Explore the history of Australia's asylum seeker policy

Australia has earned a global reputation for being tough on asylum seekers with its policies on turning asylum boats around and denying anyone who arrives by boat the right to resettle here.

The measures have been criticised by human rights organisations as inhumane, but Prime Minister Tony Abbot maintains the policies are working and his government has “stopped the boats”.

Since the Keating Government introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers in 1992, successive governments have grappled with the contentious, often emotive issue of what do to do about asylum boats trying to reach Australia.

Explore where Australia's asylum seeker policy currently stands and how we got here.



At-a-glance: Australia's asylum seeker policy

Australia's asylum seeker policy has been “magnificently successful” Prime Minister Tony Abbott says.

“If you want to be critical of this government's border protection policies, go for your life,” Mr Abbott told media on July 21. 

“But by comparison to our predecessors, we have been magnificently successful and in being magnificently successful we have saved the lives of hundreds of people who might otherwise have been expected to drown at sea.”

Key points of the Abbott government's asylum-seeker policy:

  • Use of boat turn-backs to stop asylum-seekers from entering Australian waters

  • Offshore detention and processing: asylum-seekers transferred to centres on Nauru or PNG's Manus Island

  • No boat arrival resettlement in Australia policy: resettlement deals in place with countries such as Papua New Guinea and Cambodia

  • Tight control of information: government officials rarely comment on “on-water matters” with Tony Abbott saying that “we haven’t felt the need to broadcast what government is doing on a moment-by-moment basis.”

The government has also allocated tens of millions of dollars for campaigns to urge asylum seekers to avoid Australia, which have previously included a comic book

A panel from the graphic novel campaign by the federal government aimed at deterring asylum seekers.


A total of $39.9 million was allocated over four years for “anti-people smuggling strategic communications campaigns”, both in Australia and overseas, outlined in Joe Hockey's budget in May 2015.

The government launched the new Border Force two months later, which brings with it controversial new legislation requiring that "an entrusted person" must not disclose protected information about asylum seekers or their detention.

The launch of Border Force came as the first suspected asylum seeker boat to reach Australia in around 12 months was sighted off the Western Australian coast on July 20.

Those aboard - believed to be 42 Vietnamese men, women and children – were reportedly handed over to the Vietnamese Government by authorities. 

Other asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia have been detained in immigration facilities on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

As of May 31, there were a total of 943 and 634 detainees in the respective centres.

Australia’s asylum seeker policy has been criticised by advocacy groups and human rights organisations as draconian and inhumane.

Australian politicians from the Greens have also criticised government measures, but the Coalition has stood by its policies.

Speaking to SBS six months after the election of the Abbott Government, President of the Refugee Council of Australia Phil Glendenning said Australia would "live to regret" its treatment of asylum seekers.


Have the boats stopped?

Boat arrivals have remained one of the government’s primary policy focuses since coming to power on a strict border control platform.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s election slogan of “stop the boats” has since become policy, with no asylum seekers arriving by boat being settled in Australia.

Speaking to reporters on July 21, Mr Abbott said his policies had stopped the boats.

“People will not come to this country illegally by boat,” he said. “If by hook or by crook they actually get here, they will never get permanent residency.”

Historically the vast majority of asylum seekers coming to Australia have arrived by plane, but those that arrive by boat have higher associated costs and generate more media interest.

According to the National Commission of Audit report handed down in Canberra last year, the detention and processing of boat arrivals has been the “fastest growing government program”, increasing from $118.4 million to more than $3 billion in the four years to June 2014.

The report also noted the Abbott Government’s new measures, stating they “appear to have been effective in reducing arrival rates”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten revoiced his support for regional resettlement on July 22, but said his party had made mistakes when it came to dealing with asylum seekers arriving by boat. He said Labor, if elected, would continue the boat turn-back policy.

"I think it's clear that the combination of regional resettlement, with offshore processing, and also the turn back policy, is defeating people smugglers," he said.

“It's not easy, though, because it involves the admission, I think, that mistakes were made when Labor was last in government."


Timeline: Asylum seeker deaths at sea and on land

There have been hundreds of recorded deaths associated with Australia’s border policies in just the past 15 years.

The Australian Border Deaths Database, operated by Monash University, has recorded the deaths of people in immigration detention, en route to Australia and those turned back or deported to their home countries since 2000.

The death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati on Manus Island in February 2014 sparked a review into the violence at the detention centre.

Other deaths, such as the suicide of Sri Lankan man Leo Seemanpillai, have highlighted concerns for the mental health of asylum seekers.

Boat turn-backs: What we know

The Abbott Government has confirmed that authorities have turned back asylum seeker vessels en route to Australia, with the Navy both towing boats back into Indonesian waters and transferring asylum seekers into life boats.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has remained unapologetic over the hardline policy, saying “vigorous” action on the high seas was securing Australia’s border security.

