This background note provides a brief overview of the historical and political context surrounding boat arrivals in Australia since 1976. It includes background on the global context; government policy responses; trends in public opinion on the issues; and links to some of the key resources.
The term ‘boat people’ entered the Australian vernacular in the 1970s with the arrival of the first wave of boats carrying people seeking asylum from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Over half the Vietnamese population was displaced in these years and, while most fled to neighbouring Asian countries, some embarked on the voyage by boat to Australia.
The first boat arrived in Darwin in April 1976 carrying five Indochinese men. Over the next five years there were 2059 Vietnamese boat arrivals with the last arriving in August 1981.
The arrival of 27 Indochinese asylum seekers in November 1989 heralded the beginning of the second wave. Over the following nine years, boats arrived at the rate of about 300 per annum—mostly from Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China.3 In 1999, a third wave of asylum seekers, predominantly from the Middle East, began to arrive—often in larger numbers than previous arrivals and usually with the assistance of ‘people smugglers’.
This publication also includes boat arrival figures drawn from available sources, including media reports, ministerial press releases and figures supplied by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). It is envisaged that the boat arrival figures in Appendix A will be updated on a regular basis.