Boat people - 20% of our immigrants?

SIEV vessel, credit Chai Sabz


Dr Savitri Taylor

Kerry Murphy


First published on The Conversation on 22 July 2013.



‘The numbers have spiked. Twenty per cent of Australia’s immigration program now comes to our shores courtesy of people smugglers… You’re dealing with a very different situation when you’ve got what could be 40,000 arrivals a year from what you dealt with in the early 2000s when there were a couple of hundred a year.’ Foreign minister Bob Carr, Lateline interview, 9 July.


Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s dramatic policy announcement on Friday that all new boat arrivals would be sent to Papua New Guinea and would have ‘no chance’ of settling in Australia came after several weeks of claims about the rising number of boats to Australia. Senator Carr was at the forefront of the debate, making various statements including that the majority of asylum seekers are ‘economic refugees’ and that 20% of our immigration program was now arriving by boat.

It is true that the number of boat arrivals has spiked since the early 2000s. So far, the highest number of boat arrivals ever in a single year has been 17,202 in 2012. By contrast, there were 2,939 arrivals in 2000, 5,516 in 2001, 1 in 2002, 53 in 2003, and 15 in 2004. So Carr’s ‘couple of hundred a year’ is, while not quite right, fair enough.

On the other hand, the assertion which the Senator made in various ways in both the Lateline interview and a Sunday Telegraph opinion piece that 20% of our migration program is taken up by people brought to Australia by people smugglers is false.

The government has announced that Australia’s total migration program for 2013-14 will total 210,000 places*. Twenty per cent of 210,000 is 42,000 and Senator Carr stated that the figure he had in mind was 40,000.

Given that 12,936** was the actual number of boat arrivals in the first six months of 2013, Carr’s 40,000 figure was arrived at by extrapolation ( he has since said it could be as high as 50,000).

Even using that method, the average number of arrivals each month this year is 2,135, which would mean a figure of only 25,620 in a year. Only if the highest monthly figure of 3,351 in April 2013 is the new normal – which would ignore such things as seasonal influences on boat arrivals, for instance – would you get to Carr’s 40,000 figure.

Senator Carr also seemed to be implying that all unauthorised boat arrivals would be granted a protection visa and would be granted one in the year of arrival. This will not be the case now by reason of the government’s Friday announcement. More to the point, it was not going to be the case at the time of Carr’s statement, either.

First, not all unauthorised boat arrivals are given access to the protection visa application process. Second, not all of those who apply are found to meet the criteria for grant of a protection visa.

Senator Carr’s 20% assertion was also questionable for a third reason. The government has allocated 20,000 places to refugee and humanitarian entrants in 2013-14. It will, as the Howard government did before it, deduct the number of protection visas granted to onshore asylum seekers from this allocation.

Brendan O’Connor, the previous immigration minister, stated categorically that the 20,000 place allocation would not be exceeded. It was part of his explanation for being prepared to keep unauthorised boat arrivals found to be refugees on limited entitlement bridging visas for years instead of immediately granting them protection visas. Clearly Carr’s statement could not have been true, unless Brendan O’Connor’s statement was false.

Finally, it is misleading to link Australia’s fulfilment of its Refugee Convention and other treaty obligations to asylum seekers, who have entered Australia’s jurisdiction by whatever means, with Australia’s migration program. The linkage with a program which has nothing to do with those obligations is a myth promulgated by both Labor and the Coalition for the past two decades.

(*Australia’s total migration program for 2013-14 was calculated by adding figures in these two government media releases: ‘Migration program delivering for Australia’ and ‘Australia continues to meet its commitment to world’s most vulnerable people’)

(** Approximately the same number is arrived at by adding up the figures in relevant media releases by the Minister for Home Affairs.)


Carr’s claim that the number of boat arrivals has spiked is true. But it is incorrect to say that 20% of Australia’s immigration program come to our shores courtesy of people smugglers, even before the government’s changes designed to halt the number of boats arriving.


Senator Carr has confused arrival numbers with visa grants – they are two different things. Not everyone who arrives is permitted to make an application, let alone be granted a visa. There will be more applications than grants, as a number are refused.

The total number of grants in the humanitarian program for 2013/2014 will be 20,000. The total migration program for 2013/2014 is 190,000 migration places and 20,000 refugee and humanitarian. So of the 210,000 places, 20,000 refugee and humanitarian visas is around 9.5% of the total program.

It is true the number of arrivals has increased but not correct to state that 20% of the immigration program ‘is brought to Australia by people smugglers.’ – Kerry Murphy.

Dr Savitri Taylor is an Associate Professor in the La Trobe Law School.

Kerry Murphy is a Lecturer in Migration Law at the Australian National University.

Photo credit: Flickr/Chai Sabz