The smuggling of migrants to Australia has sparked a suite of policy measures aimed at deterring smuggled migrants and stopping migrant smuggling vessels before they reach Australian waters. Since the topic of migrant smuggling first became a major political issue in 1999, successive Australian Governments from both sides of the political spectrum have discussed, introduced, and experimented with a range of such policies. These include, inter alia, temporary protection visas for onshore asylum seekers, reduced opportunities for family reunification, mandatory detention, offshore detention, turning and towing vessels back to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and refugee ‘swap’ programs with Malaysia.

This website—which will be compiled and updated gradually—documents and critically explores the rationale, implementation, and impact of selected policy measures adopted or proposed in Australia, and assesses them against the requirements in international law and against best practice guidelines.

Returning migrant smuggling vessels to the point of embarkation

At the end of 2013, the Australian Government reintroduced a policy to turn around or tow back vessels carrying irregular migrants, many of them asylum seekers. This policy is designed to prevent their arrival in Australia and return them to the place from where the vessels initially departed. A similar policy was in operation in late 2001 when, in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Tampa Affair’, four vessels were returned to Indonesia.

Research conducted by the Migrant Smuggling Working Group in 2014 examines the context, objectives, and controversies of this policy and provides a full account of the known successful and attempted ‘turn-backs’ in 2001 and 2013–14. The research critically evaluates the rationale and operation of the past and present policies and reflects on the question whether to retain or repeal this approach.

The findings of this research have been published in Andreas Schloenhardt & Colin Craig, ‘“Turning back the boats: Australia’s interdiction of irregular migrants at sea’ (2015) 27 International Journal of Refugee Law (forthcoming).

Immigration detention of smuggled migrants

Australia, along with some other countries, detains smuggled migrants who arrive in the country without a visa, often for very long periods. Research conducted by the Migrant Smuggling Working Group in 2014-15 examines this practice in light of the obligations under the United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air, and Sea.

Australia’s ‘No Advantage’ policy

In an effort to deter migrant smuggling to Australia, the Government announced a so-called ‘no advantage’ policy in August 2012. This policy built in large parts on recommendations made by the Government’s Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, which presented its final report at that time. Research conducted by the Migrant Smuggling Working Group in 2014–15 examines the background, rationale, core elements, and implementation of this policy, and analyses how the policy has been continued and/or altered after the change of government in September 2013.

The Malaysian ‘people swap’ proposal

In 2011, the Australian Government, then led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, sought to adopt a policy which would involve returning some asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia unlawfully to Malaysia and, in turn, accepting refugees from Malaysia. One of the principal stated goals of this policy was to deter migrant smuggling. Research conducted by the Migrant Smuggling Working Group in 2014–15 explores the rationale and proposed operation of this policy and its effect, if any, on the levels of migrant smuggling by boat to Australia.