Boat People: Facts, Fictions and Faith

Prepared by Scott Higgins, September 2002
In the last two years there has been a strong public focus on “boat people” seeking to enter Australia. The letters pages of newspapers and talkback radio programs have seen a vigorous debate. To help us enter the debate compassionately and intelligently we first need to be familiar with the realities. This article seeks to outline these. The information is drawn primarily from the Federal Government’s Department of Immigration and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

What’s the difference between an immigrant and a refugee?

With the exception of our indigenous people, Australia is a nation of immigrants. Since the end of World War 2 almost 5.7 million people have migrated to Australia from other nations. Of all Australians living today one in four is an immigrant (ie they were born overseas). In the last decade Australia has taken between 80,000 and 100,000 immigrants per year. The largest groups have come from the United Kingdom and from New Zealand (1).

The immigration program is divided into two streams: migration and humanitarian. The migration program accounts for the vast bulk of immigrants. People coming through this part of the program have to satisfy particular character, health and wealth criteria and are allowed to settle in Australia because of the skills they bring or because they have relatives living here.

The migration stream is based on serving our national interest. That is, we allow immigrants to settle here because they help grow our economy and build our communities. Without immigration our population would decline and our economy with it.

The humanitarian program accounts for 12,000 places. This program selects people on the basis that they suffer extreme hardship in their country of origin. Around 8,000 of these places are allocated to people who are currently living in a country other than Australia, while 4,000 places are reserved for people who have entered Australia already and are seeking permission to stay(2).

A refugee is defined by the United Nations Convention on Refugees as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”(3)

The key factor is that refugees are people fleeing persecution in their home country. Refugees can be rich, poor, black, white, well-educated, poorly educated, male, female, etc. They are people who have become stateless because of the inability of their governments to protect them. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates there are currently 12 million people in the world who are refugees, and a further 8 million who may not fit the description of a refugee but are people displaced as a result of conflict in their home country(4).

How Do Refugees Get to Australia?

There are two ways refugees get to Australia. Many apply from offshore. Refugees usually flee to a country nearby to their home country – for example, Pakistan has almost 2 million refugees, with the bulk coming from neighbouring Afghanistan. From there a refugee can apply for asylum to another country such as Australia. Others seek to enter Australia first and then apply for asylum. They arrive by boat or by plane.

What Happens To “Boat People” When They Arrive in Australia?

When people arrive by boat they are taken to a detention centre (as of 2001 many of the processing centres had been moved to smaller Pacific nations) and held there until their claim for refugee status can be assessed. If they are found to be refugees they are issued a temporary protection visa. This allows them to stay but denies them access to many government services available to refugees who applied from overseas. If they cannot prove their refugee claim they may be held in detention until deported, or granted permission to stay on humanitarian grounds(5).

Are “Boat People” Freeloaders Seeking a Better Life?

People who arrive in Australia by boat are allowed to remain only if it is proven that they are refugees. In other words, those who are allowed to remain can do so only if they are fleeing extreme persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. This means people fleeing violence, rape, unjust imprisonment, unjust execution, etc. Such people are not freeloaders living the high-life in their home country but fellow human beings facing the most severe circumstances imaginable.

Between 1989 and August 2001 a total of 13475 “boat people” arrived in Australia. Of these 8348 (62%) were found to be refugees and granted visas allowing them to stay, 3524 (26%) had their applications rejected and were deported, 705 (5%) were still in detention, and 26 had escaped (9 were classified by Dept of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs under the category “other”)(6).

Are “Boat People” Queue Jumpers?

It is commonly claimed that refugees who arrive in Australia unlawfully are “queue jumpers”. The current Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, points out that with limited resources we are only able to receive limited numbers of refugees, and asks “why people who have the resources and opportunity to confront us should have a greater call on our compassion than those languishing in appalling conditions in refugee camps and who have no money to buy a people smuggler’s services”(7). When a refugee arrives in a country that is signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and applies for asylum, that country is bound to provide protection. So it is suggested that people who arrive here have pushed themselves to the head of the queue, in front of those who cannot pay their way here.

