Mike Pezzullo rejects claims plane arrivals seeking asylum is at ‘crisis’ levels

Secretary of the Home Affairs Department Mike Pezzullo appears before a Senate Estimates hearing at Parliament House in Canberra. Source: AAP

The Department of Home Affairs Secretary has downplayed concerns over aeroplane arrivals seeking asylum in Australia, saying a tougher response could place onerous restrictions on visa applicants.

The head of the Department of Home Affairs has rejected claims the number of aeroplane arrivals seeking asylum is an urgent threat declaring: "this is not a border crisis".

Labor's home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally has repeatedly attempted to cast the more than 95,000 people who have arrived by plane seeking asylum over the past five years, as a sign the Coalition is losing control of Australia's borders.

But Department of Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo warned any crackdown on these arrivals could be counter-effective, saying it wouldn't be worth taking steps to enforce a tougher response.

Secretary of the Home Affairs Department Mike Pezzullo.
Secretary of the Home Affairs Department Mike Pezzullo.

“I’ve dealt with a border crisis. This is not a border crisis, I can ­assure you,” Mr Pezzullo told Senate estimates on Monday. 

Mr Pezzullo cited the thousands of boat arrivals and deaths at sea in his rejection that the aeroplane arrivals did not equate to what Senator Keneally’s argues is a crisis.

“The marginal gain that you would achieve in tapping that number down by putting onerous restrictions in terms of students, tourists, visitor visas and the like would be completely disproportionate to the gains that you end up getting,” he said.

“You end up creating so many disincentives in terms of tourist, visitor visa, student categories, that the pain would not be worth the effort.”

Senator Keneally has asked the public to judge the situation for themselves, raising fears over the exploitation of those coming to Australia seeking asylum.

“In Estimates Home Affairs Secretary Pezzullo said there’s ‘no crisis’ here – you be the judge,” she said.

“90 per cent aren’t refugees, but they aren’t turned around at airports … they get low pay … and they are being exploited, some trafficked like slaves.”    

Secretary Pezzullo insisted that only 0.23 per cent of people who came to Australia by air between 2014-15 and 2018-19 had claimed asylum.

He said there had been 40 million arrivals during this period, with more than 92,000 claiming asylum.

Mr Pezzullo said that other countries were envious of Australia’s immigration system and border protection track record, referencing a scene in the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.

"Frankly the reaction we get is the Meg Ryan reaction: 'We'll have what they're having'," Mr Pezzullo said.

Labor Senator Kristina Keneally at a Senate Estimates hearing at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday,
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally at a Senate Estimates hearing at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday,

Senator Keneally questioned this, pointing to a June report from the US State Department reviewing Australia's border screening processes.

 "[Australia] did not convict any traffickers, initiated fewer prosecutions, did not adequately screen for indicators of trafficking among vulnerable groups and limited some victims' access to services based on their participation in law enforcement investigations," the report said.

She also cited a statement from Liberal MP Jason Wood in a Senate report stating that organised crime and illegitimate labour companies are using the asylum claims as a 'loophole' in the immigration system to bring out illegal workers vulnerable to exploitation.

But Mr Pezzullo downplayed concerns over the threat of orchestrated attempts to traffic human labour through the immigration system.  

“We do see opportunistic attempts to … claim asylum after border arrival … [but] we do not see the scale of organised trafficking that leads to slavery, slavery-like conditions and labour exploitation, on the scale that is present in the media commentary,” he said.

“Do we see opportunistic attempts to depress wages and hold people in apprehension about their visa occasions? Yes, on occasion.

“Do we see the global human trafficking that sees Australia as a light touch that can easily penetrate all the border defences I described earlier? No we don’t.

“In the cases that it does occur it is despicable - it is abhorrent.”

The estimates hearing heard that the number of arrivals by plane seeking asylum had decreased in 2018-19 compared to the previous period.

This figure stood at 24,520 asylum seeker in 2018-19, down from 27,900 the previous year.

More than 84 per cent of the 95,000 asylum seekers who have come to Australia by air were found not to have made valid refugee claims. 

With AAP

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