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Home > Get the facts > Refugees in Australia > How do refugees come to Australia under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program?

How do refugees come to Australia under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program?

For decades, Australia has been protecting refugees under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program. Every year, the Minister of Immigration sets the number of people that will be taken under this Program and determines the priorities for deciding who will be accepted. This Program is separate from the much larger Migration Program, which includes business, skilled and family migrants.

How many refugees and migrants have come to Australia?

Read more: Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

This decision usually is made after consulting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and after a public consultation, although the level of consultation in recent years has declined. Every year, the Refugee Council of Australia has participated in these consultations and provided submissions to the responsible Department with its advice.

Annual consultations on Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

How we treat them depends on how they come

For many years, Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program has included both refugees who are resettled (the ‘offshore’ component), and refugees who apply once they are in Australia (‘onshore protection’).  Although they both fall under the same Program, Australia treats refugees who are resettled very differently from those who seek protection in Australia.

For many decades, Australia has been a leader in bringing some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world from overseas, and supporting them to settle in Australia. It is a voluntary commitment designed to provide durable solutions for the many refugees who can neither remain where they are nor return home. Australia’s contribution is important, as relatively few countries resettle refugees. This commitment is even more valuable today when it is harder than ever for refugees to find protection in a safe country.

Global resettlement needs

However, Australia’s treatment of refugees who come to Australia seeking protection is now leading the world in the opposite direction – to the most punitive policies aimed to deter vulnerable people from seeking safety. People who are found to be refugees once they are in Australia  are often referred to as ‘asylum seekers’ while they are waiting for a decision. They make a claim for protection under the Refugee Convention, which Australia has signed. Because Australia has decided to include them in the overall Refugee and Humanitarian Program, politicians and others may say that these people are ‘taking away places’ from ‘genuine refugees’. First, it is untrue that these people are not genuine refugees, as they have been found to be refugees by the Australian Government.

Second, there is no reason why the Australian Government has to include these people within the Refugee and Humanitarian Program at all. It did not when the Program began. In recent years, too, refugees who arrived by boat and are given only temporary protection are no longer included in the overall Program.

Are people seeking asylum jumping the queue?

This guide focuses on Australia’s resettlement of refugees from overseas. Another guide explains Australia’s complex asylum policies in more detail.

Australia’s asylum policies

Resettling refugees

Australia’s resettlement program, which began in 1977, should be celebrated. It is one of the longest-standing and largest in the world, following usually only the US and Canada. Only around 30 countries in the world resettle refugees, and many of them have only just started or resettle very small numbers. Over the years, Australia has resettled more than 880,000 refugees.

Column chart
Refugees resettled in 2017, by receiving country

How many refugees and migrants have come to Australia?

However, while Australia does well when resettlement figures are compared, it does much less well when one compares countries by the number of refugees both resettled and recognised as refugees (that is, those who claim asylum successfully). This is because claiming asylum is the most common way to be protected as a refugee in the world.

Column chart
Recognition and resettlement of refugees 2017, by receiving country

The size of the Program

In recent years, the size of the Program was set at 13,750 places, but this has gradually increased since 2015-16 to 18,750 places in 2018-19.

Global resettlement needs

How many refugees and migrants have come to Australia?

Over the last few years, there have been consistent calls for the Humanitarian Program to be increased, because of the unprecedented numbers of people needing protection.

Refugees referred by UNHCR

Most of the Program is concerned with resettling refugees from overseas. In the past, the main focus was on resettling refugees as recommended by UNHCR. Typically, such refugees were recognised as refugees by UNHCR in the countries where they had fled to, and were referred by UNHCR to the government for consideration under the Australian Government’s defined priorities. They are given Refugee visas (visa class 200).

See how many refugees have come to Australia from 2003 after being submitted by UNHCR

How does the United Nations determine who is to be resettled?

Not every refugee will be eligible for resettlement. There are seven categories used by the UNHCR to select refugees for resettlement:

  • legal and/ or physical need
  • survivors of torture and/or violence
  • medical needs
  • women and girls at risk because of their gender
  • family reunification
  • children and adolescents at risk, and
  • a lack of foreseeable alternative durable solutions.

Declining numbers from UNHCR

However, it is not a condition of the visa that the person is referred by UNHCR. In recent years, the numbers of refugees on those visas which have been referred by UNHCR has been dropping. This raises questions about how the Australian Government is selecting refugees under the Program.

Less than one third of refugees in Australia’s humanitarian program are resettled from UNHCR

There are also concerns about whether the Australian Government is discriminating against Muslims in its selection process. Although the Australian Government denies that the program is discriminatory, questions are raised by the low levels of Muslim people resettled from Syria and Iraq.

