Refugee Council of Australia
Young boy with hearing aid sitting with family

Barriers and exclusions: The support needs of newly arrived refugees with a disability

Background to Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

How people come to Australia

Under Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program, the Australian Government annually sets a number of places for refugees and humanitarian entrants. While numbers have fluctuated, the Refugee and Humanitarian Program is currently set at 16,250 places in 2017-18 and will increase to 18,750 places in 2018-19. The Australian Government has also recently resettled 12,000 people from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as a one-off program in addition to the annual humanitarian intake.

There are two main ways in which people come to Australia through the Refugee and Humanitarian Program: through resettlement from overseas (the ‘offshore’ component), and by claiming asylum in Australia (the ‘onshore’ component).

There are two main categories within the offshore component. First, there are those who are generally identified by UNHCR as in need of resettlement, who are granted a refugee visa (subclass 200).Second, there are people proposed for entry by people or organisations in Australia under the global special humanitarian program (subclass 202), because they are subject to substantial discrimination and human rights abuses in their home country. There is another, smaller group admitted as women at risk (subclass 204), and two visa classes for special cases.

Disability under the program

Until recently, Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program has discriminated against people with a disability. The Migration Act 1958 and regulations are exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (s. 52), allowing the government to discriminate against people with a disability in the area of migration. To receive a visa through the offshore program, a person must meet the health requirements set out in Public Interest Criteria 4007. This requires that the Minister for Immigration not grant a visa if a person has a “disease or condition”, and the provision of health care or community services for that person would be likely to “result in a significant cost to the Australian community in the areas of health care and community services”. It is extremely difficult for children and adults with a disability to meet the health requirement given the focus is exclusively on the perceived economic cost of the applicant’s “condition” and the perceived “burden” this will place on public and community resources. Those who fail this health requirement because of a disability or other health concern are not able to migrate to Australia.

However, this policy changed in 2012, after a Parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of people with a disability in Australia’s migration system. Now, while a person must still meet the health requirements, those requirements can be waived for a person applying for refugee resettlement. The migration policies direct the decision maker to grant a health waiver, regardless of the impact that person may have on the health or community services in Australia. This change only applies to refugees with a disability; migrants with a disability are still subject to the discriminatory health waiver processes. This policy position has received widespread criticism from United Nations bodies and officials including the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

Since July 2012, this change has resulted in more refugee and humanitarian applicants with a disability arriving in Australia through the resettlement program. However, the exact number remains unknown.

Statistics of refugee and humanitarian entrants with a health or disability status

Statistics on the number of refugees with a disability are difficult to obtain, reflecting a general lack of awareness about the issues faced by this group.

The 2016 Australian Census and Migrants Integrated Dataset records statistics on migrants in Australia, including humanitarian migrants (refugees). While disability is not recorded, the Census asks people if they have a need for assistance. While this may represent people with a disability, it also captures people who are elderly. Further, it does not capture people with a disability who do not need assistance.

Humanitarian entrants have the largest proportion of people with a need for assistance for those aged over 25, as seen in Figure 1. This proportion raises substantially as people get older. This highlights significantly higher proportion of people with a disability for refugees when compared to the entire Australian population, or other migrants.

Line graph showing need for assistance in 2016 by migration stream

Figure 1 Need for assistance, 2016, Australian Census and Migrants Integrated Dataset.

In addition, figures obtained through Freedom of Information reveal the number of refugee and humanitarian entrants who were granted a Health Waiver (Figure 2). These data show the number of people who, but for the waiver, would have been excluded from resettlement because they have a disability or health status determinant that would have likely had a significant cost to the Australian community. However, it is not possible to ascertain from these statistics the health or disability related determinants underpinning the waiver.

Stacked column chart showing number of health waivers by financial yearFigure 2 Health waivers in the Refugee and Humanitarian Program, 2011-12 to 2015-16 (Source: Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Freedom of Information Request FA 17/05/01274).

In the 2015-16 financial year, 238 (1.4%) of the 17,555 people who resettled through Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program received a health waiver. These data show an increase in the number of people arriving with health or disability related issues, as should be expected due to the change in policy in 2012 (outlined above).

The lack of reliable statistics highlights the need for better collection and dissemination of data in order to ensure that on-arrival needs are being serviced appropriately, and to support the full social and economic participation of people with a disability from a refugee background.

Support for refugees

Australia’s settlement services framework is internationally renowned as an example of best practice in supporting the successful settlement of refugee and humanitarian entrants. The Australian Government funds a program to provide on-arrival settlement support and orientation to most people in the offshore program, and also to some people in the onshore program who arrive with a valid visa. This program, previously the Humanitarian Settlement Services (HSS) program, was recently renamed the Humanitarian Settlement Program (HSP).

This program is designed to assist humanitarian entrants in the first 6 months of arrival. In addition, the Specialised and Intensive Services section of the HSP is also available to humanitarian entrants who experience additional barriers to settling and require additional casework support.

The initial months of settlement are some of the most challenging periods in a refugee’s settlement journey. Refugee and humanitarian entrants typically arrive in Australia with limited or no financial resources (with some new arrivals bringing literally nothing more than the clothes on their backs), limited or no English language skills or knowledge of Australian culture, laws and systems. On arrival, they are confronted with a myriad of often competing settlement challenges: finding appropriate accommodation; learning English; completing education; obtaining or upgrading qualifications; seeking employment; supporting family members still living in refugee situations overseas; learning about life in Australia; and recovering from experiences of torture and trauma.

In this context, effective on-arrival support plays a critical role in assisting new arrivals to find a foothold in Australia and begin their settlement journey in a positive way. HSP providers are the first point of contact for many new arrivals in Australia and the support they offer can significantly influence future settlement outcomes.

Once they leave the program (usually six to 12 months after arrival), humanitarian entrants can access services under the Settlement Grants Program (SGP), which is designed to assist with longer-term settlement needs. SGP services vary between locations but most focus on casework, referrals, provision of settlement-related information, advocacy services and community development activities.

However, these settlement programs and services are not designed to cater for the needs of refugees with a disability. As discussed below, the lack of specialised support across both the refugee and disability sectors has left a gap in service delivery for new arrivals, resulting in significant problems.


Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Policy Advice Manual: Offshore Humanitarian Program – Visa Application and Related Procedures (12 May 2017).

Francois Crepeau, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants of Australia and the regional processing centres in Nauru’, 35 sess., Human Rights Council, Agenda item 3, UN Doc A/HRC/35/25/Add.3 (24 April 2017) [92].

Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Freedom of Information Request FA 17/05/01274 (4 August 2017).

Philippa Duell-Piening, ‘Refugee resettlement and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ (2018) 33 Disability and Society 1.

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