Policy Check: Labor And The Coalition’s Refugee Policies Are Virtually Identical, And Both Awful

The Greens are the only party to oppose offshore detention.

election 2022 refugee policy

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The first leaders’ debate of the 2022 election campaign kicked off on Wednesday night, and the topic of asylum seeker policies has been thrust back into the spotlight once again.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese took to the stage in Brisbane on Wednesday night to answer questions from undecided voters as we enter the final month of the election campaign.

One of many topics discussed was each party’s policy on asylum seekers and refugees. So, let’s take a deep dive into each major party’s policy.

The Coalition

The Coalition’s policy on asylum seekers is known as Operation Sovereign Borders. It’s a military-led operation that was first proposed by Tony Abbott in 2013 and was enacted when the Coalition took government. At its crux, Operation Sovereign Borders is a “stop the boats” policy.

“Anyone who attempts an illegal maritime journey to Australia will be turned back, or taken to Nauru for processing. They will never settle in Australia,” Homes Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said last year.

Interestingly, Scott Morrison was actually the immigration minister when the notoriously awful asylum seeker policy was first cooked up — which explains his laser-cut “I stopped these” boat trophy that sits on his desk.

According to the government’s policy document on OSB, the key objectives were to:

  • Hold asylum seekers in offshore detention centres (Nauru and Manus Island) while processing refugee claims.
  • Turn back the boats “where it is safe to do so.”
  • Reintroduce temporary protection visas for refugees.

The policy has long been criticised for violating human rights, with the Manus Island detention centre literally being shut down after being found to be unconstitutional. According to the UN, the current system is in violation of the convention against torture, with an international criminal court prosecutor labelling it “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

And just last year, the UN human rights council criticised the policy for its secrecy over “on water matters” for making it virtually impossible to know what the military was actually doing when intercepting boats at sea.

“So what measures of coercion are being deployed against them by Australian officers to convince them to simply turn around and go back to Indonesia?” senior research fellow at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Madeline Gleeson said in a UN forum submission last year. “We have seen reports that Australian officials paid smugglers to take people back –which, if true, would appear to involve serious breaches of both Australian and international law.

“But what else is occurring in the seas north and west of Australia?”

So, TL;DR? The Coalition’s policy is so bad that it breaks international law.


On Tuesday, Shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally confirmed that Labor “completely supports Operation Sovereign Borders — offshore processing, regional resettlement and boat turnbacks where safe to do so”.

“No one who has attempted to come by boat since the operation of Sovereign Borders will be allowed to settle in Australia,” said Keneally.

A tweet echoing the same sentiment was quickly ridiculed on social media on Wednesday.

The only real thing Labor doesn’t support is temporary protection visas (TVPs), which has been grounds for a fair bit of back and forth between Labor and Liberal. As the name suggests, TPVs are a type of visa given to people who arrive in Australia without a visa, but are owed protection. These visas can last up to 3 years and allow the visa holder to work, access medical care and live in Australia temporarily.

Keneally said this week that TPVs aren’t needed anymore because everyone coming to Australia by boat “will be turned back or sent to Nauru”.

“Nobody has gone on a temporary protection visa who has attempted to come by boat since the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders,” Keneally told ABC’s Radio National on Thursday. “The only people in Australia on TPVs came under the Liberal and Labor government before the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders. They’ve been living in the country for more than a decade: they live, they work, they pay taxes, they employ Australians.”

TL;DR? We’re splitting hairs if we’re talking about the difference between Labor and the Coalition’s refugee stance.

The Greens

The Greens’ policy, on the other hand, hinges on the idea that Australia has a duty to uphold its humanitarian and legal obligations. Specifically, The Greens note that seeking asylum is a human right and — as such — the issue is fundamentally humanitarian, rather than a border security issue.

The Greens also oppose “arbitrary detention of refugees”, calling it “a gross violation of human rights”.

In its policy document, The Greens explicitly call for “the elimination of mandatory and indefinite detention, and the abolition of offshore processing (where a person seeking asylum, refugee or special category visa holder is returned from Australian territory to another nation to be assessed) and other forms of punitive or discriminatory treatment”.

Immigration Spokesperson Senator Nick McKim criticised both Labor and the Liberal Party for their recent comments. “Labor has long been in lockstep with the Liberals when it comes to offshore detention and turning boats back at sea. But now they have even dropped the pretence of caring,” said McKim. “If it wasn’t clear before, we now know without doubt there is a bipartisan policy of brutalising, dehumanising and torturing innocent people, and forcing people back into danger in violation of international human rights law.

“The last ten years has been one of the darkest and bloodiest chapters in our country’s story, and it is time to write the ending.”

Photo Credits: Martin Ollman/Getty Images, Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images, Robert Cianflone/Getty Images