We can and should do more: Australia’s Humanitarian Program 2018-19

Special Humanitarian Program

An increasing part of the overseas resettlement program is the use of Special Humanitarian Program visas. These were introduced to address the humanitarian needs of those who may not meet the definition of refugee or have been formally recognised as such, but were in need of humanitarian protection. These people are given SHP visas (visa class 202).

However, this part of the Program is now mostly used by refugees already in Ausralia to bring over their family, in the absence of alternatives to family reunion. As the person proposing (the ‘proposer’) for a person to be resettled must take on certain obligations to support that person, it is also generally cheaper for the government to give a SHP visa.

These factors may explain why the numbers of SHP visas have increased over the years.

Our recommendation:

Restoring the Refugee and Humanitarian Program immediately to 20,000 and increasing the size of the Program to between 27,000 and 30,000 places annually within three years, and increasing each year in light of global needs (Platform for Change).

Refugee and Humanitarian Program visa grants by stream, 2007-08 to 2012-13

Women at Risk visas

A much smaller part of the Program, but a very welcome one, is the introduction of Women at Risk visas. This visa category is reserved for women and their children or other dependents living outside their home country, who do not have a male relative who can protect them, and are in danger of victimisation harassment or serious abuse because of their gender. They are therefore often extremely vulnerable people in refugee camps or in countries where they are seeking refuge.

The numbers of Women at Risk visas has increased in recent years. While this is a welcome development, there are concerns about whether these women are getting the support they need in Australia.

Other visas

There are other visa classes that are used under the Program, but they are used only for a handful of people, if any. For example, there is a class of visa for emergencies, which is used to resettle refugees quickly whose lives or freedom depend on urgent resettlement (subclass 203) and the in-country Special Humanitarian Program Visa (subclass 201), which enables the Australian Government to offer resettlement to people who are not able to leave their country of origin.

Community Support Program

In recent years, the Government has experimented with a small program, initially known as the Community Proposal Pilot, to allow people in the community to propose resettlement of a refugee. It is different from the SHP Program in that there is a greater responsibility on those making the proposals and the cost of this program is much higher.

When the Program first began, it was run first as a pilot and only in some areas. The Program required those doing the proposing to apply through Approved Proposing Organisations (APOs), typically settlement service providers. It accepted only 500 people a year, and despite its high costs, there was very high demand from refugees desperate to reunite with their families.

The Pilot was replaced in 2018 by a Community Support Program. This increased the size of the Program to 1,000 people per year, but as with the Pilot those places were taken from the overall number of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program. In other words, no new places were created for refugees.

Community Support Program

The Program is extremely expensive and prioritises people of working age who are likely to resettle in rural or regional areas. This continues a trend in refugee policy of blurring the lines between a refugee and/or a migrant.

The Community Support Program: Providing complementary pathways to protection or privatising the Humanitarian Program?

Our recommendations:

  • Enhancing public support for the Refugee Program by replacing the Community Support Program with a larger community-based private sponsorship program.
  • Replacing the high-cost and restrictive Community Support Program with a separate and additional private sponsorship program for refugees based on the best aspects of the Canadian model, creating opportunities for broad-based community networks to get involved in raising funds and offering support to build a private sponsorship program of 10,000 places annually within five years.

We have joined with several organisations to campaign for a better community sponsorship program. 

Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative

Who is allowed to settle in Australia?

Not all refugees referred by the UN refugee agency are accepted by Australia for resettlement. This decision rests with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Our program for resettling refugees from overseas is divided into different categories.

Refugee visas

Refugees who come on a Refugee visa (subclass 202) are required to meet many difficult conditions. The Minister must be satisfied that there are ‘compelling reasons’ to accept them, having regard to:

  • the degree or severity of persecution to which they are subject
  • the extent of their connection with Australia
  • whether another country can provide for the applicant’s settlement and protection from persecution and
  • the capacity of the Australian community to provide for their permanent settlement.

Also, the Minister must be satisfied that their permanent settlement would be the appropriate course for the applicant and would not be contrary to the interests of Australia. Importantly, the visa grant must be consistent with ‘the regional and global priorities of the Commonwealth’. These priorities are set by the Department of Immigration each year.

