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Statistics on people seeking asylum in the community

People seeking asylum by plane

People can claim asylum after they have come to Australia on a valid visa – for example, as a student or tourist. This may happen because circumstances in their home country change while they are in Australia, or because they come to Australia intending to seek asylum, as there is no visa that allows them to claim asylum before they come to Australia.

A relatively small number apply for asylum at the airport. These people do not have the right to request a lawyer, and there is very little publicly available information on what happens to these people. Most people arrive as visitors or students and claim asylum afterwards.

How many people are seeking asylum by plane?

The Department of Home Affairs has published statistics on the numbers of people claiming protection in 2017-2018, together with some similar statistics for the previous financial year. We have combined this with data provided through Senate estimates and a similar statistical publication which covers the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 year, although that report did not cover the full financial year (reporting only up to 30 April 2016).


These figures show that, since 2013-2014, the numbers of people seeking asylum by plane have also tripled, but the number of those granted protection visas (granted refugee status, after merits review) has declined during the same period. In 2017-2018, there were 27,931 people seeking asylum by plane, but only 1,425 grants.

The major increase has been in the past three financial years, with an especially large jump between 2016-2017 and 2017-2018.

Where do they come from?

The major increase since 2016-2017 appears to be largely the result of an increase in numbers from Malaysia and, in the past year, China in particular, although there were also significant increases in applications from other countries such as India and Vietnam.

The number of asylum claims reflects, in part, the ability of citizens of certain countries to enter Australia on valid visas. For example, there are large numbers of Malaysians and Chinese international students, and considerable skilled migration from India. The top 10 nationalities of those who seek asylum by plane are quite different from those who come by boat, with many more from our surrounding Asia-Pacific neighbours. In the past five years, the main nationalities seeking asylum by plane include those from China, Malaysia, India, Pakistan and Vietnam.

This graph shows the number of applications lodged by country of citizenship.

This graph shows the number of applications granted in 2017-2018, compared to the grant rate (the percentage of successful applications) by country of citizenship. This shows great variation between the numbers granted depending on nationality, with very low grant rates for Malaysia and China and much higher grant rates for countries such as Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Iran and Syria.

Are they ‘genuine’ refugees?

This graph show the number of grants for 2017-2018, and the grant rate – the percentage who were granted a visa, compared to those who were refused. There is considerable variation in grant rates by country of citizenship, with very high rates for some countries (for example, 100% of Syrians were granted protection, 99% from Libya, 80% from Ethiopia and 79% from Iraq). Typically, however, there are relatively few arrivals from these countries, because of the difficulty of getting a visa to Australia from these countries.

The overall grant rate, however, is relatively low, at 18%. This is nearly half the rate in 2015-2016, when 32% of people were granted. This reflects the very high number of applications from Malaysia and China, and the very low grant rates for those countries (2% and 10% respectively).

The gap between grants and lodgements

It is important to note that the gap between the numbers lodged, and the numbers granted, does not necessarily mean that all the applications which were not granted were refused. Under changes to the law made in 2014, the Minister of Immigration can now place a ‘cap’ on protection visas issued to refugees in any year. This does not apply to temporary protection visas, but affects people seeking asylum by plane. Using this power, the Minister has capped for each year the combined number of visas for people seeking asylum by plane (Protection visas) together with visas available under our offshore humanitarian program (that is, the resettlement of refugees) . The effect of this is means that, once this overall number has been granted for the year, even if a person is recognised as a refugee in Australia they cannot be granted a visa until the following year, even if their claim for refugee status is valid.

In 2018-2019 until 28 February 2019, only 773 grants had been made, compared to 16,082 applications in the same time. This graph shows the number of applications for protection visas by plane arrivals which are ‘onhand’ or being processed by the Government, broken down by citizenship.

Delays in processing

This has resulted in people seeking asylum now waiting several years for a decision to be made on their case. In the financial year 2017-2018, it was taking an average of 231 days for the Department to make its decision.

This is made worse by the fact that times for decision by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which reviews the Department’s decisions, have significantly increased in the past year. In 2017-2018, only 41% of refugee cases were finalised by the Tribunal within a year, with the median time for decision 61 weeks.

Read more about the challenges faced by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal

What happens while they are seeking asylum?

During this time, the general practice is that these people live on bridging visas which typically include the same conditions as the visa on which they came to Australia. For international students and tourist visas, this means that these people do not have access to Medicare for years, and may not have the right to work in Australia. Their lack of permanent status also creates many other problems, such as difficulty accessing women’s refuges.

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Contact us

Do you have a question about our statistics, or would you like to know more information? Contact us at policy@refugeecouncil.org.au.