Explainer: The difference between asylum seekers that arrive by boat and plane

Despite the rhetoric, those who seek asylum by boat are often richer and arrive less frequently than those who arrive by plane. There are some marked differences between the two.



Over on Twitter, conversation exists regarding the difference between asylum seekers arriving by boat against those arriving my plane. There is a difference, and it’s best that we’re clear about it. Obviously, we don’t have land borders, so those seeking asylum have two options: Air, or sea.

Despite general assumptions., the mode of arrival does not dictate wealth. For example, many who arrive via boat are relatively wealthy, whereas those who arrive by plane and comparatively poor. The number of asylum seekers arriving by air was stable between 2008-2015, growing from around 5,000 to 9,000 per year. In the last two years, they’ve double and trebled respectively, with 2016-2017 registering 18,290 and 2017-2018 totalling 27,931. Conversely, the highest recorded number of boat arrivals was 25,173 in 2012-2013.

Those who arrive by boat are more likely to have been “in transit” longer before making the final leg to Australia, often spending months or years in transit countries like Indonesia. They are also more likely to have been registered (or found to be refugees) by the UNHCR than air arrivals. Contrary to popular opinion, boat travel is not cheaper than air travel.

According to the Ex-commissioner of the Australian Border Force Roman Quaedvlieg, the average berth from Indonesia to Christmas Island is (bearing-to-waypoint) $5,000-$10,000, whereas a flight from Tehran to Sydney is around $1,500.


The difference between sea and air is registered by us… Decisions are made on the basis of boarding points, travel documents, route, et cetera.


The difference between sea and air is registered by us. Due to layers of control we apply, the identification (and assessment) of asylum seekers is streamlined. “Turnaround” decisions are made easier on the basis of boarding points, travel documents, route, et cetera.

Air arrivals have averaged 76 per day in the last year, which is roughly the equivalent of one boat arrival every day of the year.

Each air arrival is dealt with individually by the Australian Border Force (and Department at the local level), with the data later analysed in Canberra. As Quaedvlieg notes, Boat arrivals, on the other hand, are dealt with as a cohort involving deployed teams of asylum claim assessors.

And finally, the mode of arrival is irrelevant to the legality or validity of a claim for asylum, which is enshrined in both the Refugee Convention and in domestic law as being perfectly legal.




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