Jul 11, 2013

Get Fact: how many asylum seekers turn up without ID?

Opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison has been claiming that over 90% of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia turn up without ID. Does that allegation hold up? Not quite ...

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

Judging by the rhetoric politicians on both sides have been regurgitating this week, most asylum seekers who come by boat are turning up with no documents, burning their passports and/or refusing to help authorities identify them. "People who have destroyed their papers, people who refuse to co-operate in getting access to papers will find themselves at the back of the processing queue," said new Immigration Minister Tony Burke, in one of several press conferences about the topic. It was a policy directive the Liberals were quick to point out had been theirs all along. Opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison discussed it on ABC Radio National on Monday:
Kelly: Scott Morrison, what percentage of asylum seekers arriving by boat destroy their documents and papers? Morrison: Well, we know that more than 90% who turn up don't have any documents. The ultimate percentage of those that have been thrown away is not able to be determined at this point. But what we do know is that the vast majority of people, more than 90%, go through airports in either Jakarta or other ports within Indonesia or Malaysia. And whether those documents are false or whether those documents are genuine to get them on to that plane is an issue. But we do know that those documents aren't there when people turn up in Australia. Kelly: So 90% of the people arriving on the boats to Australia have no documentation? Morrison: Not just no passports, I've got to stress, no documentation.
Except that "over 90%" claim -- one that Ben Packham has also written in The Australian -- doesn't quite hold up. First of all, the most recent in-depth data comes from a budget Estimates committee in May 2011, when the Department of Immigration answered a question by Liberal Senator Michaela Cash on the percentage of irregular maritime arrivals (the government jargon term for asylum seekers arriving by boat) landing in Australia without documentation in the last three financial years. The department says the average number of IMAs arriving without official documentation between 2008-2011 was 81.21%. This is the most current data the department has on the situation, although Morrison's office assures Crikey his "over 90%" figure came from Immigration (we asked to see the precise figures, but Morrison's office didn't return our emails or calls). Part of the difficulty is there's no clear-cut definition of exactly what the government uses to classify someone as "documented". In practise it means an asylum seeker who can provide a verifiable official identity document that includes a biometric photo, with a passport being the preferred option. Other forms, such as a national identity card that includes a photo or a UNHCR card, may be valid, depending on the strength of the document and its country of origin. Burke's office tells Crikey that a birth certificate or driver's license can be used as initial identifying documentation, while the Department of Immigration says that's unlikely, although several documents together may help. Most asylum seekers arrive with birth certificates, drivers licences, school certificates, letters from local priests, photocopies of identity cards, etc, however they are officially classified as "undocumented" if they can't produce reputable state-issued photo identification upon arrival. The other forms of ID are used to help identify them and process their claims at a later stage. "People may not have passports, but there's also very good reasons for that," Ian Rintoul, an activist from the Refugee Action Coalition, told Crikey. People smugglers often create fake passports to allow asylum seekers to enter ports in Indonesia or Malaysia and then remove the passports from asylum seekers before they board boats to Australia, often so they can re-use the fake names and passports. Many people smugglers also often demand that asylum seekers give up their mobile phones and genuine passports before embarking on the boat voyage. Asylum seekers do occasionally destroy their passports but there is no data on how many do this. Sometimes it's because Indonesia and Australia are more likely to deport asylum seekers found with a valid travel document. "I would tell any asylum seeker to arrive here without their passport, because if they've got a valid passport it's far easier for the government to deport them," said Rintoul. Plus, it depends where they come from. Feili Kurds are stateless and not issued identification by Iran, despite spending decades there; Tamils often struggle to get passports issued by Sri Lanka; Afghans coming via Pakistan may not have a passport, but often have Pakistani drivers licences and school certificates. The closest Crikey can find to Morrison's "over 90%" claim is when Senator Cash asked a supplementary budget Estimates hearing question on October 15 last year about how many IMAs flew in to Indonesia but then arrived by boat to Australia passport-less (therefore assuming they must have destroyed it in between). This data comes entirely from entry interviews with asylum seekers, meaning it only represents those IMAs that willingly admit they flew in to Indonesia. In 2011-2012, 87% (1673 people) of those that flew in to Indonesia arrived in Australia undocumented. Between June 30, 2012 and October 31, 2012 (the most recent time period available), 78% (1551 people) were undocumented. Regardless, those numbers show only a small percentage of the total IMAs. In 2011, Australia received 4565 asylum seekers by boat, while 17,202 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2012 (the Department of Immigration has calendar year figures while the Senate has financial year figures, just to make the whole thing more confusing). Therefore we judge Morrison's "over 90%" claim as mostly rubbish.

