Right: The expert panel on asylum seekers, (from left) Michael L'Estrange, Angus Houston and Paris Aristotle. The panel's findings included one claiming that onshore (Australian mainland) processing provided a reason for asylum seekers to chance the trip in a smuggler's boat.
1. Asylum seeker
'Asylum' is refuge or protection. An 'asylum seeker' is an immigrant from another country seeking refuge from persecution within his or her own country. An asylum seeker has to be formally assessed before he or she can be judged a 'refugee'. If the country to which the asylum seeker has come decides he or she is a 'refugee', that person will be given a visa that will allow them to remain legally in the host country for a certain period of time.
Currently, Asylum seekers in Australia are held in detention centres while their claims to be refugees are processed. This is referred to as 'mandatory detention'.
The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention gives a definition of refugee that forms the basis of most national definitions. Australia is a signatory to this Convention.
The Convention states that a refugee is someone who 'owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, ... is unable or ... unwilling to avail himself of the protection of [his or her native] country ...'
The Convention outlines how someone judged a refugee is to be treated within a host country.
Included in this list of appropriate treatments is that the host country, referred to, as the 'Contracting State' will 'facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees'. Thus, a refugee is entitled to become a permanent citizen of his or her host country and is to be helped to do so.
The host country is also expected to make available to refugees 'the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance as is accorded to ... nationals'. Thus the same welfare assistance is to be offered to refugees as to other citizens of the host country.
3. Illegal immigrant
Most of the estimated 60,000 illegal immigrants in Australia are not asylum seekers hoping to be judged as refugees. Most illegal immigrants arrive by air and overstay their visas.
They are generally tourists, students or people granted temporary-residence permits. They do not get much media attention and the Government does not appear to consider them a serious threat, though recently legislation has been passed compelling employers to be more scrupulous about determining the legal resident status of those they employ.
It is debatable whether unauthorised asylum seekers arriving in Australia should be termed 'illegal immigrants'.
The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention states that host countries 'shall not impose penalties ... on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened ... enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.'
Those who would have 'asylum seekers' termed 'illegal immigrants' tend to stress the 'coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened' component of the Refugee Convention and claim that many asylum seekers have already stopped at at least one other country before seeking to come to Australia.
Asylum seekers are in a transitional state. If their applications for refugee status are accepted then they are entitled to remain within their host country under the terms that country stipulates. (As outlined by the United Nations Refugee Convention this would be on equal terms to the nationals of that country.)
Only if they are rejected as refugees do they unequivocally become illegal immigrants.
The Gillard government's asylum seeker policies
Deaths at sea among asylum seekers and ongoing boat arrivals lead to a major Parliamentary debate on the issue in June, 2012.
The Gillard government then convened the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, chaired by Angus Houston, a retired senior commander of the Royal Australian Air Force and former Chief of the Defence Force, to consider further options.
The Houston Review found that 'onshore processing encourages people to jump into boats'.
In response to one of the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers the Gillard government has adopted what it terms the "no advantage" principle. This means that it has sought to put into place provisions that would discourage asylum seekers from attempting to come to Australia by boat.
The aim is to create circumstances which would give refugees who arrive in Australia by boat no effective advantage over those who stay in refugee camps or other depots and apply to come to Australia from there.
In implementing the "no advantage" principle, Australia has
a) re-opened offshore detention facilities on Nauru and begun negotiations to open similar facilities on Manus Island;
b) had mainland Australia excised from Australia's migration zone so that any asylum seeker who reaches the mainland can be transferred to an offshore facility and processed there, with no set period for the detention;
c) had asylum seekers judged to be refugees still have to wait several years before being given permanent protection visas to make their situation more comparable to that of those waiting in camps in other countries (these people would be given a pension but no work rights);
d) increased the annual refugee quota from 13,750 to 20,000, with priority places to be made available to those who apply from outside Australia.
Previous mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia
Mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia was established by the Keating Government in 1992. Mandatory detention was introduced to 'support the integrity of Australia's immigration program' and 'management of Australian borders' and to distinguish between those who asylum seekers who have applied for entry to Australia prior to arrival (often from a refugee camp) and those who have attempted to come directly to Australia before applying for asylum.
Under the policy, asylum seekers are mandatorily detained while they 'undergo an assessment process, including security and health checking, to establish if they have a legitimate reason for staying in Australia'.
The 'Pacific Solution', 'Operation Relex' and 'Operation Resolute'
Controls on unauthorised arrivals were tightened under the Howard Government in 2001, as part of its so-called 'Pacific Solution' policy, which saw the excision of a number of Australian island territories from Australia's migration zone.
This meant that any asylum seeker arriving on one of these islands was deemed not to have reached Australian soil. Asylum seekers were then removed to other Pacific islands, primarily Nauru, to have their applications to enter Australia as refugees processed.
It was claimed this led to a sharp decline in boat arrivals and, consequently, to numbers of people being detained. However, the policy was highly controversial. It was condemned as an abnegation of Australia's international obligations to those seeking asylum as determined by the United Nations Refugee Convention. It was also criticised in terms of the length of time it typically took to process applications and the psychological harm done to those held in detention, including children. The Pacific Solution was dismantled by the Rudd Government in 2008.
Operation Relex was the name given to the Australian Defence Force (ADF) border protection operation conducted between 2001 and 2006. Assets of all three services of the ADF were committed to the operation to prevent the arrival of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEV) in the Australian migration zone. Operation Relex operated mainly between October and December 2001 when ten SIEV were intercepted by HMA Ships Warramunga, Arunta and Leeuwin assisted by several Fremantle Class Patrol Boats. Operation Relex was incorporated
Operation Resolute began on 17 July 2006 and consolidated a number of previous ADF operations, including Operation Relex. It was commanded by the joint civilian-military Border Protection Command and the ADF which contributed Royal Australian Navy ships, Royal Australian Air Force aircraft and patrols from the Australian Army's Regional Force Surveillance Units.
Current situation (prior to the July 19. 2013 announcement)
There are currently thousands of asylum seekers held in immigration detention around Australia.
Several hundred asylum seekers are now also being detained on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea under third country processing arrangements.
Under the Migration Act 1958, asylum seekers who arrive in Australia, whether to the mainland or an 'excised offshore place', without a valid visa must be held in immigration detention until they are granted a visa or removed from Australia.
Immigration detention in Australia is indefinite - there is no limit in law or policy to the length of time for which a person may be detained.
Some asylum seekers and refugees spend long periods of time in immigration detention waiting for their refugee claim to be assessed; waiting for the completion of health, identity and security checks; or awaiting removal from Australia if they have been found not to be a refugee nor to otherwise be owed protection.