Boat People, Illegal Migration and Asylum Seekers: in Perspective

Current Issues Brief 13 1999-2000

Adrienne Millbank
Social Policy Group
14 December 1999


Major Issues
Some comparative statistics
        Boat arrivals
        Air arrivals
The problem with illegals
'Illegals' and the asylum system
The international context
Some international comparisons
        The USA
        Western Europe

Major Issues

  • The recent wave of boat arrivals (over 3000 from January to December 1999, of whom over 1200 arrived in November) is the largest ever to reach Australia, and in the shortest time frame. While the boat people comprise a relatively small proportion of Australia's 'illegal' population, their arrival has generated some dramatic media coverage and has been described as a national emergency by both major political parties. The Government has been called upon both to turn around these 'queue jumpers' at sea, and to welcome these 'desperate refugees' with compassion. The problem of boat people does not however lend itself to straightforward solutions.
  • Most of Australia's current illegal population of about 53 000 have entered the country legally and overstayed their visa. Over 70 per cent have been here longer than a year. The only thing differentiating an illegal migrant from a model resident may be a valid visa. However the illegal population predominantly comprises, in migration terms, the 'unskilled'. There is public concern both that they are taking the jobs of the legally resident unemployed, and that their irregular status makes them vulnerable to exploitation by employers or the smugglers who have organised their entry.
  • Boat arrivals pose a dimension of urgency in that they involve the practical difficulties and costs, and human rights concerns, of detention. They represent a very public challenge in terms of government capacity to control who enters the country, and to manage our annual migrant and humanitarian 'intakes'. While some have sought to land clandestinely and work in Australia, most have come to claim refugee status, and have not tried to avoid detection. They thus also provide a public demonstration of how options for dealing with people unlawfully in Australia are constrained by the international asylum system, and the way our obligations under the United Nations 'Refugee' Convention are written into Australian migration law.
  • Illegal or 'undocumented' migration has increased dramatically worldwide over the last 10 years, and illegal and asylum seeker categories have become blurred in many Western and especially European Union 'Convention' countries. Levels of desire and need to move from poor and war-torn countries have intensified, as opportunities for legal entry, even to traditional immigration countries, have diminished. The number of people estimated to be living and working outside their country of origin has been put at 120 million. Irregular migration has emerged as a major international challenge. The international people smuggling industry is currently worth over $11 billion; one in 3 people who have moved to Western Europe, and one in 4 to the USA in recent years are estimated to have done so illegally, or as asylum seekers.
  • While Australia does not rank amongst the highest countries in the world in terms of numbers of asylum seekers, relative to population it is moving up the scale. In 1998-99 Australia received, on a per capita basis, fewer asylum claims than the UK, and much fewer than Germany or Switzerland, but more than France or Italy. In terms of immigration countries, Australia received twice as many asylum claims per capita than the USA, but half as many as Canada.
  • The USA, the most attractive of immigration countries and most vulnerable in terms of land borders, has an estimated illegal resident population of 5.5 million, growing at 275 000 per year. Similar estimates are made for the European Union. Canada has become one migration zone with the USA, with New York the destination of many boat people and asylum seekers. Canada's resident illegal population is unknown, but has been estimated in 1999 as at least 10 000. While illegal migration at least in the USA, although contentious, appears to be generally tolerated in a time of economic growth, illegal boat arrivals are as politically sensitive and publicly divisive in other immigration countries as in Australia.
  • International migration and asylum seeker pressures are expected to increase in coming years. The long-term solution is seen as improved living standards and political stability in 'sending' countries. The short to medium term solution is tighter border controls and more restricted refugee determination systems, together with efforts to integrate established 'undocumented' populations. Australia has to date been relatively protected by its physical remoteness, its lack of land borders and its strictly controlled visa regime. However with access to northern hemisphere countries increasingly restricted, improvements in communications and travel, and the emergence of a profitable international people smuggling industry, Australia appears to be becoming a more attractive destination.
  • Overseas experience suggests that more resources may in future be directed to dealing with illegal arrivals, visa 'overstayers' and on-shore asylum seekers. Additional policy and administrative resources may also be needed to focus on regional illegal movements and refugee solutions, and on negotiating 'safe country' and readmission agreements with 'sending' countries further afield.
  • Overseas experience further suggests that despite these efforts, and the fact that management of Australia's immigration and humanitarian programs is unmatched, Australia's illegal population may increase. And people in situations of need and refugee camps overseas, who have been determined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to require resettlement in a 'third country', may comprise a decreasing proportion of Australia's annual refugee and humanitarian intake.


