Series 2

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6 Prominent Australians

6 Outspoken Views | 1 life-risking journey

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factsheetsAre asylum seekers who arrive by boat illegal immigrants?

Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are neither engaging in illegal activity, nor are they immigrants

The UN Refugee Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) recognises that refugees have a right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents.

The Convention stipulates that what would usually be considered as illegal actions (e.g. entering a country without a visa) should not be treated as illegal if a person is seeking asylum. This means that it is incorrect to refer to asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation as “illegal”, as they in fact have a right to enter Australia to seek asylum.

In line with our obligations under the Convention, Australian law also permits unauthorised entry into Australia for the purposes of seeking asylum. Asylum seekers do not break any Australian laws simply by arriving on boats or without authorisation.

Australian and international law make these allowances because it is not always safe or practicable for asylum seekers to obtain travel documents or travel through authorised channels.

Refugees are, by definition, persons fleeing persecution and in most cases are being persecuted by their own government. It is often too dangerous for refugees to apply for a passport or exit visa or approach an Australian Embassy for a visa, as such actions could put their lives, and the lives of their families, at risk.

Refugees may also be forced to flee with little notice due to rapidly deteriorating situations and do not have time to apply for travel documents or arrange travel through authorised channels. Permitting asylum seekers to enter a country without travel documents is similar to allowing ambulance drivers to exceed the speed limit in an emergency – the action would ordinarily be considered illegal, but the circumstances warrant an exception.

It is also incorrect to refer to asylum seekers as migrants. A migrant is someone who chooses to leave their country to seek a better life. They make a conscious choice to leave and they can return whenever they like. Refugees are forced to leave their country and cannot return unless the situation that forced them to leave improves. Some are forced to flee without warning; significant numbers of them have suffered torture and trauma. The concerns of refugees are human rights and safety, not economic advantage.


Are asylum seekers who arrive by boat a threat to Australia's national security?

The majority of asylum seekers who have reached Australia by boat have been found to be genuine refugees.

Between 70 and 90 per cent have typically been found to be refugees, compared to around 40 to 45 per cent of asylum seekers who arrive with some form of temporary visa (e.g. tourist, student or temporary work visa). In 2010-11, 89.6 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat were found to be refugees, compared to 43.7 per cent of those who arrived with valid visas.

According to the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), of the 34,396 visa security assessments which were made in 2010–11, only 45 visas were refused or revoked. Understandably, every case is assessed on its individual merits; however, from these numbers it can be seen that the risks are very low.

The UN Refugee Convention excludes people who have committed war crimes, crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or other serious non-political crimes from obtaining refugee status. Any person who is guilty of these crimes will be denied refugee status. Additionally, all asylum seekers must undergo rigorous security and character checks before being granted protection in Australia. It is therefore highly unlikely that a war criminal, terrorist or any other person who posed a security threat would be able to enter Australia as a refugee.

It is also improbable that a criminal or terrorist would choose such a dangerous and difficult method to enter Australia, given that asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation or without valid travel documents undergo more rigorous security and identity checks than other entrants to Australia.

If someone can afford to pay a people smuggler thousands of dollars to travel to Australia, then are they really a 'genuine' refugee?

Economic status has no bearing on refugee status. A refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

It makes no difference whether a refugee is rich or poor – the point is that they are at risk of, or have experienced, persecution. Many refugees who come to Australia are educated middle-class people, whose education, profession or political opinions have drawn them to the attention of the authorities and resulted in their persecution.


ASIO Report to Parliament 2010-2011.

The Refugee Council - Boat Arrivals.

Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) Settler Arrivals publication.

Signatory status can be found through the Status of Treaties database.

The Refugee Council's Developing an Asia-Pacific Protection Framework report.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Statistical Year Books.

UNHCR’s annual publication Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialised Countries.