Is there a front door, and are 'boat people' jumping the queue?

Some Australians say asylum seekers who arrive by boat are "jumping the queue" by not coming to Australia through approved channels.

Australian politicians, including former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, have said Australia's refugee and humanitarian program is the “front door” that refugees and asylum seekers must use.

Are these concepts accurate for describing the situation for asylum seekers who come to Australia?

Australia's offshore humanitarian program

There are ways for refugees to enter Australia by approved channels, but the opportunities are limited. The total intake quota of refugees and asylum seekers was just over 13,700 for 2014-15.

Australia has an offshore resettlement program under which refugees - most of whom have already been deemed refugees - can be resettled in Australia.

The offshore resettlement program is available to people outside Australia, but not open to asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat or plane.

It is not related to the Australian-run detention centres in Nauru and on PNG's Manus Island.

There are far more applications per year for the offshore resettlement program than there are available visas.

In 2015, the Australian government responded to the Syrian humanitarian crisis with a once-off extra 12,000 permanent ressettlement places for Syrian refugees.

The majority of people resettled under Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program are refugees referred by the United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR), who are given preference.

There is no requirement for a person to be a refugee, so some could be asylum seekers, as long as they are not in Australia.

The government was unable to provide SBS with a breakdown of the numbers for refugees and asylum seekers given visas under the offshore program.

In 2014, Australia’s offshore program resettled people from various countries.

The UNHCR believes resettlement should be complimentary to, not a substitution for, allowing people to seek asylum. Under current policies there are limited options for people to seek asylum once they are in Australia.

Seeking onshore protection

This program is for people who apply for protection while in Australia and is open to people who arrive by plane, with or without visas.

People who arrived in Australia by boat were formerly able to apply for protection under this program, but Australia's policy today is to not allow people who attempt to arrive by boat to make Australia their home.

Some people who apply for onshore protection would be recognised as refugees in the countries they departed from, but many will be asylum seekers, Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) chief executive Paul Power said.

Asylum seekers are people who have not yet had their claims for refugee status determined.

Most onshore protection applicants have traditionally come to Australia by plane, although that has varied between years.

People who try to reach Australia by boat to apply for protection visas, who do not have valid visas, have been taken to immigration detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru since July and August 2013 respectively.

This asylum seeker boat capsized and sank in June 2012, with the loss of 102 lives and some lives saved.


Since 2013, those peoples’ claims for asylum have been determined in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and resettled there if found to be refugees. Some have been offered resettlement in Cambodia under a deal signed this year.

Australia grants protection visas to people who arrive by plane, who have a valid visa and can prove their need for asylum.

Mr Power says the government screens visa applicants to prevent entry to people who they suspect will apply for asylum once in Australia.

People from high-refugee producing nations, like Pakistan or Afghanistan, face tougher screening to gain visas than people from Canada or the US, Mr Power says.

SBS referred Mr Power’s comments to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which said visa applications were granted according to eligibility and health, character and national security checks.

Is there a queue to enter Australia?

There is no queue for resettlement via the UNHCR.

“Individuals are identified by UNHCR according to vulnerability rather than date of arrival,” UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan told SBS.

But, if resettlement for refugees was a queue, it would be a long one.

The recent UNHCR report, Global Trends 2014, said there were an estimated 19.5 million refugees worldwide and it predicts this number will grow.

In 2014, just over 105,000 refugees were resettled in countries like the US and Australia.

That means fewer than one per cent of refugees were resettled worldwide in 2014.

An Australian Parliament House report explains why the concept of a queue is wrong.

"Though refugees may be assessed by UNHCR as eligible for resettlement, in reality they face a potentially indefinite waiting period for a resettlement country to offer them a resettlement place (depending on the urgency of their individual needs)." - APH report.

Some Australians believe in the existence of a queue for asylum seekers to join Australia and some Australian politicians talk about “boat people” being queue jumpers.

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What is Australia’s offshore resettlement intake?

Australia resettles a proportionally large number of refugees, compared to other countries.

Although the US resettles the most refugees worldwide, Australia has a much smaller population, and therefore more resettlements per capita.

Fewer than one per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled each year.

Most asylum seekers and refugees around the world arrive in countries - often poor nations that border their own - without invitation. Many wait in refugee camps for years and are still never resettled.

Recent documents AAP obtained under freedom of information laws reveal Australia did not accepted referrals for resettlement from the UNHCR between October 2014 and June 30, 2015.

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Last year the government announced Australia would not accept referrals for resettlement from the Indonesian UNHCR office.

How many boat arrivals are genuine refugees?

Since 2008-09, some 89 per cent of final decisions on protection visa applications from illegal maritime arrivals (IMAs), who are often called “boat people”, were granted.

Protection visas have only been available to people who were refugees, but those visas have not been available since temporary protection visas were re-introduced in 2015.

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IMAs were previously called "irregular maritime arrivals" until a directive from former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to use the word “illegal”, which the former Howard government used.

The UNHCR 2014 Global Trends report said nearly 80 per cent of all asylum seekers processed in Nauru and more than half of asylum seekers processed in Papua New Guinea were recognised as refugees in the first instance, without a review process.

Under the Howard Government's Pacific Solution, a total of 1,637 unauthorised arrivals were detained in the Nauru and Manus facilities between September 2001 and February 2008.

Seventy per cent of those were found to be refugees and ultimately resettled in Australia or other countries.

Some Australian politicians have labelled boat arrivals economic migrants, including former Foreign Minister Bob Carr in 2013.

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Are asylum seekers arriving by boat breaking Australian laws?

