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12 Myths About Australia's 'Boat People'

Australia Travel
by Julian Burnside Aug 22, 2013

The Australian government has declared it will not grant visas to refugees who arrive by boat. Period. They claim it’s to protect them, because the trip is dangerous and people die en route.

This has sparked fierce debate among the citizens, but there’s a lot of misinformation being spread — notions that these people are “illegals” and “queue jumpers,” and that this is for “border protection.” Let me clear up these myths with some facts.

Myth: Boat people are ‘illegal.’

Fact: Asylum seekers who enter Australia by sea (or plane) without a valid visa are not illegal. They do not break any Australian law by coming here without papers and asking for protection. The right to enter without prior authorisation is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which Australia helped to draft.

Myth: Boat people are ‘queue jumpers.’

Fact: There is no queue for asylum seekers to join. Only 2% of the world’s refugees are in a queue. If all the millions of refugees worldwide were to join a queue, the wait for resettlement would be 135 years. Australia is the only country where the term “queue jumper” is used.

Interestingly, the address of the Australian Embassy in Kabul is kept secret, for security reasons. Not much chance of queuing there! And it has no ‘visa function’ either, so if you find it, you cannot apply for a visa. Some queue!

Myth: Boat arrivals are not genuine asylum seekers.

Fact: For obvious reasons, those who risk their lives in attempting the perilous journey by boat are more likely to be genuinely in need of protection. While only around 20% of plane arrivals are found to be genuine refugees, the proportion for boat arrivals is more than 90%.

Myth: Boat arrivals present a security risk.

Fact: No suspected terrorist has ever gained entry into Australia as a boat person. A potential terrorist is more likely to arrive by plane because boat arrivals are subject to the most rigorous security checks. The very act of arriving without documentation alerts authorities to undertake detailed screening.

It is much easier and safer for a would-be terrorist to arrive undetected in Australia by plane, either with a valid visa or false documentation.

Myth: Asylum seekers who can afford to come by boat are economic migrants.

Fact: If a rich person gets to Australia by boat, it is highly likely that they are a refugee. Why else would they risk their life to escape? A person who is rich and who is not persecuted is most unlikely to risk their life by trying to get to Australia on a leaky boat.

You can be wealthy and still be persecuted. In some countries authorities are more likely to target the well-educated and wealthy as they are the greatest threat to an authoritarian regime. Remember the Jews who fled Germany in the 1930s — quite a few were rich, but they were still refugees.

Myth: Australia is losing control of its borders.

Fact: No country in the world has greater control over its borders than Australia. Australia is an island continent with vast surrounding seas. This natural barrier makes irregular arrival very difficult.

The average number of unauthorised arrivals over the past 30 years is about 1,000 per year. Australia has around 4.5 million authorized arrivals each year: people coming for holidays, business, study, etc. The largest number of unauthorized arrivals in any one year was slightly fewer than 25,000 in the 12 months to 30 June 2013. That represents about 0.5% of all arrivals. Our border control works 99.5% of the time.

Myth: Mandatory detention is necessary for border security.

Fact: Australia is one of few nations in the world which locks up asylum seekers who arrive without visas. Not only is the detention mandatory, it is indefinite as well. The detention lasts as long as the process takes — 6 months, a year, 2 years, 4 years – it varies. At present, it is averaging around 2-3 years.

Australian practice has shown that asylum seekers allowed to live in the community while their asylum claims are processed are highly unlikely to abscond. This is because they have a vested interest in cooperating in order to gain full protection rights.

In 2005, Australia introduced a community-based detention system which allowed some asylum seekers to live unsupervised in the community, supported by the Red Cross. Of the 244 people placed in this program between July 2005 and May 2009, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship reports that only two people had absconded.

Myth: We no longer have children in detention.

Fact: Whilst there are no children in high security detention centres today, as at the end of July 2013, there were still over 1,700 children in immigration detention of some kind.

Myth: Australia has one of the most generous refugee intakes in the world.

Fact: Australia is the world’s 14th largest economy, yet in 2010, we accepted 0.03% of the world’s refugees. From over 40 million refugees globally, we took just 13,750.

In 2009, 20 industrialised countries accepted more asylum seekers per capita than Australia. The overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees are situated in the developing world in countries neighbouring their own. Pakistan, Syria, and Iran each host more than a million refugees and asylum seekers.

Myth: Asylum seekers coming to Australia could stop in another country along the way.

Fact: Asylum seekers who arrive from the Middle East and South Asia typically travel through Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia before arriving in Australia. These countries are not signatories to the Refugee Convention and do not offer protection for refugees.

Asylum seekers in Indonesia are at risk of being jailed if they are found by the authorities. Even if they are assessed as refugees by UNHCR, they are not allowed to work or send their children to school, and they face a wait of 10 to 40 years before a Western country offers to resettle them.

Faced with life in the shadows for decades, some of them are brave enough to get on a leaky boat in an attempt to reach safety in Australia. If you were in their shoes, what would you do?

Myth: Stopping the boats will save lives.

Fact: For people who are desperate, people smugglers are their only escape route. Cutting off a person’s last line of escape is no great favour. And if you are killed by the Taliban, you are just as dead as if you drown.

Since there is no ‘queue,’ refugees deterred from a boat trip are also effectively prevented from ever getting to safety in Australia. This is the real reason behind the “stop the boats” mantra. It’s not about saving the lives of asylum seekers. It’s about keeping them out of Australia.

Myth: Refugees do not contribute to society.

Fact: By definition, refugees are survivors. They have survived because they have the courage and initiative to escape to safety. These are exactly the qualities we value.

Refugees, who have fought for survival and overcome great traumas, have risked everything to get here. They express immense gratitude and dedication to their new country. The challenge for Australia is to help newly arrived refugees to rebuild their lives. If we do this, we will reap the benefit of the qualities and experiences they bring to Australia.

There are many refugees in this country who have gone on to do great things and have served us well in the fields of medicine, science, the arts, politics, and much more.


* This post was published at and was reprinted here with permission.

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