The Special Humanitarian Program

The SHP category (subclass 202) is for people who, while not being refugees according to the definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention, are subject to substantial discrimination amounting to a gross violation of their human rights in their country of origin. They must be living outside their home country and have “compelling reasons” to resettle in Australia. The “compelling reasons” criteria assess the degree of discrimination or persecution faced by the applicant in their home country, the extent of their connection to Australia, their protection options elsewhere and Australia’s capacity to provide for their permanent settlement. People who wish to be considered for a SHP visa must be proposed for entry by an Australian citizen or permanent resident over the age of 18, an eligible New Zealand citizen or an organisation operating in Australia. Successful applicants under the SHP or their proposer must pay for the applicant to travel to Australia and the proposer is expected to assist in the settlement of the applicant. Under changes introduced in September 2012, people who arrive(d) by boat on or after 13 August 2012 are no longer eligible for the SHP.

How long does it take?

The average processing time for refugee visas from time of application to the grant of visa in 2014–15 was approximately 14 and a half months (62.7 weeks).

How many are accepted?

The number of visas granted for refugees overseas has changed a lot since 1975. It reached its peak in the early 1980s under the Fraser Government. In 2014-2015, the number of refugees granted a visa from overseas was 6,002, a similar figure to what is projected for 2015-2016. However, this number includes family members who are included in the application, who may not themselves technically be refugees.

How does Australia compare with the rest of the world?

Australia has been involved in the UNHCR resettlement program since 1977. It has consistently ranked as one of the top three resettlement countries in the world. Australia is currently ranked third after the United States and Canada. It resettled 5,211 persons in 2014-2015. However, this figure represents only 3.2% of Australia’s permanent migration program, the lowest percentage for more than 20 years. The number of visas available for grant under the Humanitarian Program are shared between refugees and their families who have already arrived in Australia , those who will be ‘resettled’ from overseas, and those seeking to enter Australia from overseas. In 2015-2016, the Government has maintained the annual intake quota at 13,750 places. The Special Humanitarian Programme (SHP) currently takes up 5,000 of these cases. Over the last few years, there have been consistent calls for the Humanitarian Program to be increased.

Identity of those accepted

The Minister determines Australia’s focus regions, nationalities and ethnic or religious groups in resettlement policy. In 2014-2015, more than half of Australia’s offshore refugee quota was filled by refugees and their families from Afghanistan, Myanmar and Iraq. In 2014-2015, the Government granted 1,000 Woman at Risk visas.

‘Split family’ provisions

The Refugee Program and SHP have “split family” provisions which allow humanitarian visa holders to sponsor their immediate family members (i.e. their partner and dependent children or, if the proposer is an unaccompanied minor, their parents) for resettlement in Australia. Generally, visas for immediate family members are granted in the same category as the proposer’s visa. For example, immediate family members of a proposer who was resettled in Australia on a Refugee Visa (subclass 200) will also be granted a Refugee visa. The main exception is Protection Visa holders, whose immediate family members will be granted an SHP visa. Until recently, applications for SHP visas lodged by refugees and humanitarian entrants sponsoring immediate family members under the “split family” provisions did not have to satisfy all of the “compelling reasons” criteria. The only criterion considered was the extent of the applicant’s connection to Australia. Under changes introduced in September 2012, all Protection and Resolution of Status visa holders who arrived before 13 August 2012 (excluding unaccompanied minors) and who are seeking to sponsor immediate family members under the “split family” provisions of the SHP will now have to meet all of the “compelling reasons” criteria.

Applying for visas from outside Australia

Information on applying for humanitarian visas from overseas, including forms and eligibility requirements, can be found on the Department of Home Affair’s website. After an application is lodged, an acknowledgment of receipt will be sent to the applicant (and, in the case of 202 visas, the proposer). Applications that are assessed as eligible for further processing are referred for interview and further assessment. All refugee and humanitarian applicants referred for further processing are required to be interviewed by an Australian immigration officer. Applicants and their dependent family members must meet health and character requirements in order to be granted a visa for Australia.

Why do we have a planned refugee resettlement program?

The Refugee component of the Australian Humanitarian Program is motivated by the recognition that a balanced response to the world’s refugee problems requires that provision of resettlement places for Convention refugees be part of that response. UNHCR estimates the number of refugees in need of resettlement in 2013 at more than 850,000 people, while the total number of resettlement places offered annually around the world is around 85,000. Australia has allocated 12,000 places UNHCR’s resettlement program for the 2012-13 financial year, plus additional places through the SHP. Continuing to offer resettlement places – particularly through a multi-year planned program – represents Australia’s contribution to providing solutions to what is a global problem and contributes to Australia’s international standing as a country committed to upholding human rights and humanitarian values. Furthermore, as one of the few countries of the world with an active immigration program, there is an expectation that Australia allocate places for refugees as well as migrants. In other words, the refugee program enables Australia to play its part as a responsible member of the international community and to derive recognition for this contribution from other states. The SHP is driven not so much by an international imperative but by the desire of community groups and individuals in Australia to make a tangible contribution towards assisting members of their communities in difficult circumstances overseas, particularly those who may not have access to UNHCR’s resettlement processes.

