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The 681 forgotten people

There have been many policy failures in Australia’s wasted decade. But few have been greater than the failure to develop a humane asylum seeker policy.

Major policy issues generally follow one of these three paths:

  • Resolution: A government can respond to a major policy issue in the face of public and elite pressure by developing and implementing an adequate policy response. Remember gay marriage? This was a major political issue in the mid-2010s and a key topic of discussion during the 2016 election. But the government (eventually and reluctantly) legalised gay marriage and resolved the issue. It has long since ceased to be a topic of mainstream discussion.
  • Stalemate: A government can respond to a policy issue by denying that the issue exists and therefore refusing to develop an adequate policy response. The issue may then remain in the mainstream of political and media discussion indefinitely. The iconic Australian example of this is climate and energy policy – the Federal Government does not take this issue seriously and does its utmost to make the issue go away. But strong interest from the public and political and media elites means that, even though interest peaks and troughs, the issue fails to totally go away and remains a live mainstream issue.
  • Apathy: This is the most depressing trajectory: a government refuses to develop an adequate policy response to a major issue but manages to persuade a critical mass of public and elite opinion that it has developed and implemented a policy response, thereby “solving” the issue. Without sufficient attention from political and media elites, the public loses interest, creating a vicious cycle whereby the issue leaves mainstream discussion and cannot break back in.

This latter route, sadly, has been the path of asylum seeker policy in Australia. Asylum seeker policy was a huge political issue at the 2010 and 2013 elections, and arguably the most hot-button political issue in the first half of the 2010s (alongside climate change). But since then, it has mostly faded into the background, only coming to the fore in relation to other political issues (eg. the medivac legislation, which was intertwined with the Federal Government’s loss of control of the House of Representatives in late 2018 and early 2019).

Despite the mainstream view, encouraged by the Federal Government, that this issue has been “solved”, the fact is that the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres remain open, as do a number of domestic detention centres holding asylum seekers. In recent years, even hotels have been turned into prison cells for asylum seekers.

In total, 239 asylum seekers remain in offshore detention, with 130 on Manus Island and 109 on Nauru. A further 442 asylum seekers are in onshore detention. That’s a total of 681 asylum seekers locked up by the Federal Government. (This does not include a further 1,053 people currently locked in onshore detention centres, primarily for visa violations).

The United States resettlement deal, negotiated by Malcolm Turnbull when he was Prime Minister, whereby asylum seekers are given the option of permanently resettling in the United States, has been the only bright spot (as deeply problematic as it is) in this bleak era of policy failure. 395 people were resettled in the US in 2018, 214 in 2019 and 243 in 2020. One can hope that most of the remaining people in offshore detention will experience freedom in the US in the not too distant future.

But that will not be the end of the matter. A further 12,255 people, the vast majority of asylum seekers, are no longer in detention and have been released into the Australian community on a bridging E visa. Although certainly preferable to detention, these people have no path to permanent residency. That means there are 12,255 people living in Australia, many for a number of years, who have not been provided with any assurance that they will be able to remain here in the long-term. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to live a life with such uncertainty.

Asylum seeker policy is not an issue I normally write about in this blog. I draw attention to it not only to remind people of the immense human tragedy of Australia’s asylum seeker policy failure and the intense, unspeakable suffering it has caused. It is also a cautionary tale.

Not all policy issues are resolved or end in stalemate – some are just forgotten.

*Data on offshore detention is correct as of 31 March 2021. Data on onshore detention and bridging visas is correct as of 28 February 2021.

If you are trying to read the data tables on the Department’s website, note that the Federal Government makes heavy use of Orwellian Newspeak. For example, asylum seekers are called “illegal maritime arrivals” or IMAs. Hotels and other facilities not designed to imprison people are called “alternative places of detention” or APODs.

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