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The mess that is the Pacific workers scheme

| Pearls & Irritations | Edited

Exploitation and abuse of Pacific Islands workers will be turbocharged as their numbers are being ramped up

CANBERRA - One of the symptoms of exploitation in the Pacific Access Labour Migration Scheme (PALMS) is the number of workers who abscond from their employer and apply for asylum.

Since late 2019, over 3,500 people from the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste have applied for asylum.

The nations from which these workers come has shifted from mainly Fiji in 2019-20 to Vanuatu and Timor in most of 2021.

In more recent months, the Solomon Islands has provided a larger share.

The numbers from Tonga have remained relatively stable at around 30-40 per month. By comparison, few are from Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Kiribati and Tuvalu.

The success rate of the asylum applications has been very low.

In 2022 (until the end of April) there were 22 successful applicants from PNG, one from Solomon Islands, two from Fiji, one or two from Samoa and one or two from Tonga.

Most applicants, other than those from PNG, would know they have little chance of success.

The ones who are successful from PNG are unlikely to be on a PALMS visa and more likely involved in politics in PNG.

But by lodging an asylum application, the workers are provided a bridging visa with which they can also apply for work rights.

That maintains their lawful status in Australia at least until their primary asylum application is decided which can take a year or more.

A further application to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal can secure another bridging visa. The backlog is so large (over 36,000 at the end of April), it may take another year or two to process.

Abul Rivzi
Dr Abul Rivzi - "Unsuccessful asylum seekers total about 66,000 at present and are at great risk of exploitation as they have no work rights, social support or Medicare

Because few PALM Scheme workers arrived in Australia during the pandemic, asylum applications from Pacific citizens declined to around 60-80 a month in 2021. In 2022 so far, this has increased to 100-150 a month.

Neither the Department of Home Affairs nor the Tribunal have the resources to cope with the current massive asylum backlogs let alone dealing with a further surge.

Both of Australia’s major parties have committed to significantly boost PALMS visa numbers to supply farm labour and meat workers.

The number of people in Australia on PALMS visas are from Fiji, Kiribati, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor, Tuvalu and Vanuatu and their numbers increased from 5,550 at the end of June 2020 to 16,330 at the end of March 2022.

Without action, the exploitation and abuse of PALMS workers will be turbocharged as their number is ramped up.

But what happens if asylum applications are refused? The answer is very little. The Australian Border Force simply does not have the resources.

In most months, around 10-15 unsuccessful asylum seekers are removed voluntarily but only one or two unsuccessful asylum seekers are removed involuntarily.

On average, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal makes around 500 decisions a month with around 90% of applications being refused.

The unsuccessful asylum seekers who remain in the Australian community (totalling about 66,000 at present) are at even greater risk of exploitation as they have no work rights, social support or Medicare.

Yet the government has no plans to address this. Not surprisingly, difficult problems just get pushed aside.

Dr Abul Rizvi was deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration until 2007. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to developing and implementing immigration policy


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