The federal government claims it’s been 21 weeks since the last successful people smuggling venture to Australia, and its budget predicts if that trend continues, Australia will save $2.
5-billion over five years.
But what does the federal budget mean for those people who have been intercepted trying to come to Australia, or the 30,000 boat arrivals waiting onshore?
According to budget documents, asylum seekers waiting in Australia for their claims to be processed will be the subject of a range of so-called “reforms to compliance, removal and network management”.
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The Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul says that’s code for deporting some of the 30,000 asylum seekers, or what the government calls ‘Illegal Maritime Arrivals’, or IMAs.
“That would cover a range of things. It’ll be issues about obtaining governments, it’ll be communicating with international governments. The government’s had a long-term problem with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran – places that won’t accept removals of IMAs. There’s quite a degree of concern about the government pulling people back into detention and using the offshore detention centres as levers to to intimidate people or coerce people to sign voluntarily into going back.”
Two key appeals tribunals – the Migration Review Tribunal and Refugee Review Tribunal – are being amalgamated with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Classification Review Board.
Migration Agent Libby Hogarth says she’s concerned about inexperienced reviewers making life-changing decisions that are difficult for asylum seekers to appeal.
“We’ve got several Afghan clients who for example were refused at the Refugee Review Tribunal back in 2010-11 because the country information at the time said that the Hazara in Afghanistan faced a golden era. There was no error of law in the way that the member made the decision but the country information was later proven to be completely incorrect but those clients have not had merit to appeal the cases at the federal court.”
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says stopping the boats and cutting costs will save the budget about 2.5-billion dollars over five years.
And he’s putting a positive spin on the government’s decision to cut 4-thousand visas for relatives of boat arrivals.
“We’ve removed those places and it has saved the budget $260-million. There is a humanitarian dividend as well. There is a humanitarian dividend beyond the fact of stopping these deaths at sea – there is 20,000 places that have been restored to the refugee and humanitarian program because we have freed them up in the special humanitarian program that would otherwise have gone to those who had come to Australia illegally by boat.”
The government argues that other countries are also benefiting from Australia’s asylum seeker policy.
Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia are receiving funding to prevent people smuggling, and Malaysia is being gifted two retired patrol vessels.
Indonesia is set to receive $86-million under Regional Cooperation Arrangements.
The Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul says the funding has nothing to do with a regional solution.
“It’s money to simply keep Indonesia sweet about detaining people. The government has always underpinned the building of detention centres, the maintenance of detention centres for the Indonesian government and given the kind of tensions there are between Australia and Indonesia I think the Australian government has concerns that at some point or other the Indonesian government is no longer going to be willing to cooperate to be a wearhouse for asylum seekers so I think the 86-million is just a small payment on an insurance policy.”
The federal government will continue to provide millions of dollars worth of settlement and assistance services for asylum seekers on the mainland and will fund full-time schooling for asylum seeker children on Christmas Island.
There is also an extra $11-million over two years for the supervision and welfare of unaccompanied minors.
And up to 400 asylum seekers will participate in a pilot program covering so-called Mutual Obligations Community Engagement Activities.
The Refugee Council of Australia’s Paul Power is cautiously optimistic the program could be good news for asylum seekers who have been stuck on Bridging Visas.
“I actually had a meeting with a number talking about how useless they feel and how desperate they are to contribute to Australian society so in that environment oddly an appropriate form of mutual obligation program could actually be welcomed by quite a number of people because they’ve been frozen out of any opportunity to work. It very much depends on the quality of the program. If it’s to punish asylum seekers further then it will just add to the burden.”
But Paul Power says if the government really wants to improve the budget bottom line it should release more asylum seekers into the community.
“The best way of saving money in detention is reassessing who actually needs to be detained and only detaining those for whom it’s required. It cost well over $400,000 dollars over a year to detain somebody in an offshore detention centre, well over $100,000 for people in domestic detention centres and significantly less than people in the community per person, per year and that’s including the service provision and any financial support.”