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Recent years have seen numerous changes to Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies, largely as a political response to an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat (51,637 arrivals in the five years to December 2013) and a consequent increase in deaths at sea between Indonesia and Australia (at least 862 deaths recorded over the same period).[1] Both of Australia’s major political parties have attempted to address this issue through deterrence-based policies which block access to protection in Australia and impose penalties on people who arrive by boat. This document summarises some of the more recent policy changes.

Refugee and Humanitarian Program

During the 2012-13 financial year,[2] the size of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian program was increased from 13,750 to 20,000 places, divided between offshore resettlement and onshore protection. This was the largest increase to the program in 30 years and resulted in an 87% rise in the number of offshore resettlement visas granted. With the change of government in September 2013, the size of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program was reduced back to 13,750 places, with the majority of these places dedicated to offshore resettlement. This allocation of 13,750 places, with 11,000 reserved for offshore resettlement, continued until 2016-17 and will increase to 16,250 in 2017-18 and then to 18,750 places in 2018-19. In September 2015, the Government announced that it would make additional 12,000 humanitarian places available to refugees from the crises in Syria and Iraq. In March 2017, it was announced that the Government finalised granting all 12,000 visas, however some people are yet to arrive.

Immigration detention and community alternatives

Indefinite mandatory detention: Asylum seekers who arrive without a prior valid visa (by sea or air) continue to be subject to indefinite mandatory detention As at 30 April 2017, 1,392 people were held in closed immigration detention facilities in Australia, 377 of whom were asylum seekers who had arrived by boat. The average length of detention for people in closed detention facilities was 450 days, with 541 people (39% of the total detention population) having been detained for over a year and 314 for more than two years. As of 30 April 2017, there were under 5 children held in closed detention facilities in Australia.

Community placements: The use of community detention as an alternative to held detention was expanded in October 2010. In October 2011, the Government began to release large numbers of asylum seekers from closed immigration detention facilities in to the community on Bridging Visas (subclass E). These visas allow people to live in the community pending resolution of their protection claims. Most asylum seekers living in the community on Bridging Visas have access to Australia’s universal health care system, Medicare, and receive a basic living allowance equivalent to the 89% of Centrelink Special Benefit. People who are in community detention can move freely in the community but cannot choose where they live. They must live at an address specified by the Minister for Immigration. They are also subject to curfews and other supervision arrangements. As of 30 April 2017, there were 556 people (including 216 children) in community detention and 23,573 people living in the community after the grant of a Bridging Visa E.

Work rights: Until December 2014, asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat after 13 August 2012 and subsequently released from immigration detention facilities on Bridging Visas were not eligible to work. In December 2014, the Government decided to grant work rights to asylum seekers in this group. People in community detention do not have work rights. Most asylum seekers now have a renewed Bridging Visa that does not bar them from working. However, there are still difficulties in timely renewal of Bridging Visas, and practical barriers to obtaining employment. These obstacles mean that many asylum seekers with the right to work have difficulty finding employment to support themselves. As the processing of their refugee claims continues, it is also likely that people will lose work rights if their claims are refused.

Access to case support: Under the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) program, some Bridging Visa E holders who have complex needs are eligible for more intensive casework support but the majority receive little assistance beyond income support. Those who are particularly vulnerable (such as unaccompanied children, and people with significant physical or mental health issues) may be released into community detention, a form of community placement which is more restrictive but also provides more intensive support than what is offered to those released on to a Bridging Visa.

Refugees with adverse security assessments: People who are found to have a well-founded fear of persecution (found to be a refugee), need to be assessed by the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), before being granted a protection visa. Between January 2010 and November 2011, ASIO issued adverse security assessments to more than 50 refugees. People subject to this assessment could not be sent back to their country of origin as they were recognised as refugees and the Government said that they would not release them into Australian communities. As a result, they were denied protection visas and remained indefinitely in closed detention facilities (some alongside their children). Unlike Australian citizens and permanent residents, refugees do not have a right to appeal the assessment. None of the refugees received reasons or evidence for these adverse security assessments.