The recent wave of boat arrivals (over 3000 from January to 6 December 1999, of whom over 1300 have arrived in the last six weeks) is the largest ever to reach Australia, and in the shortest time frame. It has generated some dramatic media coverage and intense and often emotional public debate. The recent wave of arrivals has been described as a national emergency by both major political parties. Border protection and related legislation has been pushed through the Spring 1999 parliamentary session on a bipartisan and priority basis. The recent wave of arrivals is clearly seen by political leaders as representing a very public challenge in terms of government capacity to control who enters the country, and to manage our annual migrant and humanitarian 'intakes'.

Public concern and anger has been expressed through calls, including by WA State premier Richard Court, for these 'queue jumpers' to be turned around at sea, or promptly returned to where they have come from. Refugee advocates on the other hand have called for the human rights of these obviously 'desperate refugees' to be respected, and argued that they should simply be allowed to stay. Migration advocates and agents have blamed immigration restrictions of recent years for the recent wave of arrivals,(1) and refugee observers have blamed the inability of the international community to address refugee situations overseas:(2) people are being forced into the hands of organised people smugglers by the lack of legitimate migration channels or effective refugee solutions.

Despite public perceptions and the views of advocacy groups the problem of boat people arrivals does not lend itself to immediate or simplistic solutions. It is multifaceted and has resource and policy implications ranging from our coastal surveillance capacity,(3) to how our international obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention are interpreted in Australian migration law, to our regional and international representational capacity and influence.

Some comparative statistics(4)

The boat people who arrived in 1999 represent numerically only a tiny fraction of non-citizen entrants, and a small proportion of Australia's 'illegal' population. In the financial year 1998-99, besides the over 3 million visitors who entered Australia, there were about 110 000 legal temporary residents, including 67 000 students. At the end of June 1999, the calculation of people resident illegally was 53 143. Australia's illegal population has increased in recent years; the latest figure is an increase of 5 per cent over the December 1998 figure of 50 600, and compares with 46 232 at June 1997. It would be twice as high had not the practice been adopted in 1994 of granting people bridging visas while their applications for migrant or protection (refugee status) visas are considered.

The great majority of 'illegals' have arrived legally, and overstayed their tourist, student or other short-term visas. The true extent of illegal entry is unknown with certainty; detection figures obviously reflect only the minimum number. However, it would appear that those who arrive illegally, that is without a valid entry visa, by boat or plane, comprise a relatively small (in the order of 10 per cent) albeit rapidly growing proportion of Australia's illegal population. In recent years, illegal air arrivals have outnumbered illegal boat arrivals, however in 1999 the ratio was reversed, with boat arrivals outnumbering air arrivals.

Boat arrivals

The 3123 figure for boat arrivals for the period 1 January to 6 December 1999 compares with 200 in 1998 and 339 in 1997, and brings to a total of about 6350 the number of boat people who have arrived since 1989. Despite public perceptions to the contrary, concerns that many more may have arrived undetected somewhere on our 'vast and vulnerable' coastline and be living and working in Australia appear to be unfounded. Virtually none of the 13 500 'illegals' located in 1998-99, and interviewed by immigration officials, was found to be linked with boat arrivals.

As indicated, of the 3123 boat people who have arrived in Australia so far in 1999, over 1300 arrived in the one six month period. Boat arrivals are not new to Australia. What is new however is the scale, scope and highly sophisticated level of organisation of recent arrivals. The Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s (about 2000 between 1977 and 1981) were comparatively spontaneous departures, often in flimsy boats containing small family groups. Since the Chinese and Cambodian boat arrivals of the late 1980s, the boats have been larger and more seaworthy. Recent arrivals have come from origins well outside our region, typically comprise larger groups of predominantly young (24-35 year old) males, and are highly organised by people smugglers. The going rates for passage to Australia are reportedly in the range of $10 000-$40 000, depending on the point of departure and level of service provided.(5)

