A third of illegal boat arrivals in Australia to get visas

A THIRD of asylum seekers arriving by boat will be living in the community on bridging visas next year under a policy shift, the Immigration Department has revealed to a Senate hearing.

The department expects to save $400 million by moving asylum seekers out of detention centres and into the community, where bridging visas will require them to find accommodation and seek work. So far, only 257 bridging visas have been issued because the program only ramped up in December and January. Immigration Department deputy secretary Jackie Wilson said it is expected 6 per cent of asylum seekers would be released on bridging visas this year.

She said by 2012-13, the department expected 20 per cent of asylum seekers to be in community detention where the department provides housing and support; 30 per cent released on bridging visas; leaving just half of boat arrivals behind wire in detention.

The department has projected asylum seekers will arrive by boat at Christmas Island at a rate of 450 a month in 2012-13 in its budget figures. This figure was ridiculed by Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash. Immigration Department secretary Andrew Metcalfe admitted to the Senate committee that, in fact, about 1000 people arrived by boat in November 2011, and 693 arrived in December.

The Immigration Department's budget has continued to blow out due to the federal government's mandatory detention policy for boat arrivals, which has resulted in people being held for years in remote locations while they await the outcome of refugee claims and legal appeals. The department's contract with the private company that runs detention, Serco, is now worth $1 billion over four years.

After the parliamentary impasse on offshore processing Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced in October that mandatory detention would be retained for security, identity and health checks, but bridging visas would increasingly be used. The Immigration Department said yesterday it anticipated a transition period of six weeks when asylum seekers released from detention on bridging visas received support in the community, accessing 89 per cent of the welfare payment, paid by the Immigration Department.

Asylum seekers on bridging visas would have work rights and "the bulk of the group will be able to sustain themselves over time", said Ms Wilson.

The government has failed to gain the agreement of the opposition or Greens to pass its bill designed to overcome a High Court ban on the Malaysia refugee swap.

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott yesterday introduced to Parliament his own offshore processing bill, which he said could be a "circuit breaker". The bill would allow the transfer of refugees to countries that are members of the Bali Process, a regional forum on people smuggling.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the government would examine Mr Oakeshott's bill and seek legal advice before finalising its position.

But opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said Mr Oakeshott's bill was "a carbon copy of the government's bill", lowering expectations it would gain Coalition support.


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