Since 2015, many people in this group have been released into the community after ASIO overturned the adverse assessments. However, a small number remains in detention facilities (many of whom have been detained for over six years). All people who have had their ASIO assessment overturned have now been asked to re-apply for protection visas (this time a temporary protection visa). This is despite the fact that all had been found to be refugees by the Australian Government years ago. Their claims for protection will be re-assessed according to new country information. For those who are yet to be released from detention, this can mean longer periods of arbitrary detention if the Government decides to release them only when they are granted a protection visa.[3] In July 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee found that the indefinite detention of these refugees breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[4]

Visa cancellations: The legislative amendments to section 501 of the Migration Act 1958 in December 2014 added additional grounds based on which an individual can fail a character test. These amendments now permit (and in some instances, require) the Minister for Immigration to cancel a person’s visa (temporary or permanent) on the basis of character issues, such as having committed a crime or posing some form of perceived threat to the Australian community.

People who have been sentenced to 12 months or more in prison or those who have been sentenced to two or more terms of imprisonment, where the total of those terms is 12 months or more will have their visas mandatorily cancelled. The new cancellation powers place people from refugee backgrounds at risk of prolonged indefinite immigration detention, as they cannot be returned to their countries of origin. Furthermore, the co-location of people who spent time in prisons and people seeking asylum in the same detention facility has led to tensions within the facilities and intensified the security measures employed to manage those centres.

Border Force Act: The Australian Border Force (ABF) Act took effect on 1 July 2015. The Secrecy and Disclosure provisions of the ABF Act makes it a crime punishable by two years imprisonment for an “entrusted person” to make record of or disclose protected information. According to the ABF Act, the “entrusted person” could be an Immigration and Border Protection worker,[5] including people engaged or employed by the Department of Immigration. This can include social workers, educators, and others contracted by the Australian Government to perform services on behalf of the Department.[6] In October 2016, the Australian Government amended the Border Force Act and exempted health professionals working in detention from the definition of Immigration and Border Protection workers. The Act was amended ahead of a High Court challenge filed by an advocacy group comprised of doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

Refugee Status Determination (RSD) and legal advice

Excision policy: Under Australian law, a person who arrives by boat without authorisation is barred from applying for any sort of visa, including a Protection Visa, unless the Minister for Immigration personally intervenes to “lift the bar”. Known as excision, this policy previously applied only to specific outlying territories of Australia (such as Christmas Island) excised from the migration zone but has been extended to the whole of Australia since 2013. As a result, asylum seekers who arrive anywhere in Australia by boat cannot apply for a visa except at the discretion of the Minister for Immigration.

Delays in refugee determination and pressure to apply: Most asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat after 13 August 2012 waited for well over three years for the opportunity to lodge a protection application. This is because from August 2012 until the year 2015, refugee status determination (RSD) was suspended for this group. While the Government began allowing this group to apply for a protection visa in 2015, it did not finish “lifting the bar” for all groups until late 2016. The removal of government-funded legal advice resulted in long waiting lists (of up to one year) to access a pro-bono lawyer who can assist with lodging a protection visa application. At the end of 2016, the Department of Immigration started issuing warning letters to the asylum seekers who were yet to apply for protection, including those who were on a waiting list of community legal centres. People were given 60 days to apply (with a possibility of a 30-day extension) and were advised failing to do so would result in losing welfare payment, bridging visas and the right to lodge their applications. On 21 May 2017, the Minister for Immigration announced that if people fail to apply for protection visas by 1 October 2017, they will be barred from applying for any temporary or permanent visa in Australia and should return to their home countries.

It is expected that the processing of claims take at least until the end of 2018 before the backlog of refugee claims is cleared.

The ‘fast track’ process: Australia has introduced a ‘fast track’ RSD process for asylum seekers who arrived by boat between 13 August 2012 and 1 January 2014 and were not taken to Nauru or Papua New Guinea for offshore processing. If their claims are rejected by the Department of Immigration, this group of asylum seekers will no longer be able to apply for review to the Refugee Review Tribunal, the independent statutory authority which used to conduct merits reviews of refugee claims. Instead, the Department of Immigration will decide which of its own negative decisions will be referred to the Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA), a body established in 2015. The intention of the IAA is to provide a far more limited form of review: asylum seekers generally will not be interviewed and no new information can be presented other than in exceptional circumstances. If an applicant assessed to be an “excluded fast track review applicant”, they will be excluded from any form of merits review under the fast track system. Fast track applicants will usually have access to judicial review. However, the Minister for Immigration has the power to issue a ‘conclusive certificate’ which prevents an initial decision from being changed or reviewed.

