A battle of narratives

Key Issues

The electoral battle over issues to do with asylum seekers and offshore detention is going to be a battle of narratives.

A battle of narratives

On the one hand, conservative parties will emphasise a narrative linking asylum seeker policy with national security. This narrative insists it is necessary for Australia to take a harsh approach to asylum seekers – including offshore detention, refusing resettlement in Australia, etc – in order to deter people from seeking asylum in Australia and keep Australians safe.

In contrast, progressive parties argue Australia’s current approach to asylum seekers falls short of the international standards of human decency – particularly with regards to physical and mental healthcare. They say Australia’s harsh asylum seeker policies are politically motivated and stoked by fear and racism, and that Australia can both have a robust assessment process that upholds national security and treat people who seek asylum with dignity and respect.


For the past few elections maritime (boat) arrivals have dominated conversation about people seeking asylum in Australia, although people seeking asylum in Australia also arrive by air.

The Coalition Government insists that previous Labor Government’s lax asylum seeker policies led to a surge of people seeking asylum in Australia who travelled by boats in life-risking journeys conducted by people smugglers- and that they could do so again. This is what’s described as ‘push and pull factors’ – i.e. the idea that Australia’s policies either encourage or deter asylum seekers from seeking asylum via boat.

However, statistics have not proven the theory that Australia’s resettlement policies directly affect the numbers of asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat. In fact, statistics recording the maritime flow of displaced people show that Australia’s increased arrivals have always been reflective of what is happening elsewhere in the world (see here for more) and ignores the context of global displacement currently reaching its highest levels on record.

That is to say, “an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also an estimated 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement” and “nearly 1 person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution”. (More UNHCR figures like these are available here).

When the Coalition Government came to power in 2013, it adopted a policy of denying resettlement in Australia to any asylum seekers who arrived by boat. They also adopted a ‘turn back the boats’ policy – turning back or towing vessels carrying people seeking safety to their place of departure. Refugee advocates criticised the policy as targeting one type of arrivals for political reasons, with those asylum seekers who arrive by boat historically having been found more likely to be granted refugee status than asylum seekers who arrive by air.

The Coalition Government has claimed their policies have “stopped the boats” and “stopped the deaths at sea”. However, the government’s own statistics show that asylum seekers have actually continued to try to reach Australia by boat, albeit at greatly reduced numbers.

In fact, since the Coalition has come to power and “stopped the boats”, the numbers of people seeing asylum in Australia has swelled to record numbers – just with more asylum seekers now seeking asylum by plane. The Home Affairs Department website shows 27,931 protection visa applications were made in the latest financial year by plane arrivals – the previous record number of asylum seekers was 26,845 in the 2012-13 financial year when 18,365 protection visa applications were made for boat arrivals and 8480 for those who came by plane.

Offshore Detention

The conditions asylum seekers experience in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres – particularly with regards to healthcare (or lack thereof) – was one of the major news stories of 2018.

Under Australia’s currently policies, asylum seekers who come to Australia via boat are detained offshore on Nauru and Manus Island whilst their applications are processed. From here, they can be returned home if their application is unsuccessful or resettled in a third country if granted refugee status.

For many years, refugee advocates have said that the application processing times of up to six years and the conditions asylum seekers face in offshore detention are a denial of their fundamental human rights and basic decency. This assessment has been echoed by the United Nations.

These concerns reached a boiling point in 2018 in the Kids Off Nauru campaign, which saw 170,034 Australians sign a petition to pressure the Government to get kids off Nauru. The campaign was successful, with all children being removed from Nauru in one way or another – an outcome the Morrison Government claimed was the success of their ongoing work, rather than a response to public pressure.

Medevac laws

On Tuesday 26 February, the Australian parliament passed the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2018 – commonly known as the Medevac Bill. The Bill provides an independent process for sick refugees and asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore detention centres to receive medical care in Australia, when needed because it isn’t available on Manus Island or Nauru.

Previous to this, medical evacuations were allowed at the discretion of the Australian Government’s Home Affairs Minister with the only recourse to appeal a denial being a lengthy court process. Read more here.

A total of 12 people have died in Australia’s offshore detention centres to date. The inquiry into the case of Hamid Khazaei showed that he died as a direct result of the Australian Government’s refusal to follow medical orders. There have also been documented rises in ‘resignation syndrome’, self-harm and suicide attempts amongst asylum seekers in Australia’s detention centres, some concerning young children. In 2016, UNHCR found that 88 per cent of people on Manus Island were suffering from depression, anxiety and/or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Medevac Bill was passed after a vicious political debate during which the Coalition Government expressed concerns the bill could lead to weakened borders and national security. Amendments to the bill gave the minister 72 hours to assess a transfer referral which, if he or she refused, would be sent to an independent medical panel. The panel could override a minister’s refusal on health grounds but the minister has the final veto if there are security issues surrounding the patient.

Immediately following the passing of the Medevac Bill, the Government re-opened the Christmas Island detention centre (that it had closed late in 2018) “both to deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers”. See more here and an update here.


