided with the opposition, Ms Gillard shelved the legislation, sparking Coalition accusations of cowardice. Even if the legislation had passed the House of Representatives, it was set to be rejected in the Senate, because the Greens are opposed to offshore processing of asylum-seekers. After two hurried cabinet meetings and a caucus meeting, Ms Gillard last night revealed the new arrangements, under which all asylum-seekers will be processed onshore. All would face mandatory detention on arrival, but after existing detention facility space was exhausted, the government would allow detainees to move into the community on bridging visas.

The changes come only weeks after bureaucrats and experts warned Ms Gillard that a failure to reinstate offshore processing, which was declared illegal by the High Court in August, would trigger an increase in people-smuggling. The experts predicted about 600 irregular arrivals a month, and warned of resulting social unrest. Announcing the move last night, Ms Gillard said offshore processing in Malaysia would have been the most effective method to deter the people-smugglers. She warned that onshore processing would spark "the real risk" of more boats.

"I understand that will cause community anxiety," the Prime Minister said. "I believe it is very important that if we do see more boats, to separate in the community's mind, in all of our minds, the problem of seeing more boats from the people who are on those boats. We are a generous country, we are a compassionate country. It is not a matter of blaming the people who are on the boats for these circumstances." She seized on Mr Abbott's refusal to help her reinstate the right to offshore processing to inoculate her government against being blamed for any tensions over boat arrivals.

"The legislation will be there," she said of her shelved amendments. "If there is ever a day when Mr Abbott wakes up and is prepared to act in the national interest, the legislation will be immediately brought on." Asked if she took responsibility for the breakdown of the system, Ms Gillard said she took responsibility for crafting a new and effective response through her Malaysia agreement, which she hoped to be able pursue in the future.

Before the announcement, opposition MPs used question time to jeer at the government, demanding Ms Gillard bring on the debate. In a savage attack, Mr Abbott said the government had become a "shabby, miserable, divided and directionless" rabble. "Have your caucus meeting," the Opposition Leader said. "But admit you don't know how to deal with this problem, and call an election. "The Prime Minister is so desperate to cling to power she is prepared to limp on without the policy that only days ago she said was absolutely vital to secure the borders of this nation."

Playing on disunity within caucus over the Malaysian deal, Mr Abbott suggested the Prime Minister was concerned that some of her own MPs might cross the floor. Early yesterday, Mr Crook said he had backed the Coalition's proposal to amend the Migration Act to allow processing only in nations that were signatories to the UN refugee convention. "There are 140-odd signatories to the United Nations convention," Mr Crook said. "The government and the opposition need to sort this out."

Additional reporting: Peter Alford

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