The majority of people 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 people seeking asylum 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 people seeking asylum to seek protection elsewhere in the hope of finding genuine safety and security.
Fleeing by boat is often very costly and extremely dangerous, and people seeking asylum are vulnerable to exploitation by smugglers. It is not a form of escape which would be willingly chosen by people seeking asylum 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 people seeking asylum who arrive with valid visas.
In 2010-11, 89.6 per cent of people seeking asylum arriving by boat were found to be refugees, compared to 43.7 per cent of those who arrived with valid visas.
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 people seeking asylum who arrive without authorisation as “illegal” entrants, as they in fact have a lawful right to enter Australia to seek asylum.
Permitting people seeking asylum to enter 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 people seeking asylum 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 people seeking asylum 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.