‘No Advantage’ for all concerned

Last week Chris Bowen announced that the ‘no advantage’ principle would extend to asylum seekers arriving by boat whose claims are processed onshore in Australia. This is in direct response to the arrival of 7500 asylum seekers post August 13, and the realisation that it was impossible to accommodate this number on Nauru and Manus Island with a total capacity of 2,100. The government justifies this move under the Houston report’s recommendation – namely to put asylum seeker boat arrivals in the same position as those in transit countries, with an equivalent wait before resettlement, while a plan was developed for processing and resettling refugees.

However, the government faces enormous challenges in applying the ‘no advantage’ principle to those who cannot be sent offshore. The model they have come up with is both flawed and inhumane. It involves putting asylum seekers onto bridging visas, releasing them into the community with no right to work, and imposing waiting periods for processing for as long as 5 years, even after being found to be a refugee. These bridging visas would allow refugees to be shipped to either Nauru or Manus Island at any point, echoing worryingly the limbo and uncertainty of the Howard-era temporary protection visas which allowed refugees to be repatriated to their own country with no notice.

What has not yet been explained is how the ‘no advantage’ test will function practically. When asylum seekers were sent to Nauru and Manus Island, the Government decreed that they would not be processed under Australian law, so how exactly will asylum seekers in Australia be processed? Under Nauruan law? Under Papua New Guinean law? It seems the Government has not thought this through. It is illogical that asylum seekers living in Australia would be processed under any other law, and thus will have to be processed differently to those asylum seekers offshore. Which makes you wonder why the decision was made to ship such a small amount of asylum seekers offshore, at great financial and human cost, without any accommodation or legal structures in the first place.

And what will the practical consequences of housing asylum seekers in the community on social welfare payments for 5 years be? The most affected group of the ‘no advantage’ principle, which the Government should be most concerned with, is the asylum seekers themselves. As Alison Gerard, Lecturer in Justice Studies at Charles Sturt University outlines, much international evidence demonstrates that moving asylum seekers out of detention and into the community without adequate access to rights and entitlements fosters destitution. It also:

  • Causes deteriorated mental and physical health amongst asylum seekers
  • It has the potential to create a supply of illegal labourers exposing asylum seekers to exploitation and harm in workplaces
  • It outsources basic government services to already overstretched and under resourced charities and creates a tiered system of welfare,
  • This also shows a lack of foresight by the government given that 70-90% of boat arrivals over the last few years have been granted permanent protection visas; so having them live on welfare without any training or skill development for 5 years is not exactly the most productive preparation for the workforce

All this also fails to take into consideration the fact that the ‘standard time’ for processing refugee claims in transit countries, which the ‘no advantage’ principle is based on, is a complete myth. As Kerry Murphy solicitor and lecturer in the Migration Law Program at Australian National University outlines, “there is no processing time for refugee cases anywhere on the planet. The case takes the time it takes. The reason why some wait years for resettlement is not due to any ‘queue’ or ‘no advantage test’ but simply about quotas. Australia has now increased the total program to 20,000 places, onshore and offshore together. So when the number of visas to be issued is reached in a certain year, other cases are left in administrative storage until the next visa year begins. It is not as if you receive a number and wait for your number to be called. Refugee A’s case may be identified to be in urgent need of resettlement due to the facts of the case, so A may be resettled more quickly than B who arrived at the UNHCR office the same day.” Whatever happens it can be sure that there is an arbitrariness to the process, and the Government’s resolve to make Australian’s think asylum seekers are jumping some kind of mythical queue is downright disingenuous.

Amnesty International has described any attempts to portray asylum seekers arrival as illegal as grossly misleading and assessed conditions they found on Nauru as being destitute, UNHCR has said the Government’s treatment directly contravenes the Refugee Convention, the Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has deemed the current treatment inhumane, even crossbenchers such as Tony Windsor and Liberals Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan, have criticized the Governments plans, claiming the debate is laced with racism. It can only be hoped that our politicians make the right decisions in the next couple of weeks regarding the ‘no advantage’ principle before the disastrous consequences of this ‘test’ play out.

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