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Fact check: Economic migrants or refugees?

Analysis of refugee recognition rates for boat arrivals 1976-2015

For many years, Australian politicians and other public figures have debated whether or not people seeking asylum reaching Australia by boat have serious claims for refugee protection or are merely “economic migrants”. To answer this question, the Refugee Council of Australia has analysed Australian Government statistics about visa outcomes for boat arrivals from 1976 to 30 June 2015 – and found that 81% of those who arrived by boat seeking asylum in Australia were found to be refugees.

How many people seeking asylum have entered Australia by boat since 1976?

According to the Parliamentary Library, the number of people seeking asylum who arrived by boat between 1 January 1976 and 31 December 2013 was 69,445. In July 2014, 157 people seeking asylum from one boat from India were transferred to an Australian detention facility after being intercepted on the Indian Ocean. The total number of boat arrivals between January 1976 and June 2015 was 69,602.

How many boat arrivals have been given some form of protection since 1976?

While there is no comprehensive set of statistics on the numbers of people seeking asylum who have arrived by boat and been given some form of refugee protection (permanent or temporary), it is possible to compile statistics from a number of sources:

  • Boat arrivals recognised as refugees, 1976 to 1981: Between 1 January 1976 and 30 June 1981, 2,069 Indochinese people seeking asylum entered Australia by boat. The Determination of Refugee Status Committee made positive refugee status determinations for all but 58 of the 613 asylum claims it considered from Indochinese boat arrivals between March 1978 and January 1981 (Commonwealth of Australia(1981), Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Australia’s Involvement, volume 2 -Submission by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Attachment C). As there is no available evidence of other claims being rejected, we estimate that 2,011 of this group of boat arrivals were given refugee status.
  • Boat arrivals given permanent or temporary protection, 1 July 1989 to 31 July 2004: After an eight-year lull, people seeking asylum began arriving by boat from mid 1989. A 2004 Immigration Department fact sheet recorded that, of 13,593 boat arrivals over the previous 15 years, 13,190 had had a clear decision about their status by 31 July 2004. Of these, 9,402 had been given permanent or temporary protection (71.3%) and 3,788 had been removed from Australia. The remaining 403 were still waiting for their status to be resolved.
  • Boat arrivals given temporary protection, 1 July 2004 to 30 June 2008: Immigration Department annual reports for 2004-05 to 2007-08 record that 1,100 boat arrivals were given Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) in the four years before the abolition of TPVs in 2008.
  • Refugees recognised on Nauru and Manus Island, 2001 to 2007: In 2008, then Immigration Minister Chris Evans reported that, of the 1,637 people seeking asylum whose status had been resolved on Nauru or Manus Island over the previous seven years, 1,153 had been given protection, 705 of them in Australia.
  • Boat arrivals recognised as refugees, 2008-09 to 2012-13: In the five years to 30 June 2013, 14,797 boat arrivals were given refugee protection through first instance and administrative appeal processes, 92.0% of the 16,090 cases finalised.
  • Permanent and temporary visas granted to boat arrivals, 2013-14 and 2014-15: The 2014-15 annual report of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection shows that in 2013-14 and 2014-15 the Government issued 547 Permanent Protection Visas to boat arrivals (546 prior to the Abbott Government taking office and one since as a result of a High Court decision) and 542 temporary visas (67 Temporary Protection, 132 Temporary Humanitarian Concern and 343 Temporary Humanitarian Stay).
  • Refugee determinations on Nauru and Manus Island, July 2013 to June 2015: The Australian Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders update for 30 June 2015 revealed that, of the refugee status assessments conducted in Nauru and Manus Island from January 2014 to June 2015, 874 of the 1,230 decisions had been positive (a 71.1% recognition rate). The recognition rate for Nauru was 85.0% (506 positive determinations from 595 decisions) and for Manus Island was 58.0% (368 positive decisions from 635 interim determination assessments).

With an adjustment to the above figures to allow for the fact that Temporary Protection Visas granted in July 2004 have been included in two sets of statistics, we estimate that the total number of boat arrivals given some form of protection between January 1976 and June 2015 is 30,400.How many cases remain unresolved?

Of the 69,602 people seeking asylum who have entered Australia by boat, it appears from 30 June 2015 immigration detention statistics that 32,111 cases remain unresolved. These comprise 1,060 boat arrivals in Australian detention facilities,11 1,189 in community detention, 28,588 in the community on Bridging Visas, 655 in the Nauru detention centre and around 619 people without positive decisions in the Manus Island centre.12 The June 2015 Operation Sovereign Borders update outlines that, of the 945 people in the Manus Island centre, 87 have had a positive final determination of their refugee status and another 239 have had initial positive assessments.13


In the 40 years to 30 June 2015, statistics published by the Australian Government suggest that 37,491 people seeking asylum who reached Australia by boat have had some outcome to their refugee status, either a positive or negative decision on their refugee claim or a decision to return home voluntarily before or after a final decision was taken. Of these, 30,464 people (81.3%) have been given some form of permanent or temporary protection in Australia or elsewhere.

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