Internal border controls: Australia’s domestic policies to deter refugees

Australia does have a positive human rights record on many fronts. It has a strong multicultural society built on shared democratic values, resilient economy and successful migration settlements. However, since the late 1990s and particularly in the past decade, Australia’s refugee externalisation policies have been harmful to asylum seekers and refugees and deteriorated Australia’s social cohesion and human rights record. While there has been much focus on Australia’s external border controls, including offshore detention and boat turnbacks, less attention has been paid to its internal deterrence policies, including temporary visas and denial of family reunion.

Focus on boat arrivals

Australia’s externalisation policies have mostly targeted vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees that have arrived by boats in Australia. This is despite the fact that historically the majority of asylum seekers have arrived by air on valid visas and then applied for protection in Australia. The exceptions are 2011-2013 and 2012-2013 during which boat arrival applicants were more than those that arrived by air. More importantly, as Khalid Koser has argued (PDF 477KB), boat arrivals have been found to be genuine refugees at a much higher rate than those who have arrived in Australia by air in the past two decades.

Nonetheless, refugee externalisation policies in Australia have constructed boat arrivals as threats to national sovereignty and state security. In the past two decades, successive Australian governments have imprisoned asylum seekers in offshore camps in Nauru and Manus Island. As Human Right Watch has found, ‘at least 12 refugees and asylum seekers have died in Australia’s offshore processing system since 2013, six of them suicides. Self-harm and suicide attempts surged in PNG following the Australian election in May 2019, with media reporting dozens of attempts, and local authorities struggling to respond to the crisis’.

Australian governments also provided border control and surveillance trainings and equipment to security departments and officials and funded massive Overseas Public Information Campaigns (OPICS) in source and transit countries to deter asylum seekers and, more significantly, to prevent ‘potential’ asylum seekers from leaving their villages and towns.

Internal border controls

Since the late 1990s, Australia’s refugee externalisation policies has also had domestic dimensions, which have been strengthened under the Coalition-led governments after the election of former Prime Minister Abbott in September 2013. Australian governments have introduced 3- and 5-years temporary protection visas and have prolonged citizenship and family reunion visas for onshore asylum seekers and refugees who have arrived by boats.

For example, there are around 30,000 asylum seekers in Australia, who have arrived by boats after 13 August 2012, on different temporary protection visas or bridging visas. The temporary protection visa holders have the right to attend schools and work in Australia. However, if they wish to pursue tertiary education, they are required to pay international fees in Australian higher education institutions. As part of their externalisation policies, Australian governments have made it harder for temporary protection visa holders to earn higher qualifications and start a meaningful life (PDF 844KB).

The 3- and 5- years temporary visas allow asylum seekers to travel to certain countries for family reasons at least once a year. But, the Department of Home Affairs have shown inconsistencies in granting travel permission to some temporary visa holders but not others to countries where their families reside mostly without any legal status. In some cases, they have been kept in limbo for several months because of lengthy and unpredictable visa renewal processes and obtaining Australian travel documents.

Moreover, on 19 December 2013, Scott Morrison, the then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, issued a Ministerial direction which gave ‘lowest priority’ to family stream visas for boat arrivals. Effectively, the Department made it conditional for permanent visa holders, who arrived by boats before 12 August 2012, to get their Australian citizenships before applying for family reunion visas. During this time, the majority of family reunion visa applications were put on hold because of delays in the processing of citizenship applications.

Despite the removal of Ministerial direction in mid-2018, there are former refugees who have arrived by boats over a decade ago and are still waiting to sit for their mandatory citizenship tests in order to bring their families to Australia. For the majority of these refugees, the prolonged processing of citizenship and family reunion applications have added to their existing mental health issues and made it difficult for them to have positive settlement experiences in Australia. Most still live in overcrowded shared accommodations with ongoing fears about the safety and wellbeing of their families back home or in transit countries.

The increased partner visa cost and prolonged processing of citizenship and family reunion visa applications have resulted in family separation, where the Department have excluded children aged 18 or over from family reunion visa applications of refugees who have arrived by boats. The Department’s argument has been that those children are financially ‘independent’ of their parents. While most parents with children wish for them to become ‘independent’ and capable adults, the socio-political and economic conditions in fragile and conflict zones, where most of these refuges have escaped from, make it impossible for their children to live independent lives from their parents. More broadly, Eastern cultures, in which most of these refugees and asylum seekers have grown up, emphasise interdependence relations and reciprocal care between elderly parents and children. As such, family separation has exacerbated personal and social anxieties amongst refugee communities in Australia and have made them less satisfied with their settlement experiences in Australia. As the government’s own study in Building a New Life in Australia demonstrates, the degree of life satisfaction alongside English language, access to education, health and employment make enormous differences in social cohesion and belonging in Australia.

Weakening moral authority

These internal border control policies have contributed to the weakening of Australia’s moral authority in promoting human rights abroad. When Australia accepted the seat in UN Human Rights Council in 2018, at least 70 nations raised concerns about Australia’s treatments of asylum seekers and refugees. The UN has also been critical of how Australian governments have treated asylum seekers and refugees in the past decade.

Apart from bilateral dialogues about human rights, Australia has not raised human rights issues with our immediate neighbours such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Leos. In recent years, China, Indonesia and Japan have publicly criticised Australia’s treatments of asylum seekers.

In a rapidly changing world, the weakening moral authority caused by hard externalisation policies of refugees and asylum seekers is a serious threat to Australia’s human rights records and cohesive society.

Short biography

Ali Reza Yunespour works as an Academic Internships Coordinator in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His PhD thesis examines the political economy of Afghanistan’s higher education; and his research interests are education politics in fragile contexts and asylum seeker and refugee issues in Australia. He has extensive community development experience in conflict societies and has helped around 8,000 students in 22 rural schools in Afghanistan through his volunteer works with indigo foundation Australia. Previously, Ali Reza has worked in DFAT and as a lecturer at American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. Ali Reza was a People of Australia Ambassador in 2012 and 2013 and was awarded the National Volunteer Award for his works with refugees and migrants in Australia and his contributions to indigo foundation’s education programs in Afghanistan. Ali Reza arrived as refugee in Australia in 2005.