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Title: Why did the Rudd government change its policy on refugees arriving in Australia on boats? Was it justified in doing so?


The phrase ‘boat people’ become popular during the 1970s when several boats carrying people arrived in Australia seeking asylum following the consequences of the Vietnam War. More than half of the people in Vietnam were displaced during this period and although many of them fled to nearby countries, some boarded boat heading to Australia. By 1981, around 2059 boats had already arrived in Australia. During the 1990s, the rate of boats arrivals in Australia was estimated to be 300 people every year, from mainly Vietnam, Cambodia and Southern China (McMaster, 2001). The complexity and scale of the problems caused by the flow of immigrants posed a great challenge to Australia. The number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons has continued to rise over the years. Australia received about 3000 boat people in 2000 while in 2011 the number shot to 4565 (Menadue, Keski-Nummi, and Gauthier, 2011). As a result, there have been several cases of illegal movement of people to Australia and Australian has found it very challenging to deal with this issue. The Australian government finds itself struggling to maintain a sound balance between meeting the direct needs of asylum seekers and controlling their borders movement. Australians have also expressed opposition towards the high rate of boat people arrival in Australia as this means a high level of competition of available employment opportunities. Consequently, successive Australian government has been forced to develop punitive policy in effort to curb this problem (Millbank, and Phillips, 2005).

The mandatory detention policy developed by the Howard government failed to solve this problem (Sampson, Mitchell, and Bowring, 2011). The continued rise of boats arrival in Australia in 2008 compelled the Rudd government to introduce change to the policy in what was thought to be the best way to tackle the issue. The Rudd Government policy changes involved the way the refugees were being received and managed in Australia. The Rudd government made some changes to the policies that had been developed by the Howard government while it completely put to an end some of the policies. The aim of the Rudd Government was to reduce illegal arrivals of boat people and thus, at first it mainly concentrated on border security strategies designed to interrupt the activities of people smugglers. The Rudd Government allocated $654 million to a comprehensive government strategy to curb people smuggling and to solve the issue of illegal boat arrivals during the 2009-2010 federal Budget (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2011).

The Rudd Government abandoned the Pacific Solution deterrence policy in 2008. It announced changes to the processing of illegal arrivals at excised offshore centers. It stated that the processing of illegal boat arrivals would no longer take place in Nauru and Manus but on Christmas Island (Hawke, and Williams, 2011). Refugees were required to go through a non-statutory status evaluation process on Christmas Island; however, they would be accorded publicly funded counsel and representation. Moreover, they would be allowed to access an assessment process for undesirable asylum decisions, but not through the Refugee Review Tribunal. Besides, they were required to undergo an external assessment through the Immigration Ombudsman. This was a great change from the Howard Government’s policy whereby illegal arrivals at excised centers were denied access to independent assessment or external assessment. The Howard Government policy also failed to give unauthorized arrivals equal rights as people who were processed onshore by the judicial review and the refugee review Tribunal (Millbank, 2001).

When the Rudd Government ascended to power in 2007 it changed the direction of the mandatory detention developed by the Howard Government. Senator Chris Evans, the then Minister of Immigration and Citizenship said that the mandatory detention policy was going to be changed (Evans, 2008). The new policy directs that detention of boat people would be carried out as the last resort instead of as a standard practice. Illegal arrivals will only be held on arrival for security, identity and health reasons but once these are over the Department would be required to justify the continuing detention of such people. This new policy held that the continuous detention of unauthorized arrivals would only be justified when a person is considered to cause a serious security risk or fails to meet the visa requirements. The policy holds that most of boat people should be set free immediately their arrival status is resolved. Also, the policy asserts that children and if possible their families should not be detained in immigration centers (Karlsen, 2010).

However, permanent mandatory detention of boat people has continued regardless of the change in policy by the Rudd Government. For example, 39% of the boat people were being detained in Australia for over one year in 2011. Consequently, immigration detention facilities have experienced great pressure from the high rise in boat arrivals. Initially, the Rudd Government tried to resolve this issue by transferring detainees to mainland detention facilities, expanded present centers and opened new centers. The Rudd Government allocated $202 million to ensure asylum seekers were appropriately accommodated in the country. Of this amount, $143.8 million was allocated to the expansion of immigration detention facilities that involved capital funding for numerous improvements and upgrade of crucial amenities and safety at present facilities including the Villawood in Sydney, Christmas Island, Northern Immigration Detention Centre and Port Augusta (Joint Standing Committee on Migration, 2008).

The Rudd Government abolished the temporary protection policy in 2008. This implied that about 100 people on temporary protection visas (TPVs) would be given permanent protection. The amendments of the Migration Regulation brought an end the temporary protection system. Most people have claimed that the increase in unauthorized boat arrivals can be attributed to the abolishment of the Pacific Solution and the temporary protection system. However, evidence in the literature points out to an increase in illegal boat arrival following the introduction of the TPVs. Chris Evans, the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, together with several immigrant advocates and journalist, viewed the TPVs as being ineffective in decreasing the quantity of illegal boat arrivals. They claimed that the TPVs actually resulted in a rise in children and women undertaking the dangerous voyage to Australia using boat because it failed to offer family reunification rights. This meant that families would not trust on men to travel to Australia on their own and bring their children and wives out to join then immediately they are given protection (Koser, 2010).

