Ah, an English lesson. How delightfully invigorating. No, really, it’s pretty crucial to get this one right.
So. All refugees were asylum seekers at some point, but not all asylum seekers are refugees. Confused? You can listen to Professor William Maley explain the difference, or read on.
A “refugee” is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country owing to a well-founded fear of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but that’s verbatim from the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Australia has been a party since 1954.
In comparison, an “asylum seeker” is someone who has left their country of origin, has applied for recognition as a refugee, and is waiting for a bureaucratic decision on their status.
There is nothing criminal about being an asylum seeker. Under Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has a right to seek asylum from persecution — thus, turning up unannounced on our shores after bobbing around in a dilapidated dinghy for days does not actually break any Australian laws. The official label is “unlawful non-citizen” (helpfully defined in the 1958 Migration Act as: “a non-citizen… who is not a lawful non-citizen”). Unless you’re the ignoramus Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in which case “illegals” will do.