New Immigration Policy Change Allows Boat Refugees to Bring Family Members to Australia

By Alfred Bui
Alfred Bui
Alfred Bui
Alfred Bui is an Australian reporter based in Melbourne and focuses on local and business news. He is a former small business owner and has two master’s degrees in business and business law. Contact him at
February 12, 2023Updated: February 12, 2023

The Australian government has lifted a restriction that prevents asylum seekers who arrived by boat from bringing family members to the country. 

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles recently announced the Labor government had replaced several directions on immigration policy that put reunion application visas by boat refugees under the lowest priority in processing. 

The former Coalition government adopted those directions as a deterrent measure to prevent asylum seekers from coming to Australia by boat. 

The change is expected to affect the visa applications of thousands of family members of boat refugees who are looking to come to Australia, with those from countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka most impacted. 

The new directions only apply to refugees on permanent protection visas, while those on temporary visas will see no change.  

“The Government is improving the family reunion pathways for these permanent visa holders, many of whom have been separated from family for over a decade, exacerbating mental health issues and imposing great and enduring uncertainty on their lives,” Giles told SBS News. 

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Australian Immigration Minister Andrew Giles during the opening of the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on June 18, 2020. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

At the same, the government said it had added more immigrant staff to fast-track visa applications for individuals in complicated situations, raising the number of employees from 20 to 40. 

This is Labor’s latest action to tackle a large backlog of visa applications inherited from the previous government, following the recent addition of 400 immigration staff. 

Response from Relevant Parties 

Following the announcement, the Opposition warned that Labor had made it easier for asylum seekers to come to Australia by boat. 

“Labor’s decision has gifted the people smugglers a new marketing campaign because they can now tell desperate people that if you reach Australia, you will be allowed to settle here, and your family will be allowed to join you,” Opposition Immigration Spokesman Dan Tehan said. 

“Temporary protection visas were a key pillar of Operation Sovereign Borders that helped stop the boats and end the deaths at sea.” 

Meanwhile, Jana Favero, the advocacy director at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, welcomed the decision, saying refugees had been long calling for the government to prioritise family reunions. 

“We are overjoyed that finally an intentional and deliberate policy to keep refugees separated from their families has been abolished,” she said in comments obtained by AAP. 

“There should not be any hold up in processing now the direction has been abolished.” 

Nevertheless, Favero said the government needed to extend the change to those on temporary protection visas, as well as increase the number of permanent visas granted to refugees.  

“This is the first step in humanity. It should be swiftly followed by granting a pathway to permanency,” she said. 

Australia Extends Offshore Detention Policy 

The abolition of immigration directions comes shortly after the Labor government rushed a bill through the parliament to renew the already expired offshore detention policy on Feb. 7. 

The Gillard government first introduced the policy in 2012 to deal with a sudden surge in the number of refugees arriving by boat.

Under the measure, the Australian government will send boat refugees to a third country and keep them there while processing their claims.

Refugees with a valid claim will then be settled in another advanced country, such as New Zealand or the United States.

At the time, the Australian government said the measure would prevent smugglers from sending boats to Australia and ensure a fair and orderly migration system.

Refugee advocate and human rights groups have long criticised the policy, saying it caused harm to refugees and their children.

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Refugee supporters hold placards as they gather to protest the Nauru refugee detention camp in Sydney, Australia, on Oct. 5, 2016. (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

The policy lapsed in October 2022, but the Labor government had not taken any action until very recently. 

It was unclear why there was a delay, although Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil was reportedly informed about the issue in December 2022.

If the bill passes the parliament, Nauru, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean, will continue to host Australia’s offshore asylum seekers.

However, given the bill needs approval from both houses of the parliament, it is expected to take another two months to fix the gap in national security.

Meanwhile, the Opposition criticised the Labor government for the delay, saying it left a hole in Australia’s border system.

“It is unforgivable that the Labor government could do absolutely nothing in a four-month period of time to ensure there was a regional processing centre designated,” Shadow Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said.