Tony Burke Inherits Labor's Refugee Mess


In the transition from opposition to government Labor has taken a pronounced leap into conservative territory on several issues — but none more so than asylum seekers. They have concluded that there are more votes in the “hard bastard” approach than in showing compassion and tolerance.

Labor is unabashed about this shift. Within a couple of hours of Rudd II's installation last week, Foreign Minister Bob Carr, playing the role of de facto Immigration Minister, told the ABC’s Lateline program that he was convinced most asylum seekers to this country were economic migrants.

This statement is contradicted by Immigration Department figures, which show at least 90 per cent of people who come here seeking asylum from persecution are judged to have legitimate claims.

This appears to be of no concern to Carr, who presented no evidence to justify his claim that the vast majority of asylum seekers were economic migrants. Rather he blamed the umpires and said he would shift the goal posts to make it harder for refugees to prove they are fleeing persecution.

“The evidence before us is that they are economic refugees, not people fleeing persecution and are being brought here by people smugglers,” he told the Senate last week, declining to explain how the Immigration Department has got it so wrong.

Carr’s unequivocal statements indicate the Rudd Government has decided refugees are fair game. Its new Immigration Minister, Tony Burke, will no doubt be required to follow this path laid out so definitively by Carr.

Again, as with three previous Labor immigration ministers, Chris Evans, Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor, Burke will have to present a case almost diametrically opposed to the one he presented in Opposition.

Burke was the Shadow Immigration Minister for Immigration from June 2005 until the election in late 2007 that saw the Rudd Government come to power.

It is instructive to look back to 2007, a few months before the election, when he wrote to the “Buddies Refugee Support Group” on the Sunshine Coast to assuage their concerns.

In the letter he makes a number of worthwhile points:

“Labor believes that the detention of asylum seekers should only be used for health, security and background checks. Detention should never be indefinite…”
“A Labor Government would ensure that claims for asylum are processed within 90 days…”
“Labor is adamant that any claims for asylum from individuals from any country must be processed fairly, independently and free from any political or diplomatic interference…”
“The Howard Government’s use of Nauru as an immigration detention centre is not only a waste of money, it is inhumane. Labor would close the Australian detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island…”

Let us also look at what we have now, as opposed to what was promised by Burke.

  • DIAC figures from 30 April 2013 record a total of 8797 people in immigration detention, with record 5178 people people in immigration detention centres with thousands more in alternative places of detention. More recent figures indicate that 1852 children are in closed facilities. It has also kept over 50 refugees indefinitely detained because of secret ASIO reports, many for more than three years.
  • The “no-advantage” policy has meant that processing has deliberately stalled. There are now 20,000 people, including thousands in community detention, who have been waiting since August last year to have their claims assessed.
  • Carr is content to interfere politically in the processing regime; he said the Rudd Government would be changing the way the Immigration Department judges the claims.
  • Labor reopened Nauru in August last year, along with Manus Island, as part of its “no-advantage” policy.

In the same letter, Burke hailed the Labor Party’s national conference decision in 2007 to withdraw support for Howard’s Temporary Protection Visas. “This change was adopted in pursuance of a very simple principle; that when people fleeing persecution reach Australia, that persecution must end,” he wrote.

Burke finished a speech to a fundraising dinner for Labor For Refugees on 29 July 2007, with the words “The day you arrive in Australia is the day your persecution ends”. He now inherits a policy that declares the day you arrive in Australia is the day your persecution continues.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.