Changes to RSD and how Australia defines ‘refugee’: In addition to the fast track process, the Australian Government has made a number of changes to Australia’s processes for assessing asylum claims, including shifting the burden of proof on to asylum seekers, removing the references to the Refugee Convention from Australia’s migration legislation, removing the reasonableness test from consideration of relocation options for people facing persecution, requiring the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to draw unfavourable inferences about the credibility of refugee claims in some circumstances and creating new grounds to deny Protection visas to people who provide false identity documents.[7]

Removal of government-funded legal advice: Many asylum seekers who arrive without valid visas are no longer eligible for government-funded legal advice. Asylum seekers who arrive with valid visas, and asylum seekers who arrived by boat and have been identified as particularly vulnerable by the Department of Immigration (such as most people in immigration detention subject to fast track processing and also unaccompanied children), are eligible for free legal advice at the primary stage of decision-making but no longer at the merits review stage.[8]

Amalgamation of review tribunals into the Administrative Appeals Review Tribunal: on 1 July 2015, the Migration Review Tribunal (MRT), Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) and Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT) merged with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). The amalgamated AAT is responsible for the independent review of a wide range of decisions made by the Australian Government, including the Department of Immigration. Decisions that could be reviewed by the former MRT or RRT, or the cases referred to these review bodies before 1 July 2015 for which a decision was not made by that date, are now reviewed by the AAT’s Migration and Refugee Division.

‘Enhanced screening’ of Sri Lankan and Vietnamese asylum seekers: Since October 2012, asylum seekers arriving by boat from Sri Lanka have been subject to ‘enhanced screening’. Under this process, asylum seekers are interviewed by two officers from the Department of Immigration about their reasons for travelling to Australia. If they raise concerns which suggest they may have a valid protection claim, they are ‘screened in’ so that their claims can be formally processed. If they do not raise any protection concerns, they are ‘screened out’ and returned to their country of origin without having the opportunity to formally lodge a protection claim. This system lacks transparency and denies asylum seekers the opportunity to have their claims fairly assessed. More than 1,000 people have been ‘screened out’ and returned to Sri Lanka since this system was introduced.

In July 2014, a group of 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who had attempted to enter Australia by boat were intercepted by Australian authorities and screened at sea before being returned to Sri Lanka. Some subsequently fled to Nepal where they were found to be refugees by UNHCR.[9] Another group of 12 Sri Lankan asylum seekers whose boat was intercepted by the Australian authorities near Cocos Island in May 2016 were also screened at sea before being flown to Sri Lanka. They were reportedly arrested on arrival at the Colombo airport. This ‘enhanced screening’ process has been expanded to people from Vietnam seeking protection. In March and July 2015, two boats carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers were intercepted by the Australian navy and their passengers underwent enhanced screening before being returned to Vietnam. Asylum seekers on the first boat were held at sea for nearly a month. It has been reported that some of the people on board the first boat were subsequently tried and sentenced to two to three years in prison. Another group from the second boat is awaiting a trial.[10]

Offshore processing

Transfers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea: Asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat after 19 July 2013 are subject to offshore processing. Under this policy, asylum seekers are transferred to detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island where their claims are processed under the laws of those countries. If they are found to be refugees, they will be settled in a country other than Australia. Nauru is offering recognised refugees temporary visas with permanent protection available only if they choose to resettle in Cambodia.[11] While PNG has adopted a National Refugee Policy which would allow for permanent settlement and a pathway to citizenship, in practice the process of settlement remains fraught. As of 30 April 2017, 1,194 asylum seekers were residing in Australian-funded Offshore Processing Centres (RPCs) – 373 (including 45 children) in Nauru and 821 on Manus Island.

Nauru progressively introduced open centre arrangements from 25 February 2015 to full open centre arrangements on 5 October 2015. PNG introduced open centre arrangements for Manus Island RPC on 27 April 2016, a bus service commenced to assist movement between the Manus RPC, the Lorengau township, and the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre. The Department of Immigration ceased to report on the number of people living in the community in Nauru, those living in Transit Centre in Manus Island, township of Lorengau and elsewhere in PNG. Some of the people who are found to be refugees remain in the processing centres under ‘open centre’ arrangements due to unavailability of housing in the community or perceived lack of safety. It is, therefore, unclear exactly how many are in the community in Nauru and PNG. Various reports suggest this number might be around 1,200 for Nauru and up to 1000 for Manus Island.

