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Timeline of Australian asylum-seeker debate

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Australia’s resumed push to swap asylum-seekers arriving by boat with refugees from Malaysia is the government’s most recent policy response to an issue that has preoccupied officials and the public for years.

Under the so-called “Malaysia Solution”, Australia would exchange the next 800 refugees to arrive by boat for 4,000 mostly Burmese, in Malaysia. On 31 August, the High Court ruled against it, declaring the proposal invalid, a decision welcomed by rights groups such as the Refugee Council of Australia.

According to government figures, since 1976, more than 27,000 people have boarded boats and attempted to emigrate to Australia, a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention

IRIN considers how the debate has developed:

27 April 1976: The first boat arrivals – five refugees from Vietnam – land in Darwin. Over the next five years, more than 2,000 Vietnamese boat arrivals are reported and the term “boat people” enters the Australian vernacular;

24 May 1977: The first comprehensive policy for refugees, rather than just migrants, is announced in Parliament;

1977-1978: The government increases the number of Indochinese refugees accepted for resettlement from camps in Southeast Asia, to discourage people from arriving by boat. Federal-funded services for new arrivals, such as language classes and resource centres, are expanded;

1981: The government introduces a resettlement programme for people who are not strictly refugees under the UN convention. The Special Humanitarian Programme provides resettlement for people living outside their home country who are subjected to human rights violations and who have family or community ties to Australia;

11 March 1983: Australian Labor Party (ALP) leader Bob Hawke becomes the 23rd prime minister;

1983: The Hawke government endorses UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) proposal for the Indochinese refugee situation: voluntary repatriation; social integration in the country of first asylum; and as only the last resort, resettlement in third countries such as Australia;

June 1989: Australia and 77 other countries endorse a new regional approach, the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees. It requires the first asylum countries in Southeast Asia to grant temporary refugee status to all asylum-seekers before screening them against internationally recognized criteria for refugees. Those accepted as refugees are resettled in third countries;

November 1989: Second wave of boat arrivals begins. An average of 300 people per year, mostly from Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China, arrive in Australia over the next nine years;

20 December 1991: ALP leader Paul Keating becomes 24th prime minister;

6 May 1992: Mandatory detention is introduced for non-citizens arriving to Australia without a visa;

1 September 1994: Mandatory detention is broadened, under the Migration Reform Act 1992;

11 March 1996: Conservative leader John Howard becomes 25th prime minister;

1999: Third wave of asylum seekers, mostly from the Middle East, begins arriving in larger numbers and usually with help from smugglers;

The wife of a fisherman, this woman is still awaiting news on the fate of her husband who was lost at sea on 14 March 2011 following a storm

Lynn Maung/IRIN
The wife of a fisherman, this woman is still awaiting news on the fate of her husband who was lost at sea on 14 March 2011 following a storm
Monday, April 25, 2011
Early warning system needed for fishermen
The wife of a fisherman, this woman is still awaiting news on the fate of her husband who was lost at sea on 14 March 2011 following a storm

Photo: Lynn Maung/IRIN
Most refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia are from Myanmar

13 October: Refugees who arrive in Australia without authorization can no longer apply for permanent residency. Instead, they are granted temporary protection visas (TPVs) valid for three years, and then must apply for refugee status again. TPVs, which provide less access to government services, are criticized as creating two classes of refugees;

February and June 2000: Protests at Curtin and Woomera detention centres over slow processing and poor conditions. In 2001, protests and violence occur at Port Hedland and Curtin detention centres, while detainees escape from Villawood detention centre;

26 August 2001: Canberra denies permission for a Norwegian cargo ship – the MV Tampa – carrying 438 mainly-Afghan refugees it rescued, to enter Australian waters, prompting international condemnation. Most of the refugees are eventually taken to detention camps on Nauru, in what would become known as “The Pacific Solution”;

27 September: The controversial Pacific Solution is introduced by the Howard government. It excises Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef, Cartier Island and Cocos Islands from the migration zone, meaning unauthorized arrivals at these places can no longer apply for a refugee protection visa. Australian authorities have increased powers to intercept and refuse boats carrying asylum-seekers to Australian waters. After interception, asylum-seekers can be taken to processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea;

6 October: A boat carrying 223 passengers and crew sinks after Australian officials try to turn it back to Indonesia. It becomes known as the “children overboard” affair when the government falsely claims that refugees, in an attempt to persuade officials to bring them to Australia, were throwing infants into the water. A Senate Select Committee later finds that “deliberate deception motivated by political expedience” was a factor in the fabrication of the story;

19 October: An Indonesian fishing boat carrying mostly Iraqis and Afghans sinks en route to Australia, killing 353 passengers including 146 children;

