Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says the announcement of the now-failed Malaysia solution contributed to a recent drop in the number of asylum claims.
The United Nations refugee agency says just under 5,000 people sought asylum in Australia in the first half of this year – 19 per cent lower than a year ago.
The figures show Australia defied a global trend, with asylum applications in industrialised nations worldwide up 17 per cent.
Only Australia and the Nordic region of Europe recorded significant declines.
Speaking this morning, Mr Bowen said a number of factors were behind the drop in asylum applications.
“I think partly of course it’s the push factors – the return to more normal arrangements in Sri Lanka has resulted in a significant drop in the number of Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in Australia,” he said.
“I think the announcement of the Malaysia arrangement towards the end of that period has clearly had an effect. The tragic boat accident off Christmas Island had an effect.
“So I think that there’s always a range of factors which goes into determining these figures.”
The Malaysian deal only came up in May, very late in the first half of the year. Mr Bowen acknowledged it was not the only factor in the new figures.
“We’d seen a reduction all the way along and I think we also saw a further impact from the Malaysia announcement,” he said.
“I’m suggesting there are always a range of factors and this is no different.”
The Opposition had cast doubt on the Government’s explanation, pointing out the fall came off the back of a 70 per cent increase just before.
But Mr Bowen says the Opposition is simply “making things up as they go along”.
While the Government’s Malaysian solution looks for all purposes to be dead and buried, Mr Bowen stands by the policy’s potential effectiveness, saying the Opposition stood against it solely for political purposes.
“We’ve accepted as a matter of practical and legal reality that onshore processing is the only viable option in the light of the Opposition’s failure to pass legislation through the Parliament, despite the fact that their rhetoric and supposed position is they support offshore processing, they just won’t vote for it,” Mr Bowen said.
“But it’s perfectly appropriate and necessary for us to point out that that Malaysia arrangement and similar arrangements under a regional framework are absolutely vital in this field.
“Even [Liberal MP Phillip] Ruddock today has admitted that their policy would not work again if implemented.
“We saw advice from the Department of Immigration to estimates. We’d made that advice previously available to the Opposition very clearly.
“If you do want to see a deterrent for travelling to Australia by boat you need to have regional arrangements in place which mean that people gain no preferential treatment or benefit of resettlement out of taking a dangerous boat journey to Australia.
“That is actually what the Malaysia arrangement offered, that is exactly why it would’ve had a huge impact, and I suspect very strongly that is why the Opposition opposes it – because they don’t see it in their best interest politically for boat arrivals to fall.”
Mr Bowen said onshore processing was not the Government’s preferred way to deal with asylum seekers but promised the Government would try to make the policy work.
“Obviously we’ll do our best to make onshore processing work. Of course it will have impacts and we’ll make it work,” he said.
“We’ll do our best to make sure the arrangements apply effectively.”
He said it was likely many asylum seekers would be relocated to regional towns and cities, and bridging visas would be used to move people into country communities quickly.
“I’ll make further announcements about that in due course, but we’ll work with regional areas who have requests for resettlements to make sure they have the capacity to host those people.
“Bear in mind that some people in this situation will need care and support in relation to mental health and other issues and we need to make sure that all the appropriate arrangements are in place wherever they live.”
“But we’ll continue to point out that if you want to deal with this issue in a holistic way, if you want to bear in mind how Australia deals with the challenges of humanitarian settlement – 43 million people displaced around the world – that regional arrangements are absolutely vital.
“And the Opposition I suppose will continue to stick their head in the sand, say they don’t need legislation and their policies from last time will work when very clearly, very clearly, that is fantasy-land.”