Despite the prominence of the topic of migrant smuggling in public and political debates in Australia, comprehensive and accurate data on this issue is not readily available. In short, the number of persons smuggled to Australia is not known – or at least not publicly documented. 

Until 2005, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) provided information pertaining to the number and circumstances of unauthorised arrivals by air and boat each year. Relevant publications setting out this information have, however, either been discontinued or not updated, and several ‘Fact Sheets’ and other data collections have since been removed, classified, or have not been updated for many years. Up until late 2013, the Australian Government reported on the arrival of individual migrant smuggling vessels, including the number of crew and smuggled migrants. These reports, along with most other details on individual migrant smuggling ventures to Australia have been suppressed or discontinued following the change of Government in September 2013. A limited amount of information on unauthorised arrivals into Australia can be found in other government sources, but many of these are not updated regularly and are often not comprehensive.

Due to the lack of current, official, open-source information available post-2005, any outline and analysis of the current levels of migrant smuggling to Australia remains speculative. The data shown on this website attempts to identify the number of unauthorised boat and air arrivals into Australia over the last decade using a combination of sources. These figures may be indicative of the levels of migrant smuggling into this country, but it must be noted that these figures do not represent the actual number of smuggled migrants. This is because some unauthorised arrivals by boat may have occurred without the involvement of migrant smugglers and instances of migrant smuggling by air are very infrequently detected. 

Unauthorised boat arrivals since 1999

Figure 1 below shows the number of unauthorised boat arrivals in each calendar year since 1999. The data is presented by the number of boats as well as by the total number of people (excluding crew) that arrived by boat in a given year.  The number of crew that arrived by boat is only available for the years 2009-2013. The data used in this table is drawn directly from two publications by Janet Phillips and Harriet Spinks.1 For the years 1999-2008 the authors relied on ‘DIAC advice provided to the Parliamentary Library on 22 June 2009’ and for the years 2009-2011 the authors cite ‘Customs and Border Protection advice provided to the Parliamentary Library on 1 July 2013’. To date, this remains the most reliable source of data relating to unauthorised boat arrivals into Australia. Data for the period July-December 2013 has been supplied by the Joint Agency Task Force ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. The arrival of a vessel in 2015 is drawn from media reports.

Figure 1: Unauthorised boat arrivals, Australia, 1999–1 March 2015

Calender year Number of boats Number of people
(excludes crew)
Number of crew
1999 86 3721  
2000 51 2939
2001 43 5516
2002 1 1
2003 1 53
2004 1 15
2005 4 11
2006 6 60
2007 5 148
2008 7 161
2009 60 2726 141
2010 134 6555 345
2011 69 4565 168
2012 278 17202 392
2013 301 20647 407
(to 30 June 2013)
2014 1 160 n/a
2015 (to 1 March) 1 4 n/a

Unauthorised air arrivals since 1999

The following figure reflects the number of refused entries at Australian airports each financial year since 1999. This data combines refusal of entry on grounds of document fraud, ‘mala fide visa holders’, and other reasons. ‘Mala fide visa holders’ refers to persons who, on arrival in Australia, are found not to intend to abide by the visa conditions, such as contravening work condition requirements or where the reason for the grant of visa no longer exists. ‘Other reasons’ include refusal on the basis of character grounds or health checks. Of most relevance to the subject of migrant smuggling are refusals on the basis of document fraud, though not all instances of document fraud are necessarily linked to migrant smuggling.

The data used for the table below was primarily found in the Annual Reports of the Department of Immigration (which has operated under various names and acronyms in recent years). No data was available for the years 2000–2003 in these reports. The data used for this period was obtained from figures published by the Refugee Council of Australia.2

Figure 2: Unauthorised air arrivals, Australia, 1 July 1999-30 June 2014

Financial year Number of unauthorised air arrivals
(persons refused immigration clearance)
1999-00 1695
2000-01 1512
2001-02 1193
2002-03 987
2003-04 1241
2004-05 1632
2005-06 1598
2006-07 1388
2007-08 1189
2008-09 1284
2009-10 1573
2010-11 1809
2011-12 2048
2012-13 2328
2013–14 3121

As mentioned earlier, the information displayed on this website serves merely to indicate the level of unauthorised arrivals into Australia. Contrary to some statements, these numbers do not reflect the true level of migrant smuggling into this country.


The absence of any comprehensive data on the scale and spread of migrant smuggling has a direct impact on the ability of those charged with enforcing relevant laws. If the scale and nature of the problem is not known, it is unlikely that the appropriate measures and resources can be allocated to prevent and suppress it. Without accurate information about migrant smuggling, prevention strategies cannot be identified, and suppression activities are rendered useless because insufficient information will not lead to effective prosecution of offenders.3

Crime statistics generally only count those criminal offences that come to the attention of the police or other law enforcement agencies. However, for a variety of reasons, smuggled migrants and witnesses of migrant smuggling may not report offences to the authorities. The reporting rate, as it is usually referred to, may be affected by a number of factors, including access to law enforcement agencies, confidence (or lack thereof) in the police, et cetera. The difference between how much crime actually occurs and how much crime is reported to or discovered by the authorities is usually referred to as the ‘dark figure of crime’. Crime statistics are therefore a very imperfect measure of the level of migrant smuggling. 

Data collection about the scale and patterns of migrant smuggling is important for evaluating the impact and efficiency of policy, legislation, and enforcement programs, and for providing feedback to policy makers and legislators. Without defensible and realistic baseline data, claims concerning the operation and impact of anti-migrant smuggling strategies cannot be verified, and thus the credibility and commitment of government programs are left subject to question.

On the other hand, if collected and reported consistently, such information makes it possible to review investigation and prosecution processes and identify potential weaknesses in the criminal justice system that cause cases to collapse. The collection of data should also be followed by data analysis in order to identify and understand trends and patterns of migrant smuggling. Many jurisdictions also include information about offenders, victims (if any), harm or damage caused, and location of the offence in their data collections.

Although media attention and public debate surrounding the issue of migrant smuggling has intensified again since 2008, the quantity and quality of publicly accessible data has decreased considerably in recent years. The Australian Government cites concerns over national security as the main justification to withdraw a significant level of information about migrant smuggling from the public realm or otherwise withhold more detailed statistics. Whilst recognising the importance of national security, it is imperative that the Government provide more accurate information on the topic of migrant smuggling in order to inform public debate and allow better policy making.

The UQ Migrant Smuggling Working Group is conducting ongoing research to identify and analyse the levels of migrant smuggling in Australia more accurately. This involves a variety of avenues of inquiry, including research into the number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions of migrant smugglers, figures reported in the media, and lodging Freedom of Information requests with relevant government departments.