Want more recent data on how many asylum seekers are undocumented? According to the Department of Immigration, our best bet would be more questions asked at Estimates. Over to you, Senator Cash ...

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16 thoughts on “Get Fact: how many asylum seekers turn up without ID?

  1. beachcomber

    The best way to make racist claims is to base them on lies.

  2. Edward James

    Well so what ever is wrong! ? The number of people getting residency in Australa without passports may be interesting enough. Edward James

  3. zut alors

    An informative piece.

    Morrison should be more careful about building his policy on a wobbly foundation.

  4. Pedantic, Balwyn

    Morison’s claim may be statistically inaccurate, but according to the Indonesian visa website a passport valid for 6 months is amongst the mandatory requirements for entry; so at face value the dispossessed people must have held a passport to enter Indonesia, in the first instance

    Perhaps Amber can advise if there is a exemption for refugees or possibly those of the Muslim faith or otherwise account for the discrepancy?

  5. klewso

    Morrison channeling Reith all over again.

  6. Michael James

    Fuunny, he says 90%, Immigration’s people say 80%, seems more like ‘mostly true’ rather than ‘mostly rubbish’.

    Or does Crikey prefer the words of lobbyist Rintoul over the estimates testimony?

    On a personal note, I served in the Navy and have friends who have commanded the Navy’s old Fremantle class and the new Armidale class patrol boats on border protection operations.

    All of them have seen asylum seekers tearing up their papers and either burning them on deck or tossing the shredded remains overboard once they realise it is an Australian, not Indonesian, patrol boat approaching.

    I have no problems believing 80+% arrive without documentation. Given Rintoul states he would advise asylum seekers to do the same I don’t doubt the same advice is given by the people smugglers.

  7. shepherdmarilyn

    Documents and passports in particular have never been required, the punishment for not having them if you can’t get them is forbidden. Here is the law.

    “60 In any event, while it is literally correct to describe the applicant as an “unlawful” entrant and an “unlawful non-citizen” that is not a complete description of his position. The nomenclature adopted under the Act provides for the description of persons as “uinlawful non-citizens” because they arrived in Australia without a visa. This does not fully explain their status in Australian law as such persons are on-shore applicants for protection visas on the basis that they are refugees under the Refugees Convention.
    61 The Refugees Convention is a part of conventional international law that has been given legislative effect in Australia: see ss 36 and 65 of the Act. It has always been fundamental to the operation of the Refugees Convention that many applicants for refugee status will, of necessity, have left their countries of nationality unlawfully and therefore, of necessity, will have entered the country in which they seek asylum unlawfully. Jews seeking refuge from war-torn Europe, Tutsis seeking refuge from Rwanda, Kurds seeking refuge from Iraq, Hazaras seeking refuge from the Taliban in Afghanistan and many others, may also be called “unlawful non-citizens” in the countries in which they seek asylum. Such a description, however, conceals, rather than reveals, their lawful entitlement under conventional international law since the early 1950’s (which has been enacted into Australian law) to claim refugee status as persons who are “unlawfully” in the country in which the asylum application is made.
    62 The Refugees Convention implicitly requires that, generally, the signatory countries process applications for refugee status of on-shore applicants irrespective of the legality of their arrival, or continued presence, in that country: see Art 31. That right is not only conferred upon them under international law but is also recognised by the Act (see s 36) and the Migration Regulations 1994 (Cth) which do not require lawful arrival or presence as a criterion for a protection visa. If the position were otherwise many of the protection obligations undertaken by signatories to the Refugees Convention, including Australia, would be undermined and ultimately rendered nugatory.
    63 Notwithstanding that the applicant is an “unlawful non-citizen” under the Act who entered Australia unlawfully and has had his application for a protection visa refused, in making that application he was exercising a “right” conferred upon him under Australian law.”

  8. shepherdmarilyn

    Michael James, that is a lie. The passports they travel on are bogus, the government has known for decades that they are bogus and the AFghan ones in particular are simply recycled.

    All this has been known to DIAC and DFAT for years and years.

    The fact is that asylum seekers do not now and nor have they ever required these papers.

  9. Michael James

    Tell you what Marilyn, you believe what you choose to and I will believe the words of the people on the front lines, rescuing asylum seekers from leaky boats in the wewaters off our north west coast.

    You tell me the passports are bogus, they tell me identification documentation gets burnt or torn up and thrown overboard.

    I know who I believe. Sorry

  10. shepherdmarilyn


    Well Michael, you would be a clown then because the courts have all shown what really goes on.

    The people on the front line are brainwashed dimwits quite frankly, they have no idea what is so-called being thrown over board.

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