The recent arrivals have come from southern provinces of China, South Asia (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) and the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan), often via Indonesia. Some come with the aim of bypassing immigration clearance and working illegally in Australia. Included amongst these are the boat people from China who landed on the eastern coast in April and May 1999.(6) Most of the recent boat arrivals however have come with the purpose of claiming refugee status. They head directly for Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island, and do not attempted to avoid detection. Once ashore they make an application for asylum in accordance with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention,(7) that is they seek refugee status. They are then taken to the mainland where their case can be heard-and where they are detained pending this determination.(8) People from countries affected by civil war and political conflict, known as 'hot spots' such as Iraq, Iran, or Lebanon, receive high rates of acceptance as refugees; recent acceptance rates for Iraqi boat people have been 97 per cent, and for people from Afghanistan 92 per cent.

Of the 200 boat arrivals in 1998, so far 160 have departed, 24 have been granted refugee status, and 16 remain in detention. Of the over 3000 who arrived January-6 December 1999, 450 have departed, 300 have been granted refugee status, and the rest remain in detention.

Air arrivals

Over the last few years, but without equivalent press coverage or sense of urgency, the number of people illegally arriving by air (that is with no valid entry documents or with forged documents) has also increased dramatically. In 1998-99, 2106 persons were 'refused immigration clearance' at airports, compared with 1550 in 1997-98, and 1347 in 1996-97. The main countries of citizenship of recent illegal air arrivals have been Iraq, Malaysia, South Korea, the People's Republic of China, India, and Thailand.

Most unauthorised arrivals detected at airports are turned around quickly; in 1998-99 1457 were removed from Australia within 72 hours. Of the 2106 illegal air arrivals in 1998-99, 615 were 'assessed as presenting information that, prima facie, may engage Australia's protection obligations'; in other words they succeeded in entering the asylum system. The main countries of citizenship of these were Iraq, Algeria and Iran.

Given the level of sophistication of organised illegal people movements, involving high quality forged documents, and the high volume of traffic through our major airports, it is probable that more people may be entering the country unauthorised and undetected by air than are arriving unnoticed in boats.


As at 30 June 1999, the estimated 'stock' number of overstayers,(9) that is people illegally resident in Australia because they have overstayed their visas, was 53 143. In 1998-99 13 472 were located, and 8308 departed. Many overstayers wish simply to extend their short stays, report themselves to Immigration, and leave of their own accord. Others simply stay and live and work in Australia illegally.

Citizens of the UK (about 11 per cent of overstayers) followed by the USA (9 per cent), the People's Republic of China (PRC) (7 per cent) and Indonesia (6 per cent) ranked highest in terms of numbers of overstayers at 30 June 1999. However, proportional to numbers entering on short-term visas, people from poorer and war-torn countries and countries in our region predominate. The countries with the highest visitor overstay rates in 1998-99 were Tonga, Colombia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Vietnam, Peru, Samoa and the PRC. The two countries with the highest number of visitors were Japan and the UK, which had visitor overstay rates of 0.0 per cent and 0.1 per cent respectively.

In 1998-99 the illegal population is estimated to have increased by 20 000, while 13 500 'illegals' were located. Locating and organising the departure of people living here illegally becomes more difficult the longer they are here and the more they become established members of the community. Of overstayers located in June 1999, over 73 per cent had been here longer than one year, and over 27 per cent had been here for 9 years or more. Seventeen per cent of 'illegals' located in 1998-99 admitted working.

Most of the 13-14 000 or so illegals uncovered each year are located through 'dob-ins' by work mates or neighbours. Others are located by data matching between immigration, taxation and social security agencies. Overstayers for whom departure is organised may be subjected to an exclusion period of 3 years, and are required to repay detention and removal costs before being granted another entry visa.

The problem with illegals

The feature that many people most enjoy about our major cities-vibrant and enterprising ethnic communities, offering a variety of cheap goods and food and restaurants-are fuelled by illegal as well as legal immigrants. A Four Corners program in 1999(10) reported a Chinese community estimate that there were 10 000 illegal immigrants in Sydney's Chinatown alone. The only thing separating a model resident from an 'illegal alien' may be a valid visa. The same Four Corners program interviewed an obviously successful former immigrant and now citizen who had previously lived and worked here illegally-long enough to become proficient in English and to develop the skills and sponsorship network to enable him to re-enter the country legitimately.