The other major change that the Rudd Government made to the detention policy was the abolition of the statutory condition that detainees be accountable for the expense of their detention. The Howard Government had introduced the detention debt policy with the intention of reducing the significant expense of detaining immigrants in detention facilities. The Rudd Government asserted that this policy was not effective as recovering debts had shown to be very hard. The rate of recovery debt was estimated to be 4% over the years. The Parliament approved the Migration Amendment Bill 2009 that revised the Migration Act to abolish the detention debt requirement. Moreover, the Migration Act had the impact of extinguishing all boat people arrival detention debts unpaid at the period of initiation (Field, Maclellan, Meyer, and Morris, 2007).

The new wave of refugee arrivals by boat during 2009 and 2010 compelled the Rudd Government to start changing its policies. Given the changed circumstances in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, the Rudd Government stated that it would postpone the processing of additional refugee claims from Afghan residents for a time of half a year and Sri Lankan citizens for quarter a year. This meant that people affected by the postponement would stay indefinitely in arrival detention until the postponements were lifted in September and July 2010 for Afghans and Sri Lankans respectively (Spinks and Phillips, 2011).

The most recent change to the border protection policy of Australia by the Rudd Government involved denying boat people the right to stay in Australia. It believed that such a move would result in a decrease in the volume of boat arrivals with time. The Prime Minister Rudd, alongside Tony Burke, the Minister for Immigration, mark Dreyfus the Attorney General and the Prime Minister for Papua New Guinea (PNG) announced that boat people arrivals will immediately be transferred to PNG for processing and resettlement. This implied that asylum seekers would not be given a chance to begin a new life in Australia. This new policy dictated that all asylum seekers that arrived in Australia without a visa would not be allowed to settle there. They believed that the policy would help reduce the number of unauthorized boat arrivals and also reduce the number of people that drown in the waters of the Northern Australia. They claimed that it would bring to an end the number of smugglers exploiting refugees and making them sink on the high seas. Moreover, the Rudd Government asserted that it would do everything to ensure the further disruption of the people smuggling business. Furthermore, it confirmed that the humanitarian program in Australia would continue and pointed out it would progressively intensify its intake of asylum seekers who arrived via authorized means (Karlsen, Koleth, and Phillips, 2011).

The effective implementation of this new policy necessitates the expansion of the existing regional processing plan in PNG, with primary health review to be carried out by the PNG officials at Manus Island center in Australia. The Rudd Government promised to hugely reward the cooperation of PNG by paying 50% of their college sector transformations (Phillips, and Spinks, 2013). PNG is wildly inappropriate as a resettlement place for asylum seekers. Its Melanesian society, made up of more than 800 different ethnic groups reinforced by great attachment to land, do not allow enough room for asylum seekers. Moreover, the indicators of human development in PNG are among the lowest in the world show that it is unfit to accommodate additional people. However, with adequate support from Australia, PNG can be able to sufficiently support the resettled refugees. Furthermore, PNG is very near to Australia as at low waters one may walk in and this puts the Tiwi Island may become very porous. This brings into question the likelihoods of positive resettlement of asylum seekers in PNG. Furthermore, there are high chances of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka becoming very porous very soon. This would necessitate the Rudd Government to explore for alternatives access places (Phillips, and Spinks, 2013).

The Rudd Government’s Pacific Solution policy can be said to be irreconcilable with the international requirements and thus it is prone to be strongly contested in the legal system as a violation of basic human rights just like other proposals advanced by this government. Internationally, this policy has been viewed as the most punitive, lacking compassion and a better understanding of the immigration in the Pacific Asia (Newman, Proctor, and Dudley, 2011). The functionality of this policy is questionable given that it depends on the collaboration of several nations across the area to agree to resettle boat people who have legally arrived in Australia. This can be a notorious challenging diplomatic task. Moreover, this policy apparently aims at people smuggling operations. People smuggling operations has in the past shown to capably change and adjust to new border safety standard introduced by governments. Despite enacting strict security measures, such as use of stern visa requirements, people smuggling operations remains an ongoing and rewarding part of the immigration industry as long as the desire to leave one’s nation of origin still exists (Crock, 2011).

It is still a puzzle whether this policy will attain its main objective that involves ensuring that no asylum seeker is resettled in Australia. The Successful implementation of this policy depends on the capacity of PNG to resettle a very big number of asylum seekers. However, this will not be an easy task given the relative poverty and global challenges of PNG. Thus, it is unrealistic to believe that the Regional Resettlement Agreement will be a workable solution to the refugee issues in Australia. The difference between the Pacific Solution of Howard Government and of the Rudd Government as it functioned in Nauru center is that before 2011 PNG was not a party to the UNU immigrant convention but now it is. Thus, PNG is now required to abide by its whole set of requirements under the refugee agreement. If PNG and Australia are want to completely adhere to their international obligations, and then they will be required to completely abolish the mandatory immigration detention policy (Phillips, 2012).

In conclusion, the increasingly alarming rate of boat people arrivals in Australia will continue to significantly influence government policy. This has proved a contentious issue that has strongly pressured the Rudd Government to change and adopt strict measures to tackle the border security problems, stop the boats and combat people smuggling. Rudd Government reaction to these issues has involved measures intended to ensure that only genuine asylum seekers arrive in Australia, policies intended to protect Australian borders, preventing unauthorized boat arrivals and collaborating with neighboring countries. The question as to whether the change in policy by the Rudd Government was a success is still debatable.


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Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), (2011). Submission to the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network (no. 32), 210—226,

Evans, C. (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship). (2008). New directions in detention: restoring integrity to Australia’s immigration system, speech delivered to Centre for International and Public Law, ANU.

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