The number of refugee and humanitarian entrants welcomed to Australia since World War II will pass 950,000 in the early months of 2023.
Australian Government statistics show that 940,159 refugee and humanitarian entrants arrived through offshore resettlement and onshore protection processes between 1 January 1947 and 30 June 2022. In the 2022-23 financial year, the Australian Government is planning to issue 17,875 refugee and humanitarian visas, taking the cumulative total over the 76½ years to June 2023 to 958,000.
Prior to 1947, refugees arrived in Australia through standard migration processes and no statistics were collected. The Australian Parliamentary Library has estimated the number of refugee arrivals between Federation in 1901 and 1947 at 20,000.[i]
Australia has had a planned annual Refugee and Humanitarian Program since 1977-78. Since that time, 553,572 refugees have arrived through offshore resettlement programs and 79,183 have been given protection in Australia through asylum processes.
Bipartisan political support for refugee resettlement
While Australia’s two major political parties have varied over the past 20 or so years in their policy approaches to people seeking asylum, both Liberal-National Coalition and Labor governments have shown strong support for refugee resettlement over the past 75 years. This is reflected in the Refugee Council of Australia’s analysis of the numbers of refugee visas issued by each government since 1947.
Of the nine governments since 1947, Ben Chifley’s Labor Government welcomed more refugees each year than any other. The Chifley Government, which began Australia’s largest scale immigration program in the aftermath of World War II, received an annual average of 28,212 refugee arrivals between January 1947 and its election defeat in December 1949.
Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal-National Coalition Government had the second most generous response, with 15,008 refugee and humanitarian visas issued each year during its term in office (November 1975 to March 1983). The Fraser Government was responsible for significant reform of Australian refugee policy, beginning a planned annual Refugee and Humanitarian Program from July 1977 and overhauling Australia’s approach to refugee and migrant settlement support in 1978.
Since the term of the Fraser Government, successive governments have averaged between 12,500 and 15,000 refugee arrivals each year. The most generous average annual response over the past 30 years was from the recent Coalition government led by Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison from 2013 to 2022.
During its 8 years and 8 months in office, it issued an average of 14,900 permanent refugee visas each year. During its two-year additional response to refugees from Syria and Iraq, the Turnbull Government achieved a 35-year high of 21,968 refugee and humanitarian visas in 2016-17.
Four years later in 2020-21, the humanitarian program fell to a 45-year low, with just 5,947 visas issued by the Morrison Government. Despite these highs and lows, the most recent government issued more refugee and humanitarian visas each year than the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government (14,728 visas p.a.), the Hawke-Keating Labor Government (12,951) and the Howard Coalition Government (12,663).
A comparison of Labor and Coalition governments since 1947 shows that Labor governments were, on average, more generous in their refugee response, issuing an average of 13,975 refugee and humanitarian visas each year while in office (compared to 11,708 for Coalition governments).
However, this difference is largely as a result of the very high numbers of arrivals during the term of Chifley Government, peaking at 89,199 in 1949-50 (the year the Chifley Government lost office). By contrast, the Whitlam Labor Government had the least generous refugee response, welcoming an average of just 2,660 refugees each year between December 1972 and November 1975.
Since an annual Refugee and Humanitarian Program began in 1977-78, the average annual response has been higher under Coalition governments (14,469 refugee and humanitarian visas p.a.) than under Labor governments (13,497). However, this comparison may change in coming years if the Albanese Government implements its party platform to increase the Refugee and Humanitarian Program from its 2022-23 level of 17,875 places.
[i] Estimated refugee arrivals 1901-1947: Dr Barry York, Australian Parliamentary Library in "Australia and Refugees, 1901-2002: An Annotated Chronology Based on Official Sources", June 2003 (see Chronology 1901-1980)
[ii] Statistics include offshore refugee and humanitarian visas and onshore protection visas. 33,000 unassisted arrivals evenly distributed over 28 years from 1947-48 to 1974-75.
[iii] How government terms were calculated: Chifley Government: 1 Jan 1947 to 19 Dec 1949 (47% of 1949-50 year). Menzies to McMahon Government: 19 Dec 1949 to 5 Dec 1972 (43% of 1972-73). Whitlam Government: 5 Dec 1975 to 11 Nov 1975 (37% of 1975-76). Fraser Government: 12 Nov 1975 to 11 Mar 1983 (70% of 1982-83). Hawke-Keating Government: 11 Mar 1983 to 11 Mar 1996 (70% of 1995-96). Howard Government: 11 Mar 1996 to 3 Dec 2007 (43% of 2007-08). Rudd-Gillard Government: 3 Dec 2007 to 18 Sep 2013 (22% of 2013-14). Abbott to Morrison Government: 18 Sep 2013 to 23 May 2022 (90% of 2021-22). Albanese Government: since 23 May 2022
- Estimated refugee arrivals 1901-1947: Dr Barry York, Australian Parliamentary Library in "Australia and Refugees, 1901-2002: An Annotated Chronology Based on Official Sources", June 2003 (see Chronology 1901-1980)
- Estimate of unassisted refugee arrivals, 1947-1975: Dr Barry York, op cit (see Table 2)
- Refugee arrivals, January 1947 to 1974-75: Dr Barry York, op cit (Table 1)
- Refugee and humanitarian entrants 1975-76 to 2015-16: Janet Phillips, Australian Parliamentary Library in "Australia’s Humanitarian Program: a quick guide to the statistics since 1947", January 2017 (Table 1)
- Refugee and humanitarian entrants 2016-17 to 2019-20: Department of Home Affairs, "Discussion Paper: Australia's Humanitarian Program 2020-21" (Table 2)
- Refugee and humanitarian entrants 2020-21: Department of Home Affairs, "2020-21 Humanitarian Program Outcomes"
- Refugee and humanitarian entrants 2021-22: Department of Home Affairs, "2021-22 Humanitarian Program Outcomes"