Refugee Council of Australia
Woman holding identity card with child in background

Identity documents for refugees

What are the challenges once they get to Australia?


Incorrect information is often recorded

Many people report that Australian officials incorrectly record their identity. This can happen while they are being resettled, or after they come to Australia.

This can happen because of difficult conventions for people’s names and dates, such as recording middle names as surnames.

For example, the Karen only have one name, and they don’t distinguish between first names and surnames. Nepal uses a different calendar, which can affect birth dates.

Learn more about naming conventions: Cultural Atlas (SBS)

Sometimes, this means that people end up with ‘Noname’ as the surname on official documents, or default birthdates. As one service provider told us:

There needs to be more sensitivity when filling in families’ names on visas, particularly for the Karen. Their names are totally messed-up and it causes a lot of stress for families. It’s cultural that people have only one name and it can be one, two or three syllables and they don’t distinguish between first names and surnames. But it’s not sensitive to call a child “Kiss Me”. There are lots of examples like that.

Sometimes, people change this information once they are in Australia. For example, people may use a nickname or an Australian version of their name, or change their date of birth. Often, they don’t realise the effects of doing this. 

For example, one person from Guinea told us:

On my visa, my name was spelt with one letter missing and my middle name was wrong. I tried to change it but was discouraged by the UNHCR who said: “You’re lucky, you’re going to Australia”. I recently had my name changed in Australia.

Mistakes are difficult to change

It is difficult to fix mistakes in identity documents. Those supporting refugees report that this adds to their workload.
Many do not know who to contact in the Department of Immigration (now Home Affairs). This means they are put through to different departments or people who contradict each other:

We are going in circles and no one is resolving it. Our client has been to [the Department] four times, and it’s not resolved. There is no consistency.

We have also heard that sometimes even the gender is incorrectly recorded, and that children have had to go through medical checks to confirm this.

The problems mistakes can cause

Mistakes in identity documents can cause significant problems. All services require identity documents, including Medicare, social security and other basic services.

In one example, we heard that a woman bought tickets from a travel agency to visit family in Sudan. The agent called her and said: “Your name is wrong and you’ll have to pay us $4,000 for another set of tickets.”

Even minor differences can cause problems, especially as governments adopt stricter rules on identity.

For example, government officials will often check carefully any differences between official documents and the name on their visa applications. This can mean their claims for protection being rejected. Sometimes, this happens even with citizenship applications, many years later. A mistake there can mean that the government can cancel their permanent residency. This can lead to their detention.

Visa cancellations

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