The immigration department vastly underestimated the number of asylum seekers expected to arrive in Australia this financial year, with up to 25,000 now expected – almost five times more than initial forecasts.
Last year, the immigration department estimated just 5400 asylum seekers would arrive in Australia in 2012-13, before being forced to revise it to to 12,000 in February.
But immigration department secretary Martin Bowles told a budget estimates hearing on Monday that more than 22,500 had arrived in the 2012-13 financial year, about 2200 a month.
Under questioning, Mr Bowles acknowledged this could realistically rise to 24,000 or 25,000 asylum seekers arriving in Australian territories by June 30.
The government introduced its ”no-advantage” policy on August 13 last year, reopening offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island and saying people who arrived by boat would have their protection claims processed no faster than those who waited for a humanitarian visa in an offshore refugee camp. Since then, a record 19,760 people have arrived seeking Australia’s protection.
Mr Bowles defended his agency’s handling of the record number of asylum seekers coming to Australia.
”Clearly, we’re trying to stop people getting on unsafe boats,” he said. ”Clearly, that’s the nature of what we’re trying to do. How we manage the system though, with the range of different tools that we have, is not about being punitive.”
Mr Bowles said Australians ”need to remember the context in which we’re operating”, pointing out that, worldwide, there was a growing refugee problem, with about 45 million displaced people, two million asylum seekers and 15 million refugees.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young argued that global asylum seeker trends, combined with recent record arrival rates, showed the government’s no-advantage policies were not working. She described the Nauru and Manus Island centres as ”punitive”.
”Twenty-four hour security, limited access by visitors, remote detention, no access to legal advice… how does that not stack up to punishing people because of their mode of arrival?”
Mr Bowles said Australia held asylum seekers in detention only as long as it took to conduct health and security checks, and said asylum seekers were being detained for far less time than under the previous government.
But he also confirmed that none of about 19,760 asylum seekers who arrived after the government changed the rules on August 13 had had their claims for protection processed.
Only the 430 men on Nauru had been given initial interviews, while Australia was negotiating with the PNG government to begin processing at Manus Island within a couple of months.
Mr Bowles said the government aimed to begin processing people on Christmas Island and on the mainland soon.
But Refugee Review Tribunal and Migration Review Tribunal principal member Kay Ransome said despite the tribunal overturning on appeal about 72 per cent of negative refugee findings the department made, it had ”not been doing any formal, forward planning” to deal with the high number of appeals expected after the department resumed processing.
Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash described the impending flood of court hearings as ”the calm before the storm”, with almost 20,000 having arrived after August 13.
Ms Ransome said the tribunals’ biggest challenge was the level of cases already being considered by the tribunal.
”Obviously the increases in workloads that the tribunals have experienced to date are the key challenge; part of the other challenge is to retain expertise and to have our members and staff as expert and professional as possible to deal with the workload that we have.”
Mr Bowles also defended the department releasing families into the community on bridging visas without work rights, saying it costs just 20 per cent of the cost of holding people in detention.
The government has now released 295 people in family groups into the community on its new bridging visas, which entitle people to up to 89 per cent of the dole, while they wait for their claims to be processed. Under the no-advantage policy, it could take up to five years.
Charities have said they are being forced to pick up the cost of caring for people in the community, with many asylum seekers unable to pay for rent, essential medication, utilities and food.Source: Sydney Morning Herald – Up to 25,000 asylum seekers expected this financial year
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- UNHCR takes Australia to task over migration zone changes (abc.net.au)
- More asylum seekers sent to Manus Island (bigpondnews.com)
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