What impact do asylum seekers have on Australia’s migration?

What impact do asylum seekers have on Australia’s migration?

There is probably no more contentious issue in Australia at the moment than asylum seekers. We have avoided tackling it on .id’s blog before, simply because it is so controversial, and fraught with political ideology. However, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship each year put out a detailed summary of asylum seekers, which presents just the facts, and this series of articles will attempt to look at exactly what this tells us about asylum seekers and Australia’s migration.


Most of the information in this blog is sourced from “Asylum Trends, Australia”, published by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship each year, and available on their website.

What is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is a person who has left their country of origin due to persecution or fear of persecution, and applied for recognition as a refugee in Australia. The person is known as an asylum seeker while awaiting a decision on their application, and becomes a refugee after that. Refugees are included in the count of Australia’s migrant intake, asylum seekers awaiting decision are not.

How many asylum seekers are there?

Worldwide, the UN estimates about 15.4 million refugees and another 28.8 million Internally Displaced Persons (refugees who have not yet gone to another country) worldwide.

The media reporting of this issue is correct about one thing – the number of asylum seekers in Australia is increasing.

In 2012-13, a total of 26,427 people sought asylum in Australia. This was a significant increase on the previous year and the number has been increasing each year since 2007-8, when it was only 4,008 people. Based on the numbers above, however, it still only represents about 0.16% of world refugees.

Australia treats asylum seekers differently when they arrive by boat (“Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMA)”) and when they arrive by plane (“non-IMA”). Those arriving by plane have the right to immediately submit a protection visa application (and are often released into the community while a decision is pending), while those arriving by boat are moved to a detention centre (currently including mainland centres like Maribyrnong and Villawood, as well as the new offshore detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island) where they are screened into a refugee status determination process before being able to submit an application. Exactly why the mode of transport should make a difference to this is not at all obvious.

In 2012-13, of the 26,427 arrivals, 18,119 (68%) were IMAs arriving by boat, while 8,308 (32%) were non-IMAs arriving by plane. Both these measures have been in an uptrend for the past 10 years, but boat arrivals more so, more than doubling in the last year. Going back to the early 2000s, there were far less arrivals in total, with around 90% arriving by plane.

What countries are asylum seekers from?

Generally, arrivals by boat and arrivals by plane come from different countries. The boat arrivals are mainly from three countries – Sri Lanka (27%), Iran (24%) and Afghanistan (20%) in 2012-13. Smaller numbers were from Pakistan and Iraq.

Plane arrivals were more of a mixed bunch, with the highest percentage from China (13.7%) and India (11.9%), and also quite a few from Egypt, Sri Lanka, and Burma.

Asylum seekers, like most migrants, tend to be young, with between 60-70% under the age of 30 (remember the median age for Australia’s population is 37). This is a common argument for migration as it helps offset the aging population. Migration overall (not just refugees) was responsible for a big increase in Australia’s population aged 25-29 in the last Census.

What happens to arrivals who are processed?

Unfortunately, the processing of arrivals and granting of visas tends to take quite a long time.

Arrivals by plane may be placed into a detention centre on the mainland or released temporarily into the community. Arrivals by boat now mostly to the offshore processing centres, including Christmas Island and Nauru.

In 2012-13, decisions were made on 5,274 arrivals by plane, of which about half (48.4%) were granted protection visas, becoming refugees in Australia’s migration intake. Interestingly, while there were only 4,949 final decisions made for boat arrivals (about a quarter of the number who arrived by boat in 2012-13), the likelihood that they would be approved was far higher, at 88%. This is mainly due to the country of origin of boat arrivals – Asylum seekers arriving from Iran and Afghanistan had grant rates around 90% regardless of the mode of transport. The grant rate for Sri Lanka was lower, however.

What this means is that a far higher proportion of those arriving by boat are assessed as genuine refugees than those arriving by plane. So if the aim of government policy is to discourage non-genuine refugees from seeking asylum (and therefore free up government resources to deal with the genuine cases of persecution), a policy of “stop the planes” would be significantly more effective than “stop the boats”.

How much of Australia’s total migration is due to asylum seekers?

Asylum seekers are not counted as part of Australia’s official migration until they are processed and have protection visas granted.

In 2012-13, 10,223 final protection visas were issued to asylum seekers, making them officially refugees. This was around a 50-50 split between plane and boat arrivals.

In 2012-13, Australia’s net overseas migration was approximately 243,000, which is high, in historical terms, but lower than the peak in 2008-09. This is made up, however, of 495,000 arrivals, and 252,000 departures.

So, of the 495,000 arrivals, the processed asylum seekers make up around 2.1%. Even if all the arrivals in 2012-13 (which was very high compared to earlier years) were processed and had visas granted, they would make up 5.3% of total migration into Australia.

In reality, the number of asylum seekers/refugees is dwarfed by the number of skilled migration and family visas granted every year, on a temporary and permanent basis.

The numbers from the DIAC settlement reporting system are slightly different to the ABS numbers, but they show a total of 293,000 settlement visas granted in 2012-13 (remember the ABS figures on in-migration include nearly 100,000 Australian citizens returning home, and about 60,000 New Zealanders who don’t need a visa).

Of these, 293,000, about 115,000 were skilled migration visas, 110,000 were family visas, and 48,000 were unknown stream. Only about 20,000 were refugees. This includes Australia’s formal humanitarian program, which resettles people identified by the UNHCR from refugee camps overseas, as well as asylum seekers who have been granted visas. So even the total refugee intake is less than 10% of total migration, and this includes the formal refugee stream as well as asylum seekers.

So the short answer is, no – even at the current very high levels, asylum seekers have very little impact on Australia’s population or migration intake relative to other types of migration.

However, asylum seekers and resettled refugees do come from a range of countries and have done a lot to enhance our vibrant multicultural population over the last 50 years. Where have the different refugee communities settled in Australia? That will be the topic of my next blog.

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Glenn - The Census Expert

Glenn is our resident Census expert. After ten years working at the ABS, Glenn's deep knowledge of the Census has been a crucial input in the development of our community profiles. These tools help everyday people uncover the rich and important stories about our communities that are often hidden deep in the Census data. Glenn is also our most prolific blogger - if you're reading this, you've just finished reading one of his blogs. Take a quick look at the front page of our blog and you'll no doubt find more of Glenn's latest work. As a client manager, Glenn travels the country giving sought-after briefings to councils and communities (these are also great opportunities for Glenn to tend to his rankings in Geolocation games such as Munzee and Geocaching).

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