Factbox: A recent history of asylum seeker policy

Key changes to Australia's asylum seeker policy in 2012 have their roots in recent political history, writes Amanda Cavill.

Key changes to Australia's asylum seeker policy in 2012 have their roots in recent political history.

Mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia was established in 1992 by the Paul Keating Labor government .

The legislation was proposed as a result of an influx of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodian refugees over the few years prior to 1992.

The legislation specifically disallowed judicial review, but did impose a 273 day limit on detention.

But it was the Liberal government of Prime Minister John Howard that radically changed the face of Australia's Immigration policy.

Amanda Cavill reports.

On 2001 the Norwegian ship The Tampa had rescued a group of asylum seekers from their leaky boat and its captain was determined to bring them to Australia.

John Howard was equally determined to prevent him from doing so.

And so the Pacific solution was born.

Mandatory detention of asylum seekers was popular with sections of the Australian electorate.

When John Howard launched the 2001 election campaign he placed asylum seekers squarely on the agenda.

"This campaign more than any other that I have been involved in, is very much about the future of the Australia we know and the Australia we love so much. It is also about having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders. It's about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open hearted people taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any country except Canada. We have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."

Under the Pacific Solution many islands were excised from Australia's migration zone, and asylum seekers were removed to third countries in order to determine their refugee status.

A system of temporary protection visas for unauthorised arrivals was also established and a policy of turning back boats where possible was instigated.

A bill was also introduced into the parliament which provided the government with the power to remove any ship in the territorial waters of Australia and guaranteed that no asylum applications could be made by people on board the ship.

Another bill reinforced the practice of mandatory detention, providing for the indefinite detention of asylum seekers.

These policies were passed with the support of the Labor opposition.

Immigration detainees were held in one of the Australian immigration detention facilities on the Australian mainland, or on Manus Island or Nauru as part of the Pacific Solution.

In 2001, 43 boats arrived carrying 5,516 people.

In the following year, after the installation of the Pacific Solution, one boat arrived, bearing one passenger.

Human Rights lawyer Julian Burnside, just one of many vocal critics of the regime at the time, said in 2002 he was hopeful that public attitudes would change.

"I think one you persuade individual members of society, enough of them, what's going on, force them to face the fact. Then it may be that their attitude alters. I think there is already a shift in people's attitudes over the last 12 months. Maybe I am deluding myself. Maybe I just need to believe that to keep going. But once it approaches 50 per cent then there will be a flash of moral insight and both major parties will dismiss the past as a terrible mistake and start doing things properly. I hope."

And upon the election of the Labor government in 2007 it looked as if at least some of his hopes were to be realised.

The government announced a decision to dismantle the asylum seeker offshore processing system.

The Immigration Minister Chris Evans said it was time for a change.

I believe these reforms will fundamentally change the premise underlying detention policy. Currently persons who are unlawful may be detained even though the departmental assessment is that they pose no risk to the community. That detention may be prolonged Currently detention is too often the first option not the last."

By the beginning of 2012 the cost of managing asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat blew a billion dollar hole in the federal budget, forcing the government to ask parliament to approve extra funding.

But the boats kept coming and asylum seekers continued to drown on the dangerous journey.

The opposition said the only way to solve the problem was to bring back the Pacific solution.

Opposition's Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison.

"I mean we have a three legged stool, a three legged stool of temporary protection visas, turning boats back where it's safe to do and Nauru. This government is sitting on a one legged stool with this policy and the Australia people and the government should not be surprised when they fall over."

Midway through the year government appointed an expert panel to advise it on the best way to stop the boats.

The panel made 22 recommendations, all of which the government pledged to adopt, including increasing the humanitarian intake to 20 thousand an increase of around six thousand people and offshore processing of asylum seekers.

Laws to reinstate offshore processing passed through parliament late in the year after the federal opposition agreed to support them.

The legislation reinstated asylum seeker processing on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea where, under the new laws, asylum seekers can be held for many years under the no advantage test.

That test ensures no asylum seeker arriving by boat can be granted asylum in less time than those waiting for processing in third countries.

Ms Gillard told parliament Australians wanted a solution.

"Clearly the Australian people want to see us act. They are over listening to the yelling and shouting of politicians about this matter - they want to see change, and we can see change this week in the legislation and then act on that change as early as Friday."

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare insisted the policy was not a return to the Howard government's Pacific Solution of overseas processing, which Labor once called costly, unsustainable, and wrong.

"This is much broader than what people describe as the Pacific Solution. There are a couple of key differences. One is independent oversight at Manus and Nauru. The other key difference is we are doubling the number of refugees that Australia will take. So it's an integrated package. It involves incentives and disincentives. The Pacific Solution never involved doubling the number of refugees Australia would take. This does."

At years' end the Federal Government has been forced to deny its policies to combat people-smuggling have failed.

More than eight thousand asylum seekers have arrived since August.

This has seen capacity in Pacific camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea exceeded, forcing the government to expand processing on the mainland and to allow asylum seekers into the community on bridging visas.

Both parties are taking a purely political approach to the issue and the asylum debate has been loud and rancorous.

Each side claims that their solution is the better approach - when in fact there's little difference between them.

Source SBS

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