Australia asylum: Why is it controversial?

Boat of asylum seekers off Christmas Island (June 2012) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Hundreds have died trying to reach Australia in inadequate and overcrowded boats

Australia's policy on asylum seekers has come under intense scrutiny. The BBC explains why.

Does Australia get a lot of asylum seekers?

UNHCR's Asylum Trends 2014 report said Australia received 8,960 asylum applications in 2014 - about 1% of all applications made globally in 2014.

That number was a drop from 2013, when Australia received 11,740 applications, according to UN figures. Figures from 2015 have not yet been released.

Australia's policy towards asylum seekers arriving by boat has attracted the most attention.

Asylum seekers have attempted to reach Australia on boats from Indonesia, often paying large sums of money to people smugglers. Hundreds have died making the dangerous journey.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Asylum seekers have been sent back in lifeboats

Australian government statistics show that between 2012 and 2013 more than 18,000 people arrived in Australia illegally by sea, compared to just 7,300 between 2011 and 2012.

However, the numbers arriving by sea plunged after the government introduced tough new policies, including the towing back of boats. A boat almost reached the Australian territory of Christmas Island in November 2015 - this was the first boat to make it to Australian waters since June 2015, the government said.

So why does Australia have tough asylum policies?

Australia's two leading political parties, the ruling Liberal-National coalition and the Labor opposition, both support tough asylum policies.

They say the journey the asylum seekers make is dangerous and controlled by criminal gangs, and they have a duty to stop it.

The coalition government made Australia's asylum policy even tougher, when it took power in 2013, introducing Operation Sovereign Borders, which put the military in control of asylum operations.

Under this policy military vessels patrol Australian waters and intercept migrant boats, towing them back to Indonesia or sending asylum seekers back in inflatable dinghies or lifeboats.

The government says its policies have restored the integrity of its borders, and helped prevent deaths at sea.

However, critics say opposition to asylum is often racially motivated and is damaging Australia's reputation.

Australia granted close to 13,800 refugee visas between 2013 and 2014. It granted about 20,000 visas between 2012 and 2013.

What's the deal with offshore processing?

Image copyright Handout
Image caption The camps on PNG and Nauru are controversial, with activists condemning living conditions

When asylum seekers reach Australia by boat, they are not held in Australia while their claims are processed.

Instead, they are sent to an offshore processing centre. Currently Australia has one such centre on the Pacific island nation of Nauru and another on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Even if these asylum seekers are found to be refugees, they are not allowed to be settled in Australia. They may be settled in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, and four were settled in Cambodia at a reported cost of A$55m (£28m, $42m).

Rights group say conditions in the PNG and Nauru camps are totally inadequate, citing poor hygiene, cramped conditions, unrelenting heat and a lack of facilities.

They say these conditions are causing physical and mental health issues among detainees.

On 26 April an Iranian man at the Nauru detention centre set himself on fire to protest against the conditions. He subsequently died in hospital. Numerous reports have indicated detainees suffer mental illness and are likely to harm themselves.

In 2015, the government passed legislation making it illegal for employees at detention centres to disclose information about the camps to the media. The law was criticised by workers and rights groups - although MPs said staff would still be protected by whistleblower protection laws.

It is extremely difficult for journalists to get visas to the detention centres. However, the BBC travelled undercover to Manus Island in June of 2015 and spoke to residents and a refugee on the island.

Manus Island closure: What happens next?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sri Lanka charged asylum seekers sent back by Australia with leaving the country illegally

Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court ruled in April that restricting the movement of asylum seekers who have committed no crime was unconstitutional. The country's prime minister has since demanded that Australia shut down the centre.

But Australia is not prepared to accept the 850 men held in the centre and it is not clear where they will be taken. Complicating matters is the prospect of an early election in Australia - if the prime minister dissolves parliament, the government will be unable to create legislation to relocate the detainees.

They could be housed on Nauru, which says it has additional room. Or they could be taken to the Australian territory of Christmas Island, where there is an existing detention centre.

What next for Manus Island asylum seekers?

The likely closure of Manus Island will make asylum seekers a hot topic again in any election. The Greens and some Labor MPs are already calling on the government to admit its policies are a failure. But "stopping the boats" is one of the government's big successes, so an election focus on asylum seekers will benefit the coalition. Australia's hard-line on immigration is unlikely to change any time soon.

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