Comparison of Australia and Canada’s policies on Asylum Seekers

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Comparison of Australia and Canada’s policies on Asylum Seekers

According to UNHCR, Australia attracted 8,960 asylum seekers in 2014 representing approximately 1 percent of the total global asylum seekers. The number had dropped compared to 2013 when Australia attracted 11,740 applications. This drop may be have been brought about by the tough Australian policies. Over the years, Asylum seekers have been making their ways to Australia by boats from countries such as Indonesia. Since the Australian government introduced tough new policies on asylum seekers, including the turning back of boats, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia especially by boat has dropped drastically. Australia’s asylum policies have even gone a long way and introduced Operation Sovereign Borders which allows the military to control all asylum seeking operations.

The government of Australia claims that it has established these policies to restore integrity within its borders, and prevented these asylum seekers from dying at sea. However, these policies have been highly criticized with critics arguing that these policies are racially motivated and damaging to the reputation of Australia. Critics question the reason why such a wealthy, large, and multicultural country can turn the treatment of asylum seekers into a national preoccupation (McAdam 2013: 435). Gibney (2012: 167) stated that Australia’s asylum seekers’ policies that detain them would be unethical. The 1990’s was filled with unfair treatment of asylum seekers. Within that decade, Australia motivated by its policies would turn back asylum seekers on boats, redefine the definition of Australian territory in its legislation for immigration purposes, and house asylum seekers on the barren and remote island of Nauru with an aim of preventing the country from incurring claims under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Over the last 100 years, Australia has transformed itself (through such restrictive policies) from being a country that housed people of different backgrounds to become the most unwelcoming country towards asylum seekers in the Western world (Gibney 2012).

These policies have also transformed asylum seekers into an easy target for anxieties about demographic composition, national security, and unemployment. As a result, the voices of these asylum seekers are highly marginalised in political debates. Due to poor representation in political circles the asylum seekers voice is not heard such that the other politicians continue fueling fears that asylum seekers pose a significant threat both to the integrity of the national borders and the national peace (McAdam 2013: 435). Australia’s asylum seekers policies require that asylum seekers arriving by boat be sent to detention centers for processing and detention. In addition, there is another element to the Operation Sovereign Borders policy – that of turning back the asylum seekers on boats. Indonesia has highly criticised this policy element arguing that it is a threat to asylum seekers and offensive to its sovereignty. Past experiences have showed that this policy is fraught with significant risks because these asylum seekers have often been returned to persecution and other forms of serious harms.

Australia’s asylum seekers policies are a breach to Australia’s international human rights obligations. In addition, these policies highly undermine the humanitarian objective of the Refugee Convention. They are also a violation to country’s legal obligations, including a person’s right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, right not to be indiscriminately detained, and the right to seek asylum among other individual rights. However, Australia is slowly moving towards alternatives to detention which has been highly criticised. The government is slowly undertaking detention reforms which include policy and legislative changes to ensure that there is limited detention, to avoid detaining certain vulnerable groups, and to introduce community-based supervision options (Sampson and Mitchell 2013: 102). Similarly, Canada is also engaging itself in greater release mechanisms. These measures are being taken and include terms such as ‘community-based’ and ‘community’ being an indication that alternative to detention involves placing detained individuals amongst the broader society rather than placing them in a detention center or other places of confinement such as what has been happening in Australia.

Contrary to Australia, Canada has a notable track record of admitting asylum seekers. Canada represents the only nation to have ever received an award (in 1986) referred to as the UN Nansen Medal representing the highest honor bestowed for protection of asylum seekers. Both Australia and Canada witness ‘boat people’ arriving on its shores. While Australia witnesses a large number of ‘boat people’ from countries such as Indonesia, Canada witnesses ‘boat people’ from countries such as Vietnam. As observed, immigration detention has become one of the major threats to the well-being of immigrants all over the world (Sampson and Mitchell 2013: 97). Therefore, there is growing need by governments to pursue alternative programs. Contrary to the way Australia treats asylum seekers, Canada has gone a long way to ensure compliance with international deportation laws, including alleviation of political pressures regarding the harms associated with detention, and demonstration of control of territorial borders. Understanding of multiple rationales shaping migration policies, including the asylum seekers policy, has helped Canada make sense of contradictory policy developments and identify the most effective ways of safeguarding asylum seekers who are subject to detention.