However the 'illegal' population comprises, in migration terms, predominantly unskilled or lower skilled people who would not qualify under current entry criteria. There is public concern that they are taking jobs that should go to the legally resident unemployed. There is also concern that their irregular status-they are not entitled to government benefits-makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation by employers or those who have organised their entry. And the continuing existence or growth of ethnic communities which are marginalised and disadvantaged by their irregular status, and by their concentration in insecure and crime related areas such as the sex industry, is anathema to the immigration ideals of Australia.

According to the Immigration Department, while keeping the 'stock' number or illegals down is resource intensive, the growth of the illegal population makes detection difficult, and encourages further illegal migration.(11) Allowing a build up of an illegally resident population also creates pressure for amnesties or periodic 'regularisation of status' for people who have established themselves in Australia. And such 'amnesties' or 'regularisation of status' programs encourage further illegal immigration.

Concerns related to the boat people and unauthorised air arrivals are of another order of urgency. Illegal arrivals involve the immediate practical difficulties and costs-and humanitarian and civil liberty concerns-of detention. And the boat arrivals in particular provide a very public demonstration of how options for dealing with people unlawfully in Australia are constrained by the international asylum system, and the way that the UN Refugee Convention obligations have been written into Australian migration law. Measures for dealing with illegal boat arrivals have also had to be developed within pragmatic and diplomatic constraints, such as the need to obtain the agreement of source countries to take back those of their nationals or former residents who may not be granted refugee status.

'Illegals' and the asylum system

While the boat people have supporters, others see such 'self-selecting' entry as a challenge to Australia's sovereignty, and the increasing numbers of on-shore asylum claims as having the potential to distort our 'world's best practice' refugee (called humanitarian) migration program. Australia maintains the highest per capita refugee resettlement program of any contemporary nation, together with a highly developed and costly 'integrated' settlement program. The humanitarian program has a non-economic, indeed an openly humanitarian rationale. Refugee settlement is costly; humanitarian entrants require special settlement services, and they are likely to remain unemployed and to require support for extended periods.(12)

The 1999-2000 humanitarian program has a ceiling of 12 000, of which a nominal 2000 places are set aside for successful onshore asylum seekers. Twice as many places, i.e. 4000, are planned for refugees who have been determined by the UNHCR to be in need of resettlement from overseas camps. A further 6000 places are planned for 'humanitarian' and 'special assistance' category entrants; people who may not be determined to be Convention refugees but are in situations of hardship and need, and often have links with Australia through family or friends. The Immigration Minister has undertaken to reduce the overseas humanitarian program commensurately if more than 2000 places are granted to asylum seekers in Australia.

In the 1980s about 500 asylum claims were lodged in Australia, i.e. 'on-shore', each year. Numbers increased in the 1990s, reaching a high in 1998-99 when 11 000 applications for 'protection', i.e. refugee visas were lodged. People intending to apply for refugee status in Australia have since July 1998 been required to lodge applications within 45 days of entering the country, or lose any work rights associated with their bridging visas. A post Refugee Review Tribunal (appeal) decision fee of $1000 was also imposed on failed claimants.

In 1998-99 a lower number, 8257, protection visa applications were lodged. A total of 1834 protection visas were granted, including 985 at the primary decision stage and 741 following review by the RRT. A further 108 were granted by ministerial discretion. The proportion of successful applicants in 1998-99 was thus 22.5 per cent. Protection visas provide the holder with permanent residence in Australia, provided they have entered lawfully. Boat arrivals or illegal air arrivals who are granted refugee status have since 21 October 1999 been provided in the first instance with 3 year temporary visas, which provide access to welfare support (Special Benefits), but not to family reunion.

