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There are no hard-and-fast rules for determining whether a country is “safe” for refugees and asylum seekers. However, refugees are generally thought to have found “effective protection” if the following conditions are met:

  • The country in which they have sought protection has a clear framework for assessing refugee claims and providing protection;
  • Asylum seekers can have their claims assessed through a fair and credible system of status determination;
  • People who are found to be refugees have a secure legal status and will be protected against forcible return to their country of origin (refoulement);
  • Refugees have access to services and support necessary to ensure a decent standard of living;
  • Refugees have access to a durable solution within a reasonable period of time; and
  • The human rights of refugees and asylum seekers are respected and upheld.

Under international law, once a refugee has found effective protection from persecution, they are no longer considered to be in need of protection from other countries. If they wish to move to another country, they must do so as an ordinary migrant; otherwise, they can be returned to the country where they first sought and obtained protection. For example, a refugee who sought asylum in Australia after they had already sought and received effective protection in Canada would simply be returned to Canada, without having their asylum claim assessed by Australia.

However, if an asylum seeker applies for protection or travels through a country which fails or refuses to provide effective protection to refugees, they are well within their rights to seek asylum elsewhere – even if they have been recognised as a refugee while in that country. This is because different countries provide different levels of protection to refugees. The countries which happen to be closest to a refugee’s country or origin or which are easiest for refugees to reach are not necessarily countries which are able or willing to provide effective protection.

In the Asia-Pacific region, for example, few countries provide effective protection to refugees and conditions for people seeking protection are very difficult. Many countries in the region have no domestic asylum process and restrict access to asylum processes offered by UNHCR. People seeking protection are typically unable to work legally, own or rent property, access health care or send their children to school. They frequently face violence (including torture and sexual and gender-based violence), harassment, exploitation and abuse and are at risk of being detained and forcibly returned to their country of origin. These conditions drive some refugees to move on to Australia in the hope that it may offer them the protection that other countries have failed or refused to provide.