Boat People

The War on Boats

Two wars started in 2001, around the same time: the War on Terror and the War on Boats (warning: unofficial conflict. Don’t bother looking it up in Wikipedia — it’s not there).

Although largely overshadowed by 9/11, the events that led to the latter are still etched in our history books — the red Norwegian freighter Tampa which rescued 438 asylum seekers but was refused entry into Australian waters, and the leaky fishing boat SIEV-4 sinking as little heads poked out of the water — children thrown overboard, evidently.

Of course, there’s also the infamous then PM John Howard quote: “we decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come.” The media lapped it up hungrily, the electorates cheered and the Liberals were reinstated.

And so Australia embarked on a downhill route where there was no going back.

Islands were excised from the migration zone; detention centres built on Manus Island and Nauru; Temporary Protection visas (TPVs) introduced. When Labor came onto the scene, they abolished the Pacific Solution and TPVs, only to re-administer them under different guises. Then, on 16 May 2013, the Australian mainland itself was excised from the migration zone. Yet, the boats keep coming. But are we really being swamped?


Debunking the boats

We are inexorably pummelled with talk about boats. Mass drownings from boats, Question Time on boats, six o’clock news about boats. But despite all the commotion, not all asylum seekers are seafaring hopefuls, aka “irregular maritime arrivals” (IMAs).

Until recently, the vast majority of asylum seekers actually flew here with a valid visa and then applied for asylum later on. It is estimated that historically, somewhere between 96 and 99 per cent of asylum applicants arrived in Australia by plane. The year 2011-2012 was the first ever where the number of IMAs surpassed that of non-IMAs.

People seeking Australia's protection, 2002-2012

Indeed, a record number of boats arrived last financial year, carrying 14,415 people. Admittedly, it’s an enormous increase from the previous decade, but it’s still a reasonably small percentage when looking at how many immigrants we take annually.

Net overseas migration was tallied at 208,400 people in 2011-2012, so even if every single passenger were accorded refugee status that year, it would have amounted to a measly 6.9 per cent of Australia’s incoming population.

Additionally, more than 90 per cent of IMAs were granted permanent visas after final review that year, continuing the trend where the vast majority of “boat people” are genuine refugees and consequently entitled to resettlement. In comparison, the primary grant rate for non-IMAs was a low 25.3 per cent, which increased to 44 per cent after reconsideration.

Then why the political spotlight on the boats? Some say it’s purely a matter of symbolic scaremongering for votes. Others point to a graph similar to the one above, which, mathematically evaluated, would mean a smidgen less than 500,000 people will be arriving here on boats in 2029-2030. Um… highly unlikely, but you get the point.


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