Acceptance rates (the proportion of applicants granted refugee status), vary considerably according to the country or region of the applicant. Applicants from Indonesia, the PRC, and Sri Lanka represented a significant proportion (40 per cent) of all protection visa applicants in 1998-99. A significant number also came from other countries in our region, including the Philippines. Acceptance rates in 1998-99 at the initial departmental decision stage were less than 1 per cent for nationals of Indonesia and the PRC,(13) virtually nil for the Philippines, and 18 per cent for Sri Lanka. The highest approval rates were for applicants from Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, 70-80 per cent at the initial stage, and over 90 per cent following review by the independent appeal body, the Refugee Review Tribunal.

The cost to Australia in 1998-99 of locating, removing and detaining people who had arrived illegally, and those found to be working illegally, was $128 million; this financial year it is expected to be $200 million. The number of protection visa claimants who fail to leave the country after their case is rejected, and simply join the illegal resident population in Australia is estimated to be about 5000. Expenditure on Australia's on-shore refugee determination system in 1998-99, excluding litigation costs incurred through appeals to the courts, was in the order of $35 million ($19.5 million by the Immigration Department, for initial decision making and asylum seeker assistance payments ($9 million), and $15.5 million for the RRT). By way of comparison, Australia's contribution to the UNHCR's international refugee effort in 1998-99 was about $20 million.

The international context

'Illegal' or 'undocumented' international population movements have escalated dramatically over the last 10 years, as levels of desire and need to move have increased, while opportunities for legal entry have decreased. One in three people who have moved to Western Europe, and one in four who have moved to the USA in recent years, have done so as undocumented migrants.(14) The UN has estimated that there were 120 million people living and working outside their country of nationality, up from 50 million in 1989. Irregular migration has emerged as a major international challenge,(15) as has the refugee situation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 1998 estimate of world refugee numbers was 11.5 million, within a 'population of concern' of 21.5 million.

The reasons why more people than ever before want and have to move include increased conflict and political instability and the breakdown of borders following the end of the Cold War, and growing populations of young people in Third World countries with limited employment prospects. Discrepancies in income and life opportunities between wealthy and poorer countries have increased, as have awareness of these discrepancies and ability to move, through revolutions in global communications and travel.

Opportunities to migrate legally to Western countries, except for the skilled or those with money to invest, or those with close family ties, including even to the traditional immigration countries (the USA, Canada, Australia and NZ), have however progressively closed off. As legal opportunities have become way insufficient to meet demand, people have made use of the asylum channel as the one remaining avenue to legal entry, to the extent that illegal and asylum seeker populations in many (especially European Union) countries have blurred.

Asylum claims reached absurdly high levels in the early 1990s in some Western European countries and particularly Germany. (In 1993 Germany received nearly half a million claims, and had a resident population of 1.5 million asylum seekers.) The UNHCR has acknowledged that by the early 1990s the vast majority of asylum seekers in Western countries were economic migrants. It has however urged convention countries to maintain the international asylum system, and to ensure that 'real' refugees are not blocked from refugee determination systems.(16)

Measures to bring asylum seeker numbers down and prevent them accessing refugee determination systems have included: tighter border and visa controls; 'harmonisation' of claims (within the European Union, and within Northern America); summary assessments of 'manifestly unfounded' claims and turnaround of people (at border crossings and airports); 'expedited' or speeded up refugee determination processes; safe country of origin and safe third country decrees; and repatriation agreements. Numbers of asylum claims, while still significant, came down in the late 1990s. However illegal populations have not decreased.(17)

One undesired result of tougher border control measures and more restricted access to asylum systems has been the development of organised people smuggling. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimated in 1996 that 4 million people were moved each year, as part of an industry worth an annual $11 billion, and that few areas of the world remained unaffected. Another result of tightening entry controls in Europe and the USA has been the targeting of more distant and relatively isolated countries, like Australia.

Some international comparisons(18)

As indicated above, Australia has an illegal population of about 53 000, and possibly as many again on bridging visas pending determination of their migration or refuge status. In 1997-98 Australia received 11 000 claims and in 1998-99 about 8300. The success rate in 1998-99 was 22.5 per cent.


The USA is the most attractive of the official immigration countries, with the most vulnerable of borders, and provides a good examples of both the near impossibility of liberal democracies completely controlling illegal migration, and of the stresses and resultant absurdities in the international asylum system in the late 1990s.

