Asylum Seekers – A Humane & Compassionate Approach

The recent ALP conference agreed to welcome more refugees to Australia, but to bring them here safely.  Labor announced we will: double Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake; contribute $450 million to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (more help for the record 60 million people displaced worldwide); abolish temporary protection visas; and appoint an independent children’s advocate.  By 2025, Labor will increase Australia’s annual humanitarian intake to 27,000 – almost double the current intake under the Abbott Government of 13,750.  As part of our commitment to demonstrating leadership in our region, a portion of the program will be dedicated to resettling refugees from the region. 

The refugee issue is much broader than simply that of the journey between Java and Christmas Island.  How we engage with the world on refugee matters is an important part of it and we need to be getting our policy right.  The way in which Labor has come to the view that we need to keep this journey shut, however, is a very different road that we have travelled than our political opponents.  Whereas for the Liberal Party the shutting of this journey really is the central piece of an architecture which is about Australia turning its back on the world, Labor is trying to open our door wider so that we can bring more refugees here through a higher humanitarian intake but doing it in a way where people come safely. 

According the UNHCR, the number of displaced people fleeing from war, conflict or persecution is the highest number since World War II.  The forced displacement of persons around the globe is currently at unprecedented levels.  By the close of 2014 an estimated 59.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced around the globe as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations.  This is 8.3 million persons more than the previous year and the highest recorded annual increase in a single year. 

Labor believes that Australia can do more to address this global humanitarian crisis.  Labor’s effort in this policy area involves the following approach: 

A Shorten Labor Government will provide significantly increased annual funding to the UNHCR for its global work program and its work in South East Asia and the Pacific.  At a time when the global humanitarian need is greater than ever, Labor will provide $450 million over three years to support the important work of the UNHCR.  This funding commitment would place Australia in the top 5 of global contributors to the UNHCR.  Labor will reinstate references to the UN Refugees Convention in the Migration Act to reverse the Abbott Government’s retrograde efforts to undermine international law. 

A Labor Government will take a leadership role within South East Asia and the Pacific to build a regional humanitarian framework to improve the situation of asylum seekers.  This would include supporting the UNHCR in providing health and education services to asylum seekers.  It would also involve advocating for work rights for asylum seekers, similar to what would have been achieved under the proposed Malaysia Agreement in 2011. 

Labor will work to ensure children are out of detention as soon as possible.  We are committed to providing a strong independent voice within government to advocate for the interests of children seeking asylum.  Labor will appoint an advocate independent of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection backed by the resources and statutory powers necessary to pursue the best interests of those children, including the power to bring court proceedings on a child’s behalf.  This will not reduce the Minister’s obligations in relation to unaccompanied non-citizen children or the ability of other interested parties to take court action against the Minister.  The independent children’s advocate will have access to all unaccompanied minors in detention and in the community to ensure their rights and interests are protected.  The advocate will provide regular reports to the Minister and the Parliament.  Labor will legislate to impose mandatory reporting of child abuse in all offshore and onshore immigration detention facilities. 

Labor will stand firm on maintaining a policy of offshore processing.  The previous Labor Government took Australia off the table through regional resettlement arrangements which dealt a huge blow to people smugglers and hobbled the ability of people smugglers to sell the journey to Australia.  Labor does not believe offshore facilities should be run as punitive holding cells.  They need to be humane and offer people seeking safety exactly that. 

Fast and efficient processing should occur so that claims for protection can be determined quickly and fairly.  Labor will seek the agreement of the governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru to establish bilateral mechanisms (comprising officials of each relevant jurisdiction) to support the independent oversight of the Australian-funded offshore facilities.  It will be important that this function be undertaken in a cooperative way to strengthen bi-lateral relations.  We will implement independent oversight of Australian-funded processing facilities and empower the Commonwealth Ombudsman to provide independent oversight of Australia’s onshore detention network.  Labor will continue to ensure that those working in the immigration system enjoy the benefit of whistleblower protections to speak out about maladministration and corruption. 

The combination of offshore processing and regional resettlement together with the policy of turning back boats has stopped the flow of vessels arriving on our shores.  None could have succeeded in isolation but together they have ended a human tragedy.  To ensure that people smugglers are denied the opportunity to offer any incentive to vulnerable people to board unsafe boats to make the dangerous journey to Australia by sea; provided it can be done so safely, a future Labor Government will retain the option of turning boats around. 

Labor will abolish TPVs which keep people in a permanent state of limbo.  Labor will commit to processing people as quickly as possible and placing those found to be genuine refugees on permanent protection visas. 

Labor's proposed suite of measures has been costed by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office.  This proposed approach is anticipated to cost $450 million over the forward estimates and will be funded from Labor's package of measures which improve the Budget by $2.8 billion.