Australia has a complex system of visas available to people seeking asylum.

These have been criticised by refugee advocates for being overly strict and complex, and for keeping people in a state of ‘limbo’ that doesn’t allow them to flourish and for there being no recourse for appeal.

Party Platforms

Arrivals and offshore detention: The Liberal Party has said that there will be no changes to their current approach to people seeking asylum. Boat turn-backs will continue, offshore detention will continue and “people subject to regional processing arrangements will not be resettled in Australia.”

Instead, refugees detained on Nauru will continue to be able to apply for resettlment in Cambodia and the United States, although only 439 people have been able to be resettled in the United States so far. Refugees in Papua New Guinea can apply to resettle in the United States or in PNG.

And “if asylum seekers, refugees and non-refugees on Nauru or in PNG decide to return home voluntarily, assistance is available to help, including booking and paying for travel.”

Their platform also states, “The Australian Government has provided over $1 billion dollars in support for health, welfare and infrastructure projects in PNG and Nauru.” (see Australian Aid for a discussion of this subject) and “where medically necessary, people have been brought to Australia for treatment.”

Visas: The only significant change proposed by the party is that it will attempt to increase the Foreign Minister’s power to cancel visas.

Since 2015, the Government has had the power to revoke the citizenship of any dual-national who engages in terrorism. In addition, this Government has increased the powers of the minister to cancel the visas of non-citizens, resulting in a 12-fold increase in visa cancellations for non-citizens convicted of a crime and sentenced to 12 months or more imprisonment, or who have been convicted of a sexual offence against a child.

If elected, the Liberal Party says it will propose legislation that gives the minister power to “be able to cancel visas of people convicted of a crime punishable by a maximum sentence of two or more years in prison, which involves violence, sexual assault, domestic abuse and the use or possession of weapons. This will capture people convicted of crimes that strike at the heart of the Australian community, regardless of whether they have been given a jail sentence.”

Humanitarian Intake: The Liberal Party says it has increased Australia’s humanitarian program (i.e. its resettlement intake of people who’ve been given refugee status) from 13,750 refugees in 2013-14 to 18,750 in 2018-19, with an additional intake of 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq. In 2016-17 around 20,200 offshore humanitarian visas were granted. “This represents Australia’s largest offshore intake in over 30 years,” the party says.

However, the budget also referred to the program number for 2017-2018 as a “ceiling” in performance targets for 2017-18 and relaxed the target for 2018-19 by requiring only that the Program is delivered “in accordance with priorities and informed by program parameters set by the Government”. This is consistent with the current government’s changes to performance targets across immigration, which generally remove numerical targets for broader and more qualitative assessments.

There have been reports of the current Government filling its humanitarian program quota with a lower number of the UNHCR’s recommendations (a system which treats applicants equally regardless of faith) and instead prioritising Christian refugees for resettlement in Australia. There is very little information about this available.

Arrivals and offshore detention: The Labor party’s platform on boat arrivals mirrors the Coalition’s: “the way to Australia through irregular means by boat is closed, and it will remain so under Labor.” For Labor, resettlement in Australia is also a no-go for asylum seekers who arrive by boat with the reason given that they don’t want to encourage the people-smuggling trade. Their policy states: “bringing people from offshore regional processing centres to Australia is not an option”

However, unlike the Coalition, Labor doesn’t support the use of Manus Island and Nauru as long-term solutions, insisting they were only established as temporary measures, saying “Much more needs to be done to resettle eligible refugees in other third countries.”

Labor’s position on resettlement states: “Labor has called on the Liberal Government to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle eligible refugees from Manus and Nauru and negotiate conditions similar to the US refugee resettlement agreement to prevent people smugglers exploiting vulnerable people. If the Government was able to negotiate conditions for the US deal, they should be able to negotiate them for any deal with NZ. Labor has repeatedly called on the Liberal Government to release the details of the US refugee resettlement agreement.”

However the party claims “Labor’s resolve to prevent deaths at sea is matched by a commitment to a humane and compassionate approach to asylum seekers which enables refugees to progress their claims safely and securely.”

Humanitarian intake: Increasing Australia’s annual humanitarian intake of refugees to 27,000 by 2025 to address the global humanitarian crisis

In addition, Labor is committed to:

  • Providing $450 million in funding over three years to support the important work of the UNHCR both globally and in South East Asia and the Pacific;
  • Appointing an independent children’s advocate to represent the interests of children seeking asylum and legislating to impose mandatory reporting of child abuse;
  • Reintroducing the ‘90 day rule’ into the Migration Act, in addition to references to the UN Refugees Convention;
  • Reinstating access to the Refugee Review Tribunal and abolish the IAA established by the Abbott Government; and
  • Abolishing Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which keep people in a permanent state of limbo and placing those found to be genuine refugees on permanent protection visas.


The Greens’ party platform is based on the belief that “Australia has humanitarian and legal obligations to accept refugees and reunite families” and “Australian society benefits from immigration.”