The US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) estimated the illegal population in the USA in 1996 at 5 million. It also estimated it to be growing at the rate of about 275 000 per year, despite a budget in the order of US$4.8 billion, the bulk of which is dedicated to border control. About 2.1 million, or 41 per cent of the total undocumented population in 1996 were nonimmigrant overstayers. The rest had entered illegally, most across the Mexican border.(19) Anti-illegal migration rhetoric has run high in the USA in recent years, apparently to placate public concern, while politicians praise legal migrants in pursuit of the critical migrant vote. Once in the US, however, 'illegals' run little risk of removal. Illegal immigrants are welcomed as low wage labour by (especially agricultural) employers, and are generally tolerated in a time of economic growth and low unemployment.

The INS has virtually given up on controlling illegal numbers, and pursues as a matter of priority only those individuals involved in criminal activity.(20) The level of police activity and mass deportations that would be involved in seriously addressing the illegal 'problem' might in any event be unthinkable in such a pluralistic and individual rights oriented society. California in 1996 had an illegal population of about 2 million, Texas 700 000, New York 540 000 and Florida 350 000.

Boat arrivals however appear to be as politically sensitive as in Australia, and tough and costly measures are employed to prevent people reaching US shores. US coastguards board and search suspect vessels outside US territorial waters, and boat people from Cuba and Haiti caught by the US Coastguard or navy are turned around at sea and taken back. If they manage to get a foot on US territory, people from these countries are granted almost automatic political asylum. Extraordinary and shocking measures have been employed recently to prevent them from achieving this goal, including a naval blockade of US territory in Micronesia earlier this year, and efforts to hose Cuban asylum seekers off a Miami beach.(21)

During 1998 54 952 asylum claims were lodged in the US and 9939 accepted, for a 23 per cent approval rate. The majority of claims were from Mexicans, who have the lowest acceptance rate of any nationality, at 0.6 per cent. The highest acceptance rates have been for nationals of Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq.


The illegal population of Canada is unknown, but has been estimated in 1999 as at least 10 000.(22) Canada is however increasingly viewed as part of a single migration zone with the USA. Many boat people who land in Canada are en route to the US, and particularly New York, and the bulk of asylum claims are received at the US border. Canada would appear to be seen by many asylum seekers as more generous and receptive than the US, but a less desirable place to live.

Canada is in fact the most generous of any Convention country. Canada received 24 937 asylum claims in 1998. In the mid-1990s Canada's asylum seeker approval rate was 70 per cent; in 1998 it was 56 per cent.(23) Many of those who are not accepted as Convention refugees are provided humanitarian visas: mechanisms such as the post-determination refugee class, or the deferred removal orders class have allowed many failed applicants to remain legally. Most of the remainder would appear to simply stay and join Canada's illegal population. It appears as if energy is put into removing only those refused applicants who have committed crimes in the past, or who have committed serious crimes in Canada.(24)

Boat arrivals have increased this year, many from Fujian province in southern China. (Over 600 boat people arrived between 1 July and 10 December 1999.) As in Australia, the Canadian public is sharply divided, with some wanting to welcome the boat people to Canada, and others wanting to turn them away. Canada describes its refugee policy as the most humanitarian and compassionate in the world. However the UNHCR has apparently criticised Canada for its high acceptance rates, as discrediting the international refugee system.(25) The PRC Government has similarly accused Canada of encouraging illegal immigration by granting refugee status to 'economic migrants', arguing that rapid repatriation is the only way to 'shatter illusions' and slow people smuggling operations out of China.(26)

Canada's 1999 Immigration Plan(27) includes a notional target of 7000 'Government sponsored' refugees; people from refugee camps overseas that the UNHCR has determined need to be resettled in a third country. In a reversal of the situation in Australia, twice as many places are allocated for 'refugees landed in Canada', and their dependents, i.e. asylum seekers. Canada's high on shore asylum seeker acceptance rate has been a contentious public issue. Also contentious has been the Can$1000 landing fee, a cost recouping measure applied to refugees (on a pay later basis) and migrants alike.

Western Europe

The illegal population in Western Europe is unknown, but is generally considered to rival that of the US. Estimates are complicated by the periodic regularisation of status of illegal and asylum seeker populations who have found stable employment and effectively settled, often with their families. The IOM estimated that in 1996 the business of smuggling people into European Union countries was worth US$4 billion, and involved some 400 000 people a year.