Reuniting with family

The Refugee Program and SHP have “split family” provisions which allow humanitarian visa holders to sponsor immediate their family members (i.e. their partner and dependent children or, if the proposer is an unaccompanied minor, their parents) for resettlement in Australia. Generally, visas for immediate family members are granted in the same category as the proposer’s visa. For example, immediate family members of a proposer who was resettled in Australia on a Refugee Visa (subclass 200) will also be granted a Refugee visa. The main exception is Protection Visa holders, whose immediate family members will be granted an SHP visa. Until recently, applications for SHP visas lodged by refugees and humanitarian entrants sponsoring immediate family members under the “split family” provisions did not have to satisfy all of the “compelling reasons” criteria. The only criterion considered was the extent of the applicant’s connection to Australia. Under changes introduced in September 2012, all Protection and Resolution of Status visa holders who arrived before 13 August 2012 (excluding unaccompanied minors) and who are seeking to sponsor immediate family members under the “split family” provisions of the SHP will now have to meet all of the “compelling reasons” criteria.

Early refugee settlement

The history of Australia’s refugee program can be traced back at least 170 years. The first easily identifiable group of refugees were Lutherans who began settling in South Australia from 1839 to escape restrictions on their right to worship within the state of Prussia. During the 19th century, other settlers included Hungarians, Italians and Poles leaving situations of religious and political persecution.

After Federation, the new Australian nation continued to allow refugees to settle as unassisted migrants, as long as they met the restrictions imposed by the Immigration (Restriction) Act 1901, the cornerstone of the White Australia Policy. In the following three decades, small numbers of Russian, Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian, Assyrian and Jewish refugees were permitted to settle after proving they met Australia’s migration criteria.

Between 1933 and 1939, more than 7,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were settled. In 1937, the Australian Jewish Welfare Society pioneered the first refugee settlement support services, with financial assistance from the Australian Government. This settlement program was cut short by the outbreak of World War II.

The post-war program

After the war, a much larger refugee program was commenced as Australia launched an ambitious immigration program to meet labour shortages in a growing economy. In July 1947, the Australian Government entered into an agreement with the new International Refugee Organisation to settle displaced people from camps in Europe.

In the next seven years, Australia welcomed more than 170,000 refugees, the largest groups being from Poland, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. To meet the needs of the refugees and other migrants, ship-board English classes were established (the precursor of the modern Adult Migrant English Program), army camps were converted to migrant hostels for on-arrival accommodation and the Good Neighbour Council was established to foster and coordinate volunteer settlement support.

In the following two decades, the overwhelming majority of refugees were Eastern Europeans fleeing persecution in Soviet Bloc countries. Numbers of humanitarian arrivals increased substantially after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Warsaw Pact countries’ invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

In the early 1970s, the refugee intake began to diversify. In 1972, 198 Asians expelled by Uganda’s President Idi Amin were settled. Humanitarian settlement from Chile commenced the following year after a military coup deposed the Allende Government. Cypriot refugees began arriving after the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974 and the 1975 war in East Timor brought 2,500 evacuees to Darwin, marking the beginning of a Timorese refugee diaspora in Australia.

The fall of the South Vietnamese Government in Saigon in April 1975 began a chain of events which prompted a rethinking and reorganisation of Australia’s refugee program. The mass flight of Vietnamese refugees into nearby countries prompted an international response to which Australia committed support. By late 1975, the first 400 Vietnamese refugees had been selected by Australia for resettlement from camps in Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

Over the next two decades, Australia was to resettle more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees from various Asian countries. Only a small proportion, around 2000, came directly to Australia by boat to seek asylum. The first to arrive were five Vietnamese refugees who reached Darwin Harbour in a 17 metre fishing vessel. Another 55 boats followed in the ensuing six years.

Even in the first few months after the fall of Saigon, the scale of the refugee crisis being created was apparent. This prompted the Australian Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence to begin an investigation of how Australia should respond. In 1976, the committee, in its report, Australia and the Refugee Problem, identified an urgent need for a new approach to refugee settlement.

Citing the Department of Immigration’s failure to offer any additional assistance to newly arrived Vietnamese refugees, the report said this provided “irrefutable evidence of the complete lack of policy for the acceptance of people into Australia as refugees rather than as normal migrants”. The Senate committee made 44 recommendations about the development of a new refugee resettlement policy.