Critics point out that in the topsy-turvy world of refugees it is ridiculous to speak of “queues”. They point out that many refugees are unable to access our embassies, are understandably suspicious or fearful of authorities, or in the stressful and chaotic environment of violence simply do what most of us would do, that is, whatever it takes to get their family to safety.

Are We In Danger of Being “Swamped” By “Boat People”?

The simple answer is “no”. As noted above in the last 13 years only some 13500 people have arrived in Australia by boat, with a sharp upturn in numbers the last two years (around 4200 each year) prior to the Federal Government’s “Pacific solution”.

The reality is that very few of the world’s refugees show up on our doorstep, and there is a simple reason for this –Australia is an island continent that is more geographically isolated from conflict areas than most nations. For example, at the end of 2001 Australia had around 55,000 refugees, Pakistan had 2.2 million, Iran had 1.9 million, Tanzania had 670,000, Sudan 350,000, and Armenia had 264,000(8).

Are “Boat People” Illegal Immigrants?

All governments of the world have the legal right to determine whom they allow into their country. People seeking entry to that country require permission from the government to do so. As such anyone entering a country without permission is acting illegally.

The situation of refugees is however one of crisis. Forced to flee their home country they are unable to go through the proper channels in seeking entry to another country. As a result international law guarantees them the right to seek asylum in other nations. Article 31 of the 1951 Convention on Refugees exempts refugees coming directly from a country of persecution from being punished on account of their illegal entry or presence, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence. The same provision applies to people who do not come directly from their home country but come from another country where their protection, safety and security could not be assured. It also covers a person who transits an intermediate country for a short period of time without having applied for, or received, asylum there(9).

Is Australia Bearing an Unfair Refugee Burden?

Again the answer is “no”. Accommodating refugees is a global issue, with Australia burdening a relatively small share of the burden. Australia currently has a total of 55146 refugees who have been accepted over the years. This represents just 0.45% of the world’s 12 million refugees. The Netherlands and Sweden both have populations substantially smaller than Australia’s, yet each has more than double the number of refugees. Of Western nations Germany has the greatest number of the world’s refugees (7.5% of refugees)(10).

Nor are we being flooded with applications for asylum. In the decade from 1992 to 2001 Australia had an average of 8926 applications per year, with a peak of 13,070 in the year 2000. Over the same decade Germany averaged 159,747 per year, the Netherlands 35,862 per year, Belgium 21,951 per year, Sweden 22,859 per year, Switzerland 24,344 per year, the United Kingdom 57,289 per year, and the USA 125,859 per year(11). Interestingly the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland all have much smaller populations than Australia, yet on average have 3 to 5 times as many applications.

Should “Boat People” Be Held in Detention Centres?

Australia has six detention centres for those who enter the country without permission. These are located in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Port Hedland (WA), Derby (WA) and Woomera (SA).

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees states quite clearly that “liberty is a fundamental human right, like asylum. As a general rule, detention of asylum-seekers is not acceptable. It is particularly undesirable when those detained include the very vulnerable – children, single women, and people with special medical or psychological needs, such as torture victims. They are not criminals; they have already suffered great hardship and jailing them is wrong.”

The Federal Government maintains it does have the right to detain asylum seekers and that overseas experience suggests a community release program would see a very large proportion of those whose application is rejected simply abscond(12).

In addition to the issue of whether detention should occur at all many individuals and organisations express great concern about the length of detention, the adequacy of the system by which asylum applications are evaluated, and the conditions within the detention centres. For example, 743 people arrived by boat in December 2000. One and ¾ years later all but 88 remain in detention, including more than 140 children(13).