In 1998 Germany received about 99 000 asylum applications, Switzerland 41 000, the UK 46 000, France 22 000 and Finland 1000. Italy received over 10 000, up from 1858 in 1997, and 675 in 1996. The acceptance rate for European countries is generally lower than for the traditional immigration countries, varying in 1998 from 0.6 per cent in Finland, to 4 per cent in Germany, 8 per cent in Sweden, 15 per cent in Switzerland, but up to 32 per cent for Italy. A number of those not granted refugee status may however be permitted to remain on humanitarian grounds, often with temporary or provisional visas, and with less access to public benefits. Few failed asylum seekers actually leave, however; most of those not granted refugee or humanitarian status simply remain and merge in with the illegal population. (The UNHCR has estimated that while over 80 per cent of asylum claims are rejected, fewer than 25 per cent of failed asylum seekers actually leave the country in which they lodge their claim.)

So far this year over 20 000 Albanian boat people have arrived in Italy, many en route to Germany. The illegal population in Italy has been estimated to be in the order of 200-300 000 in recent years. Earlier this year the Italian Government provided an amnesty which 'regularised' the status of about 250 000 undocumented arrivals who had established themselves in Italy. This follows similar amnesties in 1995 and 1996.


The illegal migration and asylum seeker pressure on Western countries is expected to increase over the next 25 years. The only 'solution' envisaged by international migration forums is to improve the living standards, political stability and democratic institutions in countries of origin, so that people no longer want or need to move.(28) This solution obviously entails a long-term effort, and one that in the short to medium term will increase rather than decrease migration pressures. In the meantime, 'receiving' countries, including the traditional immigrant receiving countries, will continue to tighten border controls and attempt to restrict asylum seeker entry. The officially non-immigrant countries of Europe and the UK will also intensify their efforts to integrate their sizeable illegal and asylum seeker populations that have become established.

Australia has been largely protected from the levels of illegal and asylum seeker movements experienced by other countries, by its physical remoteness, its lack of land borders and its strict visa regime. With cheaper and more direct air travel, increasing temporary movements, tighter border controls and more restricted asylum seeker access in Europe and the USA, together with the advent of a highly sophisticated global people smuggling industry,(29) Australia could become a more attractive destination. Besides relative economic and political stability, and remoteness from world conflicts, Australia offers well-developed and comparatively generous migrant and refugee settlement assistance and quick access to citizenship entitlements.

Australia does not rank amongst the highest countries in the world in terms of illegal populations and asylum seekers, but it has entered the general ballpark. In 1998-99 Australia received, on a per capita basis, fewer asylum claims than the UK, and much fewer than Germany or Switzerland, but more than France or Italy. In terms of immigration countries, Australia received twice as many asylum claims per capita than the USA, but half as many as Canada. In per capita terms, Australia in 1998-99 had an estimated illegal population, per million population, of 2819, compared with the USA's 20 328 per million population.

Australia, the USA and Canada are often compared on immigration issues. However Australia and the USA have different labour market and welfare traditions and cultures, and they also have different migration cultures. In the USA legal migration is dominated by family migration, and the focus of recent policy and debate is illegal migration. Canada's and Australia's migrant and humanitarian programs have been more similar, but have diverged in recent years, with Canada maintaining higher immigration intakes, even in times of relatively high unemployment, and a refugee program increasingly dominated by asylum seekers.

It is questionable whether many countries-Canada perhaps aside-would sign up to the 1951 international refugee convention today, or that it would be put forward as a workable way of addressing the refugee situation at the beginning of the 21st Century. However Australia, along with other Convention countries, appears reluctant to revisit it, despite the skewing of the international refugee effort resulting from the focus of individual countries on their refugee determination systems, and their efforts to weed out (possibly no less desperate) 'economic' from political refugees. (In 1992 the cost to Western Governments alone of processing their estimated two million on-shore asylum-seeker claims and providing welfare payments to applicants awaiting decisions was estimated at around US$7 billion: ten times the annual worldwide expenditure of the UNHCR in that year.(30))

Overseas experience suggests it is likely that more resources in Australia may be directed in future towards dealing with illegal arrivals and on shore asylum seekers. Practical and cost considerations as well as humanitarian concerns may force a revision of the detention policy, if numbers of illegal arrivals get much higher. Additional policy and administrative resources may be needed to focus on regional refugee solutions, and on negotiating readmission agreements with sending countries further afield. And a decreasing proportion of Australia's annual refuge intake may come via UNHCR advice from refugee camps overseas, as increasing numbers of people seek protection visas in Australia.