"I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary. And if other countries choose to do that, frankly that is almost certainly absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten."

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in July 2015 voiced support for boat turn-backs, saying that it would form part of a policy to prevent deaths at sea.

“Labor, if we form a government, needs to have all the options on the table. We're committed to regional resettlement and that would include boat turn-backs as an option.”

There aren’t official figures on boat turn-backs and the details provided below rely primarily on reports by asylum seekers and Indonesian authorities. It should not be considered a complete list.

In June 2014, Australian authorities also intercepted and detained 157 Tamil asylum seekers on the high seas.

In documents provided to the High Court, the government said the asylum seekers were unable to leave the Australian vessel without permission from authorities while they were processed.

The High Court later found that the govenment had lawfully detained the asylum seekers, who were tranferred to Nauru after a month-long standoff.

The turnback policy has been met with mixed response in Australia and abroad, while Mr Abbott is yet to believe it has Labor’s full backing.

No one should have to do it: Go Back participants face turnback

The Australian government has confirmed the use of orange lifeboats in its turnback operations.

The pod-like vessels have been described as "highly survivable" by Customs officials, and asylum seekers have reportedly been shown how to operate them before being transferred into the vessels. 

In the latest series of Go Back To Where You Came From, participants were transferred into an orange lifeboat as part of turnback operations.

This episode will air on Wednesday, July 29.

Keating to Abbott: Timeline of Australia's asylum policies

The current era of immigration policy arguably began in 1992 when then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating first introduced the notion of mandatory detention.

His successor John Howard was responsible for the introduction of boat interceptions and offshore processing, two elements of tough immigration policies introduced in the wake of the "Tampa Affair" and the "Children Overboard" scandal.

Handout picture of some of the 438 asylum seekers onboard the Norwegian cargo ship MS Tampa on August 27, 2001. The boat people where rescued from their sinking ferry in international waters and remain onboard the ship which is anchored off Christmas Island. (AAP Image/Wallenius Wilhelmsen)


It was under the Howard Government that the rhetoric on asylum seekers ramped up, with the then Prime Minister's now famous quote during an election policy speech.

“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

The intensity of protests also increased both inside and outside detention centres amid disturbing reports of self-harm, including detainees at the now-closed Woomera detention centre in South Australia sewing their lips together.

The past decade has seen several backflips on policy, with Labor dismantling then reintroducing the Pacific Solution, and under Julia Gillard Labor controversially signed an asylum seeker transfer deal with Malaysia.

Please note, this timeline does not include all changes to Australia’s immigration laws.

I just want to run away: From Iraq to Australia

The human face of the asylum seeker debate was something largely ignored by the government in previous decades.

In the most recent series of Go Back To Where You Came From, participants meet with a Palestinian family settled in Australia.

The family had previously lived in Iraq - as some of the 5 million or so stateless Palestinians - before a death threat forced them to flee to a Syrian refugee camp.

This episode will air on Tuesday, July 28.

The numbers: Immigration detention in Australia

The Abbott Government has closed a number of immigration centres since coming to power in 2013.

The closures across Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia were estimated to save the government $280 million.

Eleven immigration detention facilities remain open across mainland Australia and Christmas Island.

Asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia have also been detained in immigration facilities on Manus Island and Nauru.

As of May 31, there were a total of 943 and 634 detainees in the respective centres.

Concerns over conditions inside the facility have been raised and one asylum seeker has died inside the Manus Island facility. Another was declared brain dead after suffering from septicaemia developed from a cut in his foot.

 Riots have also occurred in various detention centres, and there have been reports of sexual assault, and some detainees have held hunger strikes

An official complaint was lodged against the company formerly responsible for security at the Manus Island immigration detention centre, claiming serious human rights violations, while there have also been claims that the personal details of hundreds of detainees have been stolen.

Former staffers have also spoken out about the centres. 

In June, Labor joined with the Abbott Government to pass laws fixing a legal loophole in asylum seeker offshore processing.

The numbers: Immigration detention worldwide

Australia’s immigration detention policies have been widely criticised by human rights and advocacy groups, with Human Rights Watch describing them as “draconian” in its most recent report.

A complaint detailing serious human rights violations has previously been lodged against the multinational security contractor in charge of one centre, and the United Nations Refugee Agency has slammed Australia's treatment of asylum seekers as constituting arbitrary, mandatory and indefinite detention in unsafe and inhumane conditions.

Explore how we compare worldwide* 

*data via the Global Detention Project

A spokesman for the UNHCR said that by the end of 2014, Australia hosted nearly 0.26 per cent of the world’s refugees.

“It also received 1 per cent of new asylum applications in 44 industrialised countries,” he said.

Listen: Ron Sutton reports on Sweden's asylum seeker policies.

Compared to countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, Australia has a relatively small refugee intake for its population size.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Australia has approximately two refugees per 1000 inhabitants.