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Are people who seek asylum by boat illegal?

Photo credit: Jeanne Menjoulet

Seeking asylum is not illegal

People who seek asylum by boat are not breaking the law. It is not a crime to come to Australia without first getting permission (a ‘visa’).

Under the Refugee Convention, countries cannot penalise refugees who do not have valid travel documents. In fact, entering without permission is the way most refugees find safety.

Refugee Convention

Read more about Article 31 of the Refugee Convention .

Why calling people ‘illegal’ is wrong

There are many reasons why it is wrong to call people seeking asylum ‘illegal’. It wrongly suggests these people are criminals. It fosters prejudice towards outsiders. It also suggests these people do not have rights.

Read more: Why ‘Undocumented’ or ‘Irregular”

Human Rights Watch Guidelines for Describing Migrants

Calling people ‘illegal’ may also breach reporting standards.

Australian Press Council, ‘Asylum Seekers’, ‘illegal Immigrants’ and Entry without a Visa

Confusingly, Australian law calls anyone who doesn’t have a visa an ‘unlawful non-citizen’. This doesn’t mean that these people have committed a crime. It is just a label used by the law.

The Migration Act

Why do people come without permission?

They often can’t apply for a visa

In many cases, they are being persecuted by their governments. This makes it dangerous for them to get a passport or apply to Australia for a visa.

Some people will be stateless, and can’t get a passport or a visa.

Refugees also often need to leave quickly because of the dangers they face. If you are running for your life, you don’t usually have time to get your documents and wait for a visa.

Australian law makes it difficult

Like most countries in the world, Australia doesn’t allow you to apply for asylum (refugee status) when you are overseas. This means that most refugees have to apply for a visa for another reason.

It would be better if there were safer procedures for people to claim refugee status in their countries. However, laws and policies now encourage people to risk their lives to find safety elsewhere.

Read more: Safe Journeys and Sound Policy .

Australia has strict visa rules which make it impossible for many people to get a visa. It is very hard to come to Australia if you come from a country that produce a lot of refugees. The processes for coming will be much longer and the rules much stricter.

Why don’t they wait for UNHCR to refer them?

Refugees can be resettled in Australia if UNHCR refers them to Australia or if someone in Australia sponsors them. This is not a realistic choice for many refugees.

Many refugees also don’t go to a place where UNHCR operates. Even if they do, it can be many years before UNHCR recognises them as a refugee. UNHCR also only refers very few people for resettlement.

It is very difficult and expensive for sponsors in Australia to help a refugee. Most of these visas are for people sponsored by family. There is a small and expensive program for other people in Australia to sponsor people.

Finally, there are far more refugees than the number of visas available. They also take years to get.

How refugees come to Australia

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