Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


October 2011, Volume 18, Number 4

Australia: Asylum, Immigration

Australia and Malaysia in July 2011 signed an agreement under which up to 800 migrants who arrive illegally in Australia by boat after July 28, 2011 would be sent to Malaysia, where the UNHCR was to evaluate their asylum applications. In return, Australia would provide Malaysia with $316 million and accept 4,000 UNHCR-certified refugees now in Malaysia over the next four years.

In August 2011, the Australian High Court in a 6-1 decision blocked the Australia-Malaysia refugee swap. The government said it may send asylum applicants who arrive by boat to other Asian or Pacific nations.

Malaysia, which has not signed the 1951 refugee convention, had 94,000 UNHCR-certified refugees in mid-2011. The 800 asylum seekers sent to Malaysia from Australia, most from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, would have had more rights than the UNHCR-certified refugees in Malaysia, including work permits and access to education and health care.

The purpose of the Australia-Malaysia refugee swap was to deter the smuggling of Middle Easterners into Australia; some 6,535 foreigners arrived by boat in 2010, up from 161 in 2008. The Australian government said that, since the refugee swap was announced in May 2011, the number of foreigners trying to reach Australia by boat to apply for asylum has dropped.

The New York Times profiled the three major multinationals that operate detention centers for foreigners detained while their asylum applications are pending and before deportation. G4S, GEO Group, and Serco operate detention centers in Australia, Europe, and the US; Serco operates many of Australia's centers. Migrant advocates charge that these profit-making firms benefit from locking up more foreigners for longer periods.

Immigration. Australia planned to admit 168,700 immigrants in 2010-11, about the same as 2009-10 and 2008-09. Two-thirds of immigrants to Australia arrive via the skill stream, because someone in the household obtained enough points on a test that awards points for knowledge of English, education, and work experience in shortage occupations. Would-be immigrants can also obtain points if they promise to settle in regional (rural) Australia.

In recent years, about 20 percent of immigrants to Australia were born in New Zealand, 14 percent in the UK, and 10 percent each born in India and China. Some business leaders, including the Australian-born CEO of Dow Chemical, say that the government should make it easier for foreign students who earn advanced degrees in advanced degrees, science, technology, engineering and math to remain in Australia. He said that allowing foreign graduates to stay would "attract manufacturers who will employ our blue-collar workforce and train that workforce to do advanced robotics, and to do advanced materials."

Australia had 22.5 million residents in mid-2011. Over half of the 300,000 to 400,000 annual increase is the result of net immigration.

Nina Bernstein, "Getting Tough on Immigrants to Turn a Profit," New York Times, September 29, 2011. Matt Siegel, "Plan to Deal With Seekers of Asylum Roils Australia," New York Times, August 11, 2011.