This report marked the beginning of new thinking which transformed the national refugee program from the humanitarian element of a general migration program to a dedicated and planned humanitarian program supported by a sophisticated system of settlement support.

The modern history of Australia’s refugee program – The development of coordinated responses to refugee resettlement

Australia’s modern approach to refugee settlement began with the Federal Government’s response to the 1976 Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence report Australia and the Refugee Problem. In May 1977, the then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Michael Mackellar, announced a new national refugee policy, including procedures for responding to designated refugee situations, a series of strategies to involve voluntary agencies in resettlement programs and plans to allow the settlement of people in humanitarian need who did not fall within the UNHCR mandate or Refugee Convention definitions.

In the following year, Mr Mackellar tabled the landmark Galbally Report, Review of Post-Arrival Programs and Services for Migrants, committing $49.7 million over three years for the implementation of the report’s recommendations on language teaching, settlement services and other migrant services. The late 1970s also saw the establishment of the first Migrant Resource Centre in Melbourne (February 1977), a new loan scheme to assist refugees into home ownership (March 1979) and further expansion of the then Adult Migrant and Refugee Education Program.

In December 1979, the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme commenced, involving community groups in providing newly-arrived refugees with on-arrival accommodation, social support and assistance with finding employment.

In the early 1980s, the refugee program expanded to an annual intake of up to 22,000, the largest annual intake in 30 years and a level not seen since. Vietnamese refugees settled from camps in Asia made up the bulk of new arrivals, with significant numbers of refugees also from Laos, Cambodia and Eastern Europe and smaller groups of Soviet Jews, Chileans, El Salvadorians, Cubans and members of ethnic minorities from Iraq (Assyrians, Armenians and Chaldeans).

The Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) was established in 1981, providing a settlement option to people who had suffered serious discrimination or human rights abuses, had fled their country of origin and had close ties with Australia. In 1984, the refugee program included 106 Ethiopians, the first significant group of Africans. The mid 1980s saw increases in the number of refugees and humanitarian entrants from Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania), the Middle East (Lebanon and Iran), Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Latin America (El Salvador and Chile), with continued, though declining, settlement of refugees from Indochina. Growing awareness of the psychosocial impacts of persecution and conflict led to the establishment in 1988 of the first torture and trauma services in Melbourne and Sydney. Similar services were established in other state and territory capitals in subsequent years, leading to the development of a national network of torture and trauma agencies.

In 1989, a special visa category within the refugee program was established to facilitate priority resettlement for refugee women at risk and their children. In the 20 years since then, Australia has resettled 8,800 refugee women and their children under this program. In 1991, the Special Assistance Category (SAC) visa was introduced to respond to crises in particular countries, permitting settlement of people in vulnerable circumstances and with connections in Australia.

The SAC provided resettlement options for people from the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, East Timor, Lebanon, Sudan, Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Cambodia and members of the Ahmadi religious movement. However, the SAC was progressively phased out by the Howard Government, which expressed concern that it had, at least in part, become more of a family reunion program. Its preference was for humanitarian family reunion to be handled under the SHP, through the split family provisions it introduced from 1997.

The 1980s and 1990s brought significant changes to the delivery of settlement services, with the shift from migrant hostels to the On Arrival Accommodation program, from the old Grant-in-Aid Program to the Community Settlement Services Scheme and with the replacement of the Community Resettlement Settlement Scheme in 1997 by the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy. These and later changes in the delivery of settlement services were traced in more detail in our submission for the 2008-09 Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

In this decade, we have seen further changes to service provision and significant shifts in the regional composition of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program. A decade ago, half of the program was focused on resettlement from Europe. Now this makes up less 1% of the program. Resettlement from Africa increased from 16% a decade ago to 70% in 2003-04 and 2004-05, being reduced to a third of the program today. The continuing crisis in Iraq and the commencement of large-scale resettlement of Burmese from Thailand and Bhutanese from Nepal have seen the program shift to one evenly divided between Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

A milestone: 750,000 since Federation

According to the best estimates available, 2009-10 was the year in which Australia, since becoming an independent nation, passed the 750,000 mark in its intake of refugees and humanitarian entrants. From Federation in 1901 until 1948, no official statistics were kept of refugee settlement.

However, research published by the Australian Parliamentary Library estimated that Australia received 20,000 refugees in this period. From July 1948 to June 1977, Australia received 269,266 assisted humanitarian arrivals, as well as another 33,000 unassisted humanitarian arrivals, according to DIAC estimates. Since the modern Refugee and Humanitarian Program began in 1977, Australia has received 392,538 offshore refugee and humanitarian entrants and has issued 42,714 onshore protection visas.

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