24 January 2002: Government lifts a freeze on processing applications from about 2,000 Afghans seeking asylum, after riots and protests that include hunger strikes and detainees sewing their lips together;

24 October: A UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention strongly criticizes Australian detention centres, citing concern over indefinite detention, prison-like conditions, and no real access to court challenges;

May 2004: The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission publishes a report criticizing mandatory detention of children without valid visas; 

6 August: The High Court rules that detention of non-citizens is lawful whether detention conditions are harsh or inhumane. The court also rules that failed asylum-seekers with nowhere to go and who pose no danger can be kept in detention indefinitely;

29 June 2005: The Migration Amendment Act 2005 becomes effective. While preserving the principle of mandatory detention, changes include the release of families with children into community detention arrangements and an extension of the immigration minister’s discretionary power to grant visas;

3 December 2007: Kevin Rudd, leader of the ALP, becomes 26th prime minister.

8 February 2008: Pacific Solution formally ends, with the departure of the last refugees detained in an offshore processing centre on Naura. The Rudd government calls the Pacific Solution “cynical, costly, and ultimately unsuccessful”;

13 May: TPVs are abolished, with the immigration minister calling them punitive and ineffective at preventing unauthorized boat arrivals;

22 May: The UN Committee Against Torture praises the end of the Pacific Solution but calls for an end to mandatory detention; 

29 July: Government announces the overhaul of mandatory detention. The new policy, which was not passed into law, stipulates that people will be detained long term only as a last resort, and children will not be held in immigration detention centres. (Despite the changes, 25 percent of the detainees, as of 3 December 2010, had been detained for between three and six months, and 40 percent for between six and 12 months, according to government figures);

16 April 2009: Five Afghan refugees are killed, and dozens injured, when their boat (SIEV 36) explodes near Christmas Island after an act of sabotage;


David Swanson/IRIN
A young Rohingya man at the Kutupalong stands before one of a number of shelters now being replaced at the government-run camp.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
UNHCR concerned over treatment of Rohingya boat people
A young Rohingya man at the Kutupalong stands before one of a number of shelters now being replaced at the government-run camp.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Many Rohingya have made their way to Australia

8 September: Parliament votes to end detention fees for refugees. Previously, detainees were expected to pay back about US$100 a day;

10 October: Indonesian authorities intercept a boat with more than 250 Sri Lankan Tamils at the request of Australian authorities. A six-month stand-off ensues at the Indonesian port of Merak after they refuse to disembark;

18 October: Australian vessel, the Oceanic Viking, rescues 78 Sri Lankan Tamils and tries to take them to an Indonesian detention centre. The men refuse to leave the ship for a month, sparking a stand-off with Indonesia;

9 April 2010: Government suspends processing of asylum applications from Sri Lanka for three months and Afghanistan for six months. The backlog puts pressure on the immigration detention system;

24 June: Julia Gillard, leader of the ALP, becomes 27th prime minister;

6 July: Gillard announces the ALP government’s intention to build a regional protection framework in the Asia-Pacific, which includes establishing a processing centre in Timor-Leste;

15 December: The SIEV 221 goes aground off the coast of Christmas Island. Up to 50 asylum-seekers drown and 42 people are rescued;

7 January 2011: Government announces changes to the refugee determination system for asylum-seekers who arrive in excised territories in response to a High Court decision. Now, failed asylum-seekers have access to legal review when there is a legal reasoning error or denial of procedural fairness. Unlike those who arrive on the mainland, they still lack access to the Refugee Review Tribunal or the mainland status determination process;

17 January 2011: Australia, Afghanistan and UNHCR sign Memorandum of Understanding allowing for failed Afghan asylum-seekers to be involuntarily returned home;

18 March: The Australian Federal Police take control of a Christmas Island detention centre after a week of protests, rioting and escapes. The unrest is sparked by frustration over slow processing and long stints in detention;

April: In detention centres across Australia, there are protests, hunger strikes, and unrest over spikes in long-term detention. The immigration minister proposes changes to the Migration Act, so that any detainee convicted of a crime would be denied permanent protection on character grounds (currently the conviction must involve a sentence of 12 months or longer);

25 July: In what is dubbed the Malaysia Solution, the government signs a deal with Malaysia to exchange the next 800 refugees it would receive by boat for 4,000 refugees, mostly Burmese, in Malaysia;

19 August: Canberra signs Memorandum of Understanding to re-open a new refugee processing centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island;

31 August: The High Court stops the Malaysian Solution, declaring the proposal invalid in a six to one decision. The court finds that certain legal protections required under the Migration Act are not in place in Malaysia, and therefore offshore processing cannot occur;

12 September: Government announces it will introduce legislation to Parliament amending the Migration Act, so that the Malaysian refugee swap can go ahead.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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