How many refugees have come to Australia? How does this compare to the number of migrants who have come to Australia? How has the refugee program in Australia changed over time?
Australia’s refugee and migration programs
People come permanently to Australia in one of two ways: through the Migration Program or the Refugee and Humanitarian Program (‘the refugee program’). The Migration Program is the main program, which people use mainly to reunite with family or as skilled migrants.
The refugee program is how refugees or other people who need protection (‘humanitarian entrants’) come to Australia. This program was set up in 1977.
Understanding the statistics
Since 1977, the Australian Government has published statistics on how many people come under both programs. It reports these by financial year (beginning on 1 July and ending on 30 June the following year).
The statistics before 1977 are estimates given to the Parliamentary Library of Australia.
The refugee program
The refugee program has two parts: ‘offshore’ and ‘onshore’. Refugees and others who need protection who are overseas can be ‘resettled’ through the ‘offshore’ part of the program. The ‘onshore’ part of the program is for those who are in Australia when they claim protection (or ‘seek asylum’). Since 1996, the Australian Government has set a number for this Program which includes both ‘onshore’ and ‘offshore’ parts.
The data that is published has changed over time. Policies also change, and these changes can be important in understanding the data. Important changes are explained next to the graphs.
How many refugees have come to Australia?
This first graph shows the number of refugees or other people who need protection since 1901. The numbers until June 1977 are estimates.
Between 1947-1975, there were two types of refugees: those who were ‘assisted’ by the Australian Government, and those who were not.
Most people have come under the ‘offshore’ part of the Program. 523,790 people have come under this Program since 1977.
The total of 915,211, and the number of onshore protection visas, is misleading.
Since 2013-2014, people who have claimed protection in Australia after coming by boat do not get permanent protection. Instead, they are given ‘temporary protection’. This means they are no longer counted as part of the refugee program.
These numbers are now separately reported.
The Australian Government also now ‘caps’ onshore protection visas by law. This means only a certain number of visas can be granted every year to people in Australia. As well, anyone who now comes without a valid visa (mostly by boat) cannot apply to be a refugee. They can only apply if the Minister allows them to apply.
This means the size of the ‘onshore’ part does not reflect the need for protection.