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Australia Debates Tougher Asylum Rules

  • Phil Mercer

Fishing boat carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers nears shore of Australia's Christmas Island, April 14, 2013. (file photo)

Fishing boat carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers nears shore of Australia's Christmas Island, April 14, 2013. (file photo)

As Australia struggles with how to respond to a surge in arrivals of asylum seekers, the government is considering tightening rules for granting refugee visas. Critics say the changes could make it easier to reject asylum seekers from Iran, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

Canberra insists that most of the thousands of asylum seekers traveling to Australia by boat are not refugees but are, in fact, economic migrants.

Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr argued that the assessment process is flawed and needs to be changed to make it harder for those seeking asylum to be successful.

When an asylum seeker arrives in Australia, their claim is first processed by immigration authorities. If a claim is rejected, it is referred to the Refugee Review Tribunal, an independent appeals body. Government officials say the Tribunal has recently been overturning about 80 percent of decisions made by the Immigration department.

The Tribunal is now being told to take into account information from the Department of Foreign Affairs when deciding cases involving asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Vietnam.

Critics believe the government wants to make some deportations easier by declaring those three countries safe to return asylum seekers. But Carr said a tougher stand against economic migrants is needed.

“Well, there have been some boats where 100 percent of them have been people who are fleeing countries where they're the majority ethnic and religious group and their motivations are altogether economic,” he said.

The number of asylum seekers has been steadily rising this year, and will surpass the 14,415 recorded in 2011-2012.

Former members of the Refugee Review Tribunal, including Bruce Haigh, a retired diplomat, deny accusations that the system is too lenient and needs to be toughened. Haigh says the foreign minister is overstepping his authority.

“He can't direct a tribunal to take account information supplied from a government source," Haigh said. "They can be requested; they can be urged to consider this information, but they can't be directed. You can only question what Foreign Affairs have been asked or tasked to do with respect to producing information that makes it appear as though people can return to these countries.”

In the past week, at least 12 asylum seekers, including a baby boy, have drowned near Christmas Island, Australia’s remote Indian Ocean territory. Scores of people were rescued by Australian authorities.

Refugee advocates say tougher asylum measures expected to be announced by the Labor government in the coming days have caused a recent surge in the number of unauthorized arrivals by boat, often from Indonesia. Ministers say stricter measures are needed to deter boat people, and save lives.

Immigration is expected to be a key issue in an Australian federal election scheduled for mid September.

Canberra grants refugee visas to about 13,000 people each year under various international agreements.