Psychiatrist Dr Patrick McGorry of the University of Melbourne has worked with many asylum seekers in held in detention. He says, “It is almost like a horrible sort of psychological experiment. It is a very demoralising experience being detained indefinitely and often for very long periods, without any sort of sense of when you are going to get out or what is going to happen with your case. There are examples of this in psychological textbooks where laboratory animals or even human subjects have been place din these sorts of conditions and it has been shown that it is a tremendously demoralising and stressful experience for them. Depression is almost inevitable, severe stress and the effects of all that occur, and we are talking about people who have already been traumatised and who are already probably suffering from psychiatric problems of various kinds.”(14)

In a similar vein research commissioned by the Queensland Government Multicultural Affairs unit found that “the detention experience for most TPV [Temporary Protection Visa] entrants has left them feeling exposed, vulnerable and disillusioned. Time spent in detention was marred by negligent treatment by staff, lack of information pertaining to release and lack of information about what is going on in the outside world. All interviewees had experienced or witnessed mistreatment of detainees by detention centre staff.”(15)

The Refugee Council of Australia has proposed an alternate detention model which involves a short period of detention (up to 90 days) while the circumstances and status of applicants are initially assessed. After this assessment period most asylum seekers would be released into the community, with reporting requirements and care by family members or community organisations. Applicants who are deemed to be unsuitable for community release would be detained in residential facilities, with freedom of movement restricted by a curfew.(16)

What happens to “boat people” who are granted asylum?

In 1999-2001 the Federal Government changed refugee law so that refugees who arrived in Australia “unlawfully” (eg “boat people”) cannot gain a permanent protection visa. They will be restricted to temporary protection visa, which will run out and need renewing every three years. Under the terms of the Temporary Protection Visa refugees who arrived “unlawfully” cannot ever bring family members to Australia, can never return to Australia if for any reason they leave, cannot access many of the services available to refugees who apply from offshore (eg Government funded English language classes), and can never access the mainstream welfare system to gain pensions (eg Parenting Allowance) or the Newstart (dole) allowance. The Government maintains this was a necessary measure to stem the flow of boat people(17). Critics suggest it is psychologically damaging (refugees will live in fear they will be sent back to a dangerous situation after their visa runs out), destructive of the family unit (eg in disallowing husbands and wives, parents and children, to be reunited), socially isolating, and makes it difficult for TPV holders to find work(18).

  1. Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Fact Sheet 2: “Key Facts in Immigration”
  2. Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Fact Sheet 60: “Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program”
  3. United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
  4. United Nations High Commission “2001 Global Population Statistics (Provisional)”
  5. Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Fact Sheet 61: “Seeking Asylum Within Australia” and Fact Sheet 79: “Processing Unlawful Arrivals”. Peter Mares, Borderline. Australia’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (University of NSW Press, 2001), details complaints that the system is fundamentally flawed.
  6. Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Fact Sheet 74a: “Boat Arrival Details”
  7. Phillip Ruddock, “Correspondence”, Quarterly Essay Issue 6, June 2002 p96
  8. 2001 United Nations High Commission on Refugees Population Statistics (Provisional): “Table 2. Asylum-seekers, refugees and others of concern to UNHCR by country of asylum, end-2001″
  9. United Nations High Commission on Refugees website
  10. 2001 United Nations High Commission on Refugees Population Statistics (Provisional): “Table 2. Asylum-seekers, refugees and others of concern to UNHCR by country of asylum, end-2001″
  11. United Nations High Commission on Refugees, “Number of asylum applications submitted in 30 industrialised countries, 1992-2001″
  12. Phillip Ruddock, “Correspondence”, Quarterly Essay Issue 6, June 2002 pp97-98.
  13. Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Fact Sheet 74a: “Boat Arrival Details”
  14. Quoted in Peter Mares, Borderline. Australia’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (University of NSW Press, 2001)
  15. Renae Mann, “Temporary Protection Visa Holders in Queensland”, p8. This is a research report for the Queensland State Government agency Multicultural Affairs Queensland.
  16. Refugee Council of Australia, “The Alternative to Detention Model”
  17. Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Fact Sheet 64 “Temporary Protection Visas”
  18. Eg Renae Mann, “Temporary Protection Visa Holders in Queensland”

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  1. Jennifer Doherty says:


    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.