Frequently asked questions: Australia's role


Why should Australia take in people seeking asylum? . . .

Australia was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention which recognises the right of every person to seek asylum. As a signatory to the Convention, Australia has an obligation to protect people who arrive on our territory seeking asylum. Australia is a wealthy country and is well placed to offer protection to many more people from our region who are seeking asylum.

Aren't we doing more than our fair share? . . .

While the Government likes to claim that Australia is one of the leading countries that resettles refugees from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) settlement program, only 1% of refugees are registered with the UNHCR.

Australia has developed expertise in selecting and resettling refugees from refugee camps. However, in our region, the majority of people fleeing persecution do not have the opportunity to register with the UNHCR, or stay in refugee camps.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s fact sheet Australia versus the World shows that in 2014 Australia was host to around 35,500 refugees representing 0.25% of the total number of refugees, placing us 50th in the world or 67th on a per capita basis.

Isn't it illegal for people to seek asylum by boat? . . .

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees. The Convention makes it clear that it is not illegal for people to seek asylum by boat. Furthermore the Convention states that refugees must not be penalised or punished for their method of arrival in a country.

In recent years 90% of people who come to Australia by boat are found to be refugees once their claims for refugee status are properly assessed. This is a much higher rate than for those who arrive by plane, indicating that those who have no option but to come by boat are truly desperate to escape from dangerous situations.

Aren't people seeking asylum really just immigrants? . . .

A person seeking asylum is not an immigrant. Immigrants leave a country by choice and are able to return home at any time.

People seeking asylum leave their homes because they are in fear of their lives and cannot return home while the conditions that make them fearful continue to exist.

Why are people seeking asylum coming to Australia by boat?. . .

The Asia Pacific region offers very little protection for people seeking asylum and this is one of the main reasons that people seeking asylum decide to move on to other countries such as Australia.
Few countries in the region have signed the Refugee Convention or have domestic laws in place that provide legal protection for refugees. In these countries people seeking asylum can suffer violent abuse, exploitation and poverty with little access to health, education and other basic services.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has a small office in Indonesia, and there are long waiting times to have claims for refugee status assessed. With Australia offering so few resettlement places many people who are recognised as refugees are stranded in Indonesia, potentially for decades.

Aren’t people coming by boat just 'queue' jumpers? . . .

In reality there is no fair and orderly queue for people seeking asylum to join. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, very few resettlement places are available globally and while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tries to prioritise those in greatest need, most refugees - even people in very vulnerable situations cannot realistically expect to be resettled in the near future, if ever.

Only a small proportion of people seeking asylum are registered with the UNHCR and less than 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled in any given year. This means that people who are recognised as refugees still face decades of waiting in temporary, dangerous conditions for an offer of resettlement in another country.
People who flee from countries in the region have no safe ‘waiting place’.

In Indonesia refugees have no legal rights, they cannot work or send their children to school. Over the last 10 years, Australia has only resettled 2604 people directly from Indonesia. The Government has recently announced that it will only resettle 450 refugees annually from Indonesia in future and no one who has registered with the UNHCR on or after 1 July 2014.

If we let people come by boat won’t we be swamped? . . .

The reality is that the numbers of people travelling to Australia by boat are relatively small. The United Nations has shown that the overwhelming majority of people seeking asylum travel to countries that are next to the country they are fleeing from.

Since 1976 when the first wave of boats carrying people seeking asylum started arriving in Australia by boat, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the highest number of people arriving in any calendar year was 20,587 in 2013. This number is tiny when compared to the 190,000 people that are accepted every year under Australia’s skilled and family migration programs.

As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, Australia has an obligation to protect people who arrive on our territory seeking asylum whether they come by sea or by air.

Isn't it important to stop people smugglers and drownings at sea? . . .

People smuggling occurs because there are no other reasonable options for people seeking asylum and safety. The key to reducing the number of people risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys is to make their living conditions safer so that they won’t be forced into making onward journeys in the first place.

Australia must work more actively with neighbouring countries to build safer pathways for people seeking asylum so that living conditions in places like Indonesia (the last country of departure for most travelling by boat) are safer while they wait for their claims for refugee status to be assessed (See question: "What should Australia be doing" in section 'How Can I Help?').

Turning back boats may disrupt people smugglers in the short term but this can mean that they just simply move to a new location placing their passengers in very unsafe situations. For example, we know that Burmese refugees in Thailand are subject to abuse and trafficking, and many have been killed in recent years.

Boat turn backs cannot be a part of Australia’s response policy going forward as it undermines our ability to build good working relationships with countries in the region such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.