Fewer than two dozen were deported last month after failing to gain protection visas from the Department of Home Affairs and then losing their appeals in the courts, suggesting the backlog continues to grow.
While the government insisted the system was working, Labor home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally called for faster action to prevent illegal workers entering the country as tourists and staying when their claims were rejected.
“The rising number of airplane arrivals represents a work scam run by people smugglers, pure and simple,” Senator Keneally said.
“There’s nothing wrong with claiming asylum – it’s an important right – but 90 per cent of these applications are eventually found to be without merit.”
Population Minister Alan Tudge countered the attack by insisting the government was working with other countries, including Malaysia, to curb the number of unfounded claims for asylum.
“Australia has one of the most generous humanitarian programs in the world and we settle thousands of people in desperate need every year,” he said.
“Some people unfortunately seek to exploit our international obligations by lodging protection claims onshore which have no foundation – this issue is not new and is not unique to Australia.
“These individuals use our legal system to deliberately prolong their stay in Australia even when they have no prospects of success.”
Those who apply for a protection visa have the same workplace rights as Australian citizens while they await a decision, but those who have been rejected are in a legal limbo until they are located and deported.
The government figures, tabled in the Senate last week, show that 1931 people sought asylum during January after arriving by air.
While 255 came from India, 83 from Fiji and 61 from the Philippines, there were 546 from Malaysia – a country where tourists can arrange an Australian electronic travel authority from their travel agents.
Another 309 came from China during January, down from 316 from that country in December and 386 in November, although this is expected to fall significantly in coming months because of the coronavirus travel ban.
The figures showed that only 3.3 per cent of those who arrive from China by air and claim asylum end up gaining a protection visa.
While 1931 arrived during January, the actions taken in the same month led to fewer than five involuntary deportations and 19 voluntary deportations among those who had their claims rejected and lost their appeals.
The latest figures mean more than 100,000 asylum seekers have arrived by air during the Coalition government since it took power in 2013, a new peak in overall arrivals.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has dismissed the Labor attacks by pointing to the 50,000 asylum seekers who arrived by boat and another 1200 who are estimated to have drowned when Labor held government from 2007 to 2013.
The government said the majority of the number of people who have not yet been deported are appealing negative decisions through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or the courts, prolonging their stay in Australia.
It also noted the number of people who arrived by air and went on to apply for protection fell by 12 per cent during the last financial year.
The Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, argued last year that the problem was small compared with the number of travellers to Australia, with 99.73 per cent of arrivals not claiming asylum.
Of the 0.23 per cent of people who did seek asylum, Mr Pezzullo said, the “marginal gain” from reducing the number would be out of proportion to the gain to the country.
“You’d end up creating so many disincentives in both the tourist visitor visa and student categories that that pain wouldn’t be worth the effort,” Mr Pezzullo told a Senate estimates hearing.
“For the additional effort of trying to get that down to zero, you’ll get a vanishing return.”
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.