  1. See Dick Pratt, 'Refugee alert sounds like a wake-up call', The Australian, 25/11/99.

  2. Carolyn Graydon, 'Why new refugee laws set a bad precedent', The Sydney Morning Herald, 24/11/99.

  3. See forthcoming Information and Research Services paper by Derek Woolner on issues in coastal surveillance.

  4. Illegal and asylum seeker information and statistics are taken from Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Fact Sheets (, annual reports, and other departmental publications.

  5. See for example Karen Polglaze, 'Illegal migrants washed up on rising human tide', The West Australian, 18/8/1999.

  6. The eastern coast arrivals in 1999 heralded Australia's entry into a new era of people smuggling, with the use of 'motherships' which remained outside territorial waters and contacts in Australia to ferry illegal migrants ashore.

  7. Australia is one of 134 signatories to the 1951 United Nations Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention defines refugees as people who 'are outside their country of nationality or their usual country of residence, and are unable or unwilling to return or to seek the protection of that country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinions'. The basic principle and obligation under the Convention is that of 'non-refoulement', i.e. not sending someone back into a situation of danger.

  8. The policy of detention is described in DIMA Fact Sheet no 82, op cit, and was explored by a parliamentary committee in 1993-94. Joint Standing Committee on Migration, Asylum, Border Control and Detention, AGPS Canberra 1994.

  9. The estimate of 'unlawful' non-citizens resident in Australia is prepared at 30 June and 31 December each year, based on arrival and departure data from 1981.

  10. ABC TV, 'The People Smugglers' Guide to Australia', Four Corners, 23/8/99.

  11. Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Protecting the Border: Immigration Compliance, DIMA, December 1999.

  12. See data from Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Longitudinal Survey of Immigration to Australia. LSIA Reports are listed at

  13. In 1995, following amendments to the Migration Act, the PRC was declared a safe third country for the purpose of the Sino-Vietnamese former refugee boat people from the Beihai region in southern China. They are thus precluded from accessing the refugee determination system. Also in 1995 the High Court upheld the then Government's position that people affected by China's one child policy do not constitute a persecuted 'social group' under the terms of the refugee convention. A high proportion of claims made under this policy are rejected.

  14. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS).

  15. Described by Michael Shenstone, former Canadian diplomat and consultant on refugee and population issues, in World Population Growth and movement: Towards the 21st Century, Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

  16. UNHCR Note on International Protection. A/AC. 96/830.

  17. Measures to regulate and control illegal and asylum seeker inflows are described in SOPEMI Trends in International Migration, OECD, Paris, 1999; and UN Population Division International Migration Policies, UN, New York, 1998.

  18. Asylum claim figures are taken from the US Committee for Refugees Internet site, at

  19. US Department of Labor Immigration Policy and Research Working Paper Developments in International Migration to the US: 1998.

  20. November reports, collated by Mark Krikorian,

  21. Described in 'Farewell Cuba', The Economist, 10 July 1999.

  22. By the Reform Party.

  23. The Canadian Government claims its acceptance rate is under 50 per cent. However other observers inside and outside Canada (including the Canadian Parliamentary Library) usually calculate it as the number of positive decisions per claims concluded by a final decision. (A significant number of claims, including 50 per cent of boat people this year, are withdrawn or abandoned.)

  24. Tom Fennell, 'Canada's Open Door', Maclean's, 28 August 1999.

  25. M. Shenstone, op cit.

  26. Paul Mooney, 'Human smuggling is big business', Maclean's, 23 August 1999.

  27. At internet site

  28. OECD, SOPEMI 1999, op cit.

  29. The International Organisation for Migration's Internet homepage on people trafficking is at See also OECD, SOPEMI 1999, ibid.

  30. G. Loescher, 'Refugee Movements and International Security', Adelphi Papers, Summer 1992.