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Australian Refugee Foundation
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Restricting legal assistance to asylum seekers increases dangers

The Australian Government's new restrictions on access to funded legal assistance for asylum seekers will increase the risk of people being returned to danger. Read more here.

Submissions sought for 2014 UNHCR-NGO consultations

Feedback from individuals and refugee community groups is being sought on current issues of concern for people living in refugee situations overseas to help inform advocacy at the annual consultations between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and NGOs at Geneva in June. Find out more here.

John Gibson Refugee Community Leadership Grant

Nominations are open for the annual John Gibson Refugee Community Leadership Grant which supports advocates from refugee backgrounds to take part in the UNHCR-NGO consultations at Geneva in June. Find out more here.

Stopping the boats: Australia's appalling example to the world

In a speech at a Yale Law School conference, RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power spoke about recent developments in refugee policies in Australia. Read the speech here.

No fairness and integrity in permanent Protection Visa freeze

The Australian Government's decision to suspend the granting of new permanent Protection Visas will add to the anguish of asylum seekers living in the community. Read more here.

Australia's asylum policy must change to avoid long-term damage

The Australian Government must change course on refugee policy to avoid long-term damage to the lives of asylum seekers. Read more here.

Denial of work rights for asylum seekers must be overturned

The denial of work rights to about 27,000 asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas is creating fear and uncertainty and must be overturned. Read more here.

Manus Island disturbance a tragedy waiting to happen

The death of an asylum seeker and the injuries suffered by more than 70 others at Manus Island is an appalling tragedy and a failure of Australian Government policy. Read more here.

Refugee intake increase vital to meet urgent protection needs

RCOA has urged Australia to increase the number of refugees accepted under the offshore program to help bridge the widening gulf between global resettlement needs and available places. Read more here.

Use of Temporary Humanitarian Concern visas as an alternative to Temporary Protection Visas

The Australian Government has released details about its new alternative to Temporary Protection Visas. Read more here.

Inquiry into immigration detention of children welcomed

RCOA has welcomed an Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into the immigration detention of children. Read more here.

Enough is Enough: It's time for a new approach

On the first anniversary of the report on the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, 64 Australian NGOs have called for a new approach to refugee and asylum policy that delivers protection to refugees. Read more here.


Promoting the participation of refugees in sporting activities

This report investigates the role of sport in assisting refugee settlement.


Boat arrivals

The majority of asylum seekers who seek protection in Australia arrive through authorised channels and with valid visas. Some, however, travel through unauthorised channels without travel documents and may enlist a people smuggler to assist their escape.

Asylum seekers are sometimes forced to flee in this way because it is not always safe or possible for them to obtain travel documents or travel through authorised channels. Refugees are, by definition, people 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 this 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.

In the Asia-Pacific region, very few countries are signatories to the Refugee Convention and therefore have no legal obligation to provide protection to refugees. The average standard of protection for refugees and asylum seekers across the region falls well below international benchmarks, with many lacking access to the most basic of human rights – access to an asylum process, official permission to remain in the country, protection from arbitrary detention and refoulement, the right to support themselves, health care and access to basic education for their children. These conditions frequently drive refugees and asylum seekers to seek protection elsewhere in the hope of finding genuine safety and security.

Fleeing by boat is often very costly and extremely dangerous, and asylum seekers are vulnerable to exploitation by smugglers. It is not a form of escape which would be willingly chosen by asylum seekers if safer options were available.

More likely to be refugees

Asylum seekers who arrive by boat without authorisation are more likely to be found to be refugees than asylum seekers who arrive with valid visas.

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.

"Illegal" entrants?

Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are not acting illegally. The UN Refugee Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) recognises that refugees have a lawful 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.

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. This means that it is incorrect to refer to asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation as “illegal” entrants, as they in fact have a lawful right to enter Australia to seek asylum.

Permitting asylum seekers to entry a country without travel documents is similar to allowing ambulance drivers to exceed the speed limit in an emergency – the action would be ordinarily be considered illegal, but the under the circumstances it's reasonable to make an exception.

Are we being swamped by boat arrivals?

The number of people arriving by boat in Australia is very small. In 2010-11, Australia received 11,491 asylum applications. Less than half of these (5,175) were from asylum seekers who arrived by boat. Over the same period, 2,696 Protection Visas were granted to refugees who arrived by boat. This is just 1.3 per cent of the 213,409 people who migrated to Australia during the year.

Between 2006 to 2011, 14,215 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat. Over the same period, more than 9,000 people arrived by boat in Malta, a country of 426,000 people (compared to Australia’s 23 million); and more than 340,000 people arrived by boat in Yemen, a developing country with a GDP per capita of just over US$1,500 (compared to Australia’s GDP per capita of over US$69,000).

The number of people arriving by boat in Yemen over the past six years was over 24 times greater than the number arriving in Australia. In October 2011 alone, 12,545 people arrived by boat in Yemen. This is equal to 88 per cent of the total boat arrivals to Australia over the past six years, in the space of a single month.

No. of irregular arrivals by sea, by country 2006-09






2010 2011 Total






6,555 4,565 14,215




15 300


1,765 1,030 57,210




36 000


4,348 61,000 152,821




2 700


28 1,574 9,372




13 400


3,632 5,443 79,760




50 000


53,382 103,000 342,192



For more statistics on asylum seekers arriving by boat, see our page of Asylum seeker statistics.


Last updated May 2012