Immigration authorities were warned the government’s high success rate for refugee claims was acting as a “major pull factor” that encouraged boatpeople to make the voyage to Australia. Senior government sources have told The Australian the government was warned to brace for an influx of between 5000 and 10,000 boatpeople this year.
It is understood the government was told, before it announced its freeze on new asylum claims, that Australia’s success rate for claims was “out of whack” with the rest of the world and was encouraging people-smugglers.
In the early part of this year, the “recognition rate”, or success rate, for Afghan asylum-seekers was above 90 per cent. Senior government sources have told The Australian that the warning was contained in a document sent to the Rudd government prior to April 9, when it froze new Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum claims.
“It said our recognition rates were completely out of whack and this was a major pull factor,” a senior government source familiar with the advice told The Australian.
Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have vowed to get tough on border security, with both promising to open offshore processing centres in third countries if they win the election.
Since the boats began arriving in late 2008, the government has consistently blamed instability abroad as the main cause of the surge. In October, Kevin Rudd blamed “huge push factors” in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka for the rush of boats. “Countries around the world are dealing with the same challenge,” Mr Rudd said.
But the warning is the clearest evidence yet that domestic policies have been a major factor in pulling boats to Australia’s shores.
It also suggests that for months, government agencies have been working at cross purposes, with the Immigration Department contributing to the very problem other agencies, such as the Australian Federal Police and the Customs Service and Border Protection Command, have been working to curtail.
The document compared Australia’s recognition rate, or success rate for new refugee claims, with those of the US, Canada and particularly Europe.
It concluded Australia was running an exceptionally generous refugee program that was acting as a magnet for boatpeople. “A lot of work was done on (the document),” the government source told The Australian.
It is understood that, while the document warned about the high approval levels, it did not explicitly recommend a cut to the rate. “Essentially, what it was about was that we need to address this by providing to decision-makers better advice, more accurate advice,” the source said.
Up until six months ago the success rate for Afghan asylum-seekers, who have made up more than half the total number of unauthorised boat arrivals since late 2008, was 95 per cent. It has since fallen to 30 per cent. The drop has left most Afghanistan country experts baffled as they say it has not been matched by a corresponding improvement in security.
The source said official government estimates had predicted between 5000 and 10,000 unauthorised boat arrivals this year. So far, 4067 asylum-seekers and crew have arrived in Australia by boat this year. On current trends, 2010 will set a new record for boat arrivals, eclipsing the 5516 asylum-seekers who arrived in 2001, the year of the Tampa crisis.
The government advice appears to have been acted on, with the success rate falling rapidly since the beginning of the year.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the Howard government also recognised Afghan asylum claims at rates of around 95 per cent from 1998-99 to 2000-01.
But he said last month the Afghan refusal rate exceeded 70 per cent. “If upheld at review, this increasing rate of refusals will result in many more people being returned to their homeland,” the spokesman said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the document, saying it did not discuss advice sent to ministers. And last night a spokesman for the Immigration Department said it would not discuss “advice or interdepartmental information-sharing”. “Having said that, this in no way confirms the claims made or that such a document exists,” a spokesman said.
However, The Australian has been told high recognition rates have been an issue within government for some time, with those responsible for border security arguing they are acting as a magnet.
The plummeting refugee success rate has coincided with the government’s announcement in April that it was freezing new asylum claims in order to assess evolving circumstances in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. But the extent of the drop, as well as its timing, has given rise to wider questions about the integrity of what is supposed to be an objective refugee selection process.
Refugee Council president John Gibson told The Australian last week there was no way the current success rate reflected the current conditions in Afghanistan. “In terms of Afghans, there is a question mark over the integrity of the process,” Mr Gibson said.
Some sources in the refugee sector have suggested the government was approving refugee claims at high rates to avoid a bottleneck in the Christmas Island detention centre.
In April, the Rudd government belatedly announced it would be forced to transfer people to centres on the mainland, because of chronic overcrowding on Christmas Island, which had been expanded from its original capacity of 400 people to about 2500.
In comments sent to The Australian last week, Immigration Department secretary Andrew Metcalfe “categorically denied” claims the high success rate was driven by a desire to move people quickly through the Christmas Island detention centre, or that it was subject to political interference.
“Any such suggestions are baseless and totally without foundation,” Mr Metcalfe said.
He said new country information for Afghanistan had been prepared in February. But the department has refused to release the updated country information it is using as the basis of the tougher assessments, despite promising to do so in April.
The Department maintains it will release its guidance notes for Afghanistan when they have been “finalised”. Afghans are easily the largest category of asylum-seekers to arrive in Australia. Immigration Department figures show more than 3797 Afghans have arrived since the current surge in boat arrivals began in late 2008.