Australia’s mistreatment of asylum seekers seeking refuge by air must end

By Asher Hirsch | 01 Aug 23

It has been 10 years since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that no person seeking asylum by boat will be resettled in Australia.

Seeking to stop irregular journeys by sea, Rudd announced on 19 July 2013 that all those who seek asylum in Australia by boat will be detained in offshore detention until they either return home or resettle elsewhere. The policy sought to stop the arrival of asylum seekers by boat, and win Kevin Rudd another term of government. It didn’t achieve either.

While successive Australian Governments have sought to make it harder and harder to seek asylum by boat, they have also quietly worked to prevent people seeking asylum from taking safer journeys via air. Australia has implemented a range of interceptions measures before departure and at Australian airports, which seek to prevent the arrival of people who may seek asylum, or otherwise send them back once they arrive.

Australia requires that all airlines check that a person has a visa before they board a flight. This means that those seeking asylum are normally not able to board a flight, unless they are able to get a visa. Of course, Australia doesn’t offer visas for the purpose of seeking asylum, so many people have to come in on tourist, student or other temporary visas. These visas are often not available to people from refugee producing countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar or Syria. In addition, refugees would need a passport – a difficult hurdle for people fleeing from their governments.

Even if a person manages to get a visa to Australia, they may be returned at the arrival gate before they are even able to lodge an asylum claim. The Australian Border Force has a range of screening mechanisms to determine if someone is likely to seek asylum, and would normally seek to cancel their visa and return them on the next available flight before they are able to clear customs.

Australia doesn’t provide any advice or assistance to people who may wish to seek asylum once they arrive at an Australian airport.

In fact, our policies actively discourage people from asking for protection at the airport. If a person manages to pass customs and leave the airport and then apply for protection, they will be granted a permanent visa once they are found to be a refugee. However, if they ask for protection while still at the airport, they will have their visa cancelled and be detained. If they are able to submit an application for protection before being deported, they will only be granted a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) once found to be a refugee.

While the Albanese Government promised to abolish TPVs and SHEVs, they have only done so for those who are already in the community. Any new arrivals who seek asylum at the airport are still only allowed to apply for a TPV and SHEV – making the possibility of a permanent visa almost impossible.

This stark difference in treatment between people who claim asylum at the airport and those that do so afterwards makes no policy sense – we should be encouraging people to raise protection concerns as soon as possible, and providing assistance and legal advice for people to do so.

These policies are also counterintuitive to the government’s own agenda in stopping people seeking asylum by boat. If Australia indeed wishes to stop people taking dangerous journeys by boat, then we should be supporting people to arrive by air, as the Australian Government did for people fleeing Ukraine.

These issues were recently highlighted in a new report by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), which compares Australia’s refugee policies with a new international benchmark. The Refugee Response Index (RRI) is a civil society initiative to assess and monitor countries’ responses to refugees and asylum seekers in an independent and comprehensive manner.

RCOA undertook this review to provide a baseline measure through which future policy in Australia can be assessed, as well as to expand the evidence base to highlight where Australia’s responses must be strengthened or reformed and where there are positive practices in Australia’s approach.

Our review of Australia’s policies showed that while we may be supporting the settlement of refugees who are resettled from overseas, our asylum policies fall far short of our international obligations.

Australian domestic policies and legislation on access to asylum are incompatible with international commitments, undermining the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement.

Since 2001, Australia has enacted a series of interdiction policies to prevent asylum seekers from arriving in Australia in order to claim protection. Obstacles to seeking protection are imposed via both unilateral and cooperative extraterritorial migration controls to keep refugees in their countries of origin and first asylum, or impede them from reaching our territory.

The RRI provides the Australian Government an opportunity to review our asylum policies and consider how it can ensure that our treatment of people fleeing persecution upholds our international commitments to provide safety and protection to those in need.