The party are advocating for:

  • Australian to take responsibility for assessing all asylum claims of people who seek Australia’s protection within the migration zone.
  • People seeking asylum to be fully informed of their rights on arrival and given immediate access to legal support and health care, assisted by interpreters, as required.
  • The current system of humanitarian visas (granted only by ministerial discretion) to be replaced with an open, accountable humanitarian visa assessment.
  • Assessment of applications for asylum completed in a timely and transparent manner.
  • Refugees to be treated with dignity, including within the terminology that is used by Australian Government departments and agencies
  • The elimination of mandatory and indefinite detention, and the abolition of offshore processing (where a person seeking asylum, refugee or special category visa holder is returned from Australian territory to another nation to be assessed) and other forms of punitive or discriminatory treatment.
  • The development of networks, materials and programs that increase community understanding of the causes and benefits of migration.
  • All people found to be refugees, but given negative security assessments, to be given the reasons for such assessment, access to legal representation and the opportunity to challenge this in the appropriate forum. They are only to be detained as individually required by court order, with periodic judicial review.

Arrivals of offshore detention: “Australian Conservatives support our world-leading offshore processing and illegal boat arrival turn-back policies. However, all determinations of visa applications will take place within Australia.”

Humanitarian intake: Australian Conservatives want to withdraw from the UN Refugee Convention “to allow Australia to determine its refugee intake free from external constraints.” They would immediately halve Australia’s current net immigration intake. It says that “immigration must provide a positive benefit to Australia’s economic, social and cultural interests … current immigration levels are too high, putting pressure on services, infrastructure and family incomes.”

For the Australian Conservatives party platform on immigration, click here.

Christian Commentary

The Australian Churches’ Refugee Taskforce and the National Council of Churches in Australia call for an end to the demonising of refugees and asylum seekers and a humane approach to their care and support, 15 February 2019

As people of faith we welcome recent moves to bring all children in detention off Nauru.  We welcome the passing of the Medical Transfer Bill by our Australian Parliament of elected representatives. Both these measures are humane and in no way jeopardise our national security. But they do not go far enough.

As people of faith we reject any rhetoric that suggests Australia is facing a border protection crisis and that Australia needs to reopen Christmas Island as a detention facility.

As people of faith we call on people from all sides of politics, the media and society to avoid using language that seeks to demonise groups of people currently held in detention and other people wanting to come to Australia to seek a safe life.

As people of faith we call on politicians from all political parties to outline reasoned and humane policies that will end offshore detention.  We want to ensure the dignity and well-being of all in our care, including those people seeking safe refuge who are in Australia and being left destitute in our communities and neighbourhoods by current policy.

We urge the kind of welcome that lifted everyone’s spirits this week, with the return of Hakeem from detention in Thailand, who we all are embracing as one of our own.

Let us be clear. We are helping sick people because they need our help. That is enough to do well, now.
“Our Churches and agencies around the nation, as ever, stand ready to help, in partnership with our Government.”

Bishop Philip Huggins of the Anglican Church of Australia,  current President of National Council of Churches in Australia and a founding member of the Australian Churches’ Refugee Taskforce


Excerpt from A Welcoming, Compassionate and Diverse Nation from 2019 Federal Election Resource by Uniting Church Australia

What the UCA has said:

“We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.” 

– Statement to the Nation (1977)

“We approach the issue of asylum seekers and refugees in the context of the words of Jesus. He spoke of a new community established on righteousness and love, and based on a fellowship of reconciliation — a community in which all members work together for the good of the whole. In essence, working for this kind of society is our contribution to civil society. When we work for freedom, human rights and the common good of the community we are expressing our faith. It is an outworking of the community of God.”

– Asylum seeker and refugee policy (2002)

“In Jesus Christ we discern that which is truly human. As we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and care for the thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned, there is the mysterious possibility that we will discover the life of Christ among us (Matthew 25: 31-46), and share the love of God.”

– Dignity in Humanity (2006)

Principles for Good Policy for the Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees:

– Shelter from the Storm (2015)

Also included in this comprehensive guide are the UCA’s vision, hopes and an assessment of the ‘state of the nation’ relating to asylum seekers, along with biblical resources, key actions, discussion starters and suggested questions for political candidates.


ACL support Labor’s move to raise refugee intake by Martyn Iles | December 17, 2018

The Australian Christian Lobby today expressed in principle support for the Australian Labor Party’s commitment to raise the refugee intake by 4,000 places.

Managing director, Martyn Iles said, “Australia should be a generous nation when it comes to playing our part in the global crisis of displaced persons.” 

“Even a generous intake will always be small compared to the size of the global refugee crisis, so it is vital that the refugee program should continue to favour the world’s most vulnerable and persecuted minorities.” 

“The recent case of Asia Bibi, and others like her, show that Christians are still amongst the most persecuted minorities in the world.” 

“Australia must keep rising to the challenge when it comes to generosity. That’s the kind of nation we should aspire to be.”