The debate about asylum seeker laws and policies in Australia has been dominated in recent years by boat arrivals. Historically, though, most asylum seekers in Australia have arrived by air. This Explainer compares the number of boat arrivals and air arrivals, the percentage of each that are found to be refugees, and explains their respective treatment under Australian law.

While in 2013-14 the number of boat arrivals and air arrivals was roughly even, throughout the 2000s the majority of asylum seekers arrived by air. The table below gives a snapshot of these historical trends.

Source: Commonwealth Parliamentary Library: Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?

Most air arrivals land in Australia with valid visas and seek asylum while living in the community. Because they arrive with valid visas, these people are not detained. However, air arrivals are less likely than boat arrivals to be recognised as refugees. Around 45% of air arrivals who apply for asylum are found to be refugees. This can be contrasted with the percentage of boat arrivals who are found to be refugees: a number that fluctuated between 88% and 100% between 2009 and 2014.

The countries from which the majority of air arrivals originate are different from those from which the majority of boat arrivals originate. In recent years, the countries of origin of the majority of boat arrivals have been Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, along with a significant number of stateless people. By contrast, in recent years the ten countries from which the largest number of air arrivals has originated have been Iran, Pakistan, China, Egypt, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Turkey, Fiji and Lebanon.

Whether they arrive by boat or by air, all unauthorised arrivals (that is, people who arrive without a valid visa) are detained. This is because, under the policy of mandatory detention introduced by the Keating government in 1992, all 'unlawful non-citizens' must be detained until their immigration status is determined. Under Australian law, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are called 'irregular maritime arrivals' (IMAs). All IMAs are placed in offshore immigration detention, in regional processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island. Air arrivals who seek asylum are placed in closed immigration detention in centres throughout Australia or in community detention while awaiting the determination of their claim for refugee status.

Learn more about asylum seekers statistics and the evolution of asylum policy in Australia.


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Last updated 8 April 2016


Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts? (2015)

 Refugee Council of Australia, Grant rates for asylum seekers in Australia 2011-12 (2012)