Australia is obliged to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, regardless of how they arrive in Australia, the government’s independent Human Rights Commission has said.

The Migration Act 1958 says asylum seekers who arrive in Australia without visas must be held in detention until they are granted visas or removed.

Despite Australia’s obligations to protect refugees and asylum seekers, there have been numerous allegations of abuses in immigration detention facilities.

Australia is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, but the United Nations Special Rapportuer said in May 2015 Australia breached that convention with its detention centre policies.

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People have died in Australia’s immigration detention centres, including by suicide.

Women have been raped.

An Iranian man, Reza Berati, died during a riot in the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea.

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One asylum seeker is dead and two others have been flown to Australian hospitals after more rioting at the Manus Island detention centre.

There are allegations of children being sexually assaulted inside detention centres, the Human Rights Commission’s report, The Forgotten Children says. The government dismissed the report as partisan.

Human Rights Watch claims guards at Australia’s offshore detention centres have traded sexual favours for banned objects. 

Why do asylum seekers attempt to travel to Australia by boat?

Some asylum seekers do not have any documentation, since they may have had to flee their homes during crises.

Others are stateless and have never had any documentation.

Many people without visas or documentation will not be able to travel by plane to Australia, so will try to reach Australia by boat.

"Given the scale of the global refugee crisis and the near-impossibility of being resettled, it’s inevitable that a small number of people end up in our region in search of protection."

Mary Fall from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) says people get on boats out of desperation.

"Given the scale of the global refugee crisis and the near-impossibility of being resettled, it’s inevitable that a small number of people end up in our region in search of protection," Ms Fall said.

Why do people pay people smugglers to come to Australia?

The Refugee Council of Australia says the reason asylum seekers pay people smugglers to travel to Australia by boat is because they have no choice.

"Often people fleeing will be forced to lend money that their family will repay, often at excessive interest rates, which they have no real choice to bargain on if they are running for their lives," Tim O’Connor from the RCOA says.

Doctor Khalid Koser is an expert on forced immigration and author of the book International Migration: A Very Short Introduction.

In 2009, he explained to an audience at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas that smuggling was a flexible business.

"Smugglers will deliver a service that suits the depth of your pocket," Dr Koser said.

"If you can’t afford to go to the USA, I’ll take you to Turkey. If you can’t afford to get to the UK, I’ll take you to Australia."

The Australian government says people smuggling is dangerous because:

- There are serious security and criminal concerns when people arriving in Australia are not properly identified

- It infringes Australia's sovereignty, giving us less control over our borders

Does Australia have too many refugees?

Compared to other countries Australia has a relatively small refugee population, considering the size of Australia's total population.

The number of refugees in Australia, per 1000 people, is low compared to some other, smaller countries.

Lebanon was the largest host of refugees per capita in 2014, with 232 refugees per 1000 inhabitants, compared with about two per 1000 inhabitants in Australia.

That does not include the number of former refugees who have been resettled in Australia in former years, since that was considered a durable solution, the UNHCR Global Trends 2014 report said.

Nauru was the third largest host of refugees in 2014 per 1000 inhabitants, since many asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat have been taken to Nauru and resettled there if found to be refugees since 2013.

Do asylum seekers go “country shopping” and why do they come to Australia?

The vast majority of refugees are hosted in developing nations, which are often the closest to conflict zones people are fleeing from.

Sometimes those neighbouring countries and other nations in the region are unsafe or unable to sustain refugee populations.

Some refugees have lived in refugee camps for decades, with no hope of leaving.

Eighty-six per cent of the world's refugees lived in developing nations, the UNHCR Global Trends 2014 report said.

Ms Fall from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said many countries people flee to have not signed the refugee convention.

"Indonesia has not signed the Refugee Convention, and neither have Malaysia, Thailand or Burma," Ms Fall said.

"For most asylum seekers travelling to Australia, this is the first Convention signatory country that they have reached since leaving their home."

Indonesia prohibits refugees from working or accessing public elementary education, the US State Department says.

Video: from the second episode of Go Back to Where You Came From Season 3, currently available on SBS On Demand.

Most Rohingya, from the Rakhine state in Myanmar, stay within the region in countries like Thailand or Malaysia, which are not always safe for people fleeing persecution. Recent revelations of mass graves of suspected Rohingya migrants in Thailand have highlighted the dangers. 

The UNHCR does not use the term country shopping, spokesperson Vivian Tan said.

Ms Tan said the UNHCR had pushed for more international support to create more stable conditions in the developing nations that host the vast majority of refugees, so those people do not feel compelled to move elsewhere out of desperation.

Asylum seekers have a range of reasons not to seek asylum at the first possible opportunity, Ms Tan said, including:

- Lack of faith in the asylum procedures in the particular country

- Concerns over conditions there, including risk of detention or other restrictions on freedom of movement

- Serious security concerns for his or her safety

What are stateless people, and can they be resettled?

A stateless person is one who has no nationality, or is not a citizen of any nation.

The UNHCR Global Trends 2014 report estimated 10 million people were stateless globally.

The Rohingya people of Myanmar are effectively stateless.

They are considered “resident foreigners” in Myanmar, not citizens, despite being born in Myanmar. 

Audio: SBS journalist Ron Sutton explains the situation of stateless people in Myanmar.

The UNHCR says existing without the legal bond of nationality between a person and state leaves people extremely vulnerable. It makes travelling harder, since stateless people will have trouble obtaining passports and often do not have basic identifying documents.

Stateless people can be considered for resettlement, even if they are not refugees, the UNHCR says.

Video: what is statelessness?