While Australia’s policies allows it to turn the ‘boat people’ away, Canada’s asylum seeker policies have (over the past) allowed it to grant asylum to these people. Although asylum seekers in Canada are first detained as a result of security fears (arose in 2009 and 2010 after two boats carrying around 600 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were thought to be members of a terrorist organization), they are then granted asylum after verification of their claims. Five years after verification, these asylum seekers become eligible to apply for permanent residence. However, most recently, the government of Canada has made several sweeping changes in its asylum seekers’ policy and this has been subjected too much criticism both in the news media and public circles. For example, asylum seekers whose applications are being processed are no longer eligible for public health care under the Interim Federal Health Program (Mckeary, M. and Newbold 2010: 525). Also, they are not eligible of applying for work permits unless their claims are undecided within a 180 days bracket.

It is clear that, in both countries, policy changes regarding asylum seekers have been motivated by security concerns rather than the concern for asylum seekers protection which was originally the intention of immigration policies. Antonius, Labelle and Rocher (2007: 36) have observed that security is increasingly becoming a main concern in Canada thus overriding the issue of asylum seekers. Since the 9/11, many countries around the world, including Canada and Australia have allowed their security agenda to prevail over the human rights agenda and concerns for civil liberties. However, ills against asylum seekers have extended to health care provision. There are significant barriers to health care services being faced by asylum seekers in Canada as a result of changing policies. Canada has been a country that promises universal care to all.

Through its Eurocentric neoliberal ideology, Canada has been able to create targeted policies towards the desirable versus the undesirable newcomers (Saberpor 2016: 5). However, despite such changes in asylum seeker policies, ‘the undesirable newcomers’ continue being oppressed by systematic programs and policies. This is evidenced by the current IFHP which is highly discriminatory against asylum seekers, as they are restricted from accessing full health care services and other social services (Barnes 2012). These policies have made asylum seekers to continue suffering because of being excluded and having limited access to health care. The Canadian government feels that if it continually limits access to health care, it will discourage asylum seekers from entering Canada (Saberpor 2016: 8). However, the government may be wrong in thinking that restricting access to health care would serve to discourage asylum seekers from entering Canada because most of these asylum seekers enter Canada to escape from other risky conditions such as war. According to the social work theory, policy changes concerning asylum seekers show that the distribution of resources among the ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable newcomers’ is oppressive and exclusionary.

Policy changes both in Australia and Canada are very oppressive and exclusionary. Historically, both countries have changed their policies on asylum seekers. While both countries have historically been very accommodative to asylum seekers, they are slowly changing their asylum seekers policies and this is making the situation very disadvantageous to these asylum seekers. Several situations related to asylum seekers (both in Australia and Canada) have been highlighted in this paper, including, restrictive health care policies in Canada, immigration detention in both countries, and turning back of boats. These measures have been established by these countries to discourage the entry of asylum seekers. However, most of these measures have been found to be misguided while others are motivated by the need of these countries to maintain security within their borders. Due to criticism that has been mounted against these practices, these countries are taking measures to address these ills, including introducing alternatives to detention, especially for vulnerable groups. There are some instances where both governments are moving towards eradicating harmful policies towards more productive ones. However, there are still other instances where these governments have not done enough, such as the health care policy in Canada.


Antonius, R., Labelle, M. and Rocher, F. (2007). Canadian Immigration Policies: Securing a Security Paradigm? International Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol 36, pp. 191-212.

Gibney, M. (2012). The Ethics and Politics of Asylum: Liberal Democracy and the Response to Refugees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Indonesian MP Tantowi Yahya says Coalition’s asylum seeker policy threatens to damage relations’ ABC News (19 Sept 2013), Available at

McAdam, J. (2013). Australia and Asylum Seekers. International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 435-448.

Mckeary, M. and Newbold, B. (2010). Barriers to Care: The Challenges for Canadian Refugees and Their Health Care Providers. Journal of Refugee Studies 23, no. 4, pp. 523-545.

Saberpor, T. (2016). Refugee and Asylum Seekers in Canada: Barrier to Health Care Services. Glendon Journal of International Studies.

Sampson, R. and Mitchell, G. (2013). Global Trends in Immigration Detention and Alternatives to Detention: Practical, Political and Symbolic Rationales. Journal on Migration and Human Security. Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 97-121.

Barnes, S. (2012). The Real Costs of Cutting Refugee Health Benefits: A Health Equity Impact Assessment. Toronto: Wellesley Institute.