Resettlement deal with USA: In November 2016, Australia announced a resettlement deal with the United States of America whereby some of the refugees in Nauru and Manus Island could be eligible for resettlement in the USA. Prior to resettlement, people who expressed interest will be subject to security assessment, further interviews and medical checks. The change of government in the USA created great uncertainty around the future of this deal. While the American officials visited both islands and interviewed a number of people, as of June 2017 no refugee has been resettled in the USA. As of 30 April 2017, 1,745 people on Nauru and Manus Island have been recognised as refugees.[12] It is unclear how many refugees the USA will take from offshore processing centres. While in late January 2017, US press secretary stated that the USA will resettle up to 1,250 refugees,[13] Australian officials have maintained that it is not possible to quote a fixed number of refugees the USA will resettle as it depends on a few variables, including the number of people expressing interest in that resettlement option and the security screening. The Australian Government has not announced an appropriate resettlement plan for those who will not qualify for resettlement in the USA but have been found to be a refugee. Similarly, the future of those who have found not to be a refugee but are unable to return home (due to statelessness or inability to source travel documents) remains uncertain.

Legality of detention in PNG: In late April 2016, the PNG’s Supreme Court ruled that the transfer and detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island were illegal and in breach of the right to personal liberty in the PNG constitution. The Supreme Court ordered that immediate steps be taken to end the detention of asylum seekers in PNG.[14] In mid May 2017, people in Manus Island detention centre were told that the centre would close by the end of October 2017 and some of the residential areas would close as early as the end of May (our understanding is, as of early June 2017, this has not yet occurred). People currently residing in the detention centre were told that those found to be refugees and those found not to, would be separated. Refugees were given the option of living in PNG community or living temporarily in East Lorengau transit centre (people continue to raise safety concerns in relations to both locations) or return home. Those found not to be refugees were encouraged to return home voluntarily or otherwise will be involuntarily removed.

Detention centre conditions: Accommodation standards, facilities and services in the detention centres remain well below international standards. UNHCR and Amnesty International[15] have documented the harsh nature of the conditions and noted the physical and mental health impacts of indefinite detention on the asylum seekers. There have been numerous incidents of self-harm, protests and disturbances on both Nauru and Manus Island. There have been consistent and alarming reports of abuse (sexual and otherwise), including of those living in the community in Nauru and of gay and lesbian people. There has been at least two deaths as a result of delays in medical treatment and multiple incidents evidencing woefully inadequate health care.[16]

Deaths of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru: In February 2014, peaceful protests by asylum seekers detained in the Manus Island facility degenerated into a riot. Security guards and police stormed the facility and violently attacked asylum seekers, including people who had not been involved in the protests and were attempting to take shelter in their rooms. One asylum seeker, Reza Berati, was beaten to death and over 60 others were injured, some of them seriously. In September 2014, asylum seeker Hamid Khazaei died from a sepsis infection three weeks after he cut his foot at Manus Island detention centre. Inadequate medical care in Manus Island and PNG and delayed medical evacuation allegedly contributed to Mr Khazaei’s death. In late April 2016, Omid Masoumali, a refugee who was living in Nauru for three years set himself on fire and passed away two days later in a hospital in Brisbane. It took over 24 hours for him to be medically evacuated and transferred to Australia. A few days later, a Bangladeshi refugee living in Nauru died of a suspected heart attack. However, some alleged that he died after deliberately overdosing on tablets. On Christmas Eve 2016, a Sudanese refugee, Faysal Ishak Ahmed, who was living in Manus Island RPC died in Brisbane after urgent medical transfer to Australia. He collapsed two days before at the detention centre. Many of Mr Ahmed’s friends alleged that in the months prior to his death, he sought medical treatment from the medical clinic but was his concerned were not investigated thoroughly and on many occasions he was turned away.

Border protection

Operation Sovereign Borders: Soon after the change of government in September 2013, the Australian Government established “Operation Sovereign Borders”, a military-style response to the movement of asylum seekers by boat to Australia, led by a three-star commander reporting directly to the Minister for Immigration. Australian naval and customs officers were issued with orders to turn back boats carrying asylum seekers “when it is safe to do so”. The Government reveals little information about turnback operations, claiming that doing so would jeopardise their success through providing intelligence to people smugglers. However, in October 2016 the Australian Senate estimates revealed that since the first boat turnback on 19 December 2013 and until 17 October 2016, 29 boats carrying 740 people had been turned back.[17] In June 2015, allegations were aired that officials of the Australian Security Intelligence Service had paid people smugglers to take 65 asylum seekers intercepted on the seas back to Indonesia. The Australian Government refused to comment on these claims “for security reasons”.

Use of lifeboats: As part of turnback operations in 2013 and 2014, asylum seekers were transferred from their boats to Australian vessels and forced to board fully-enclosed and “unsinkable” lifeboats which were then pushed back towards Indonesian territorial waters.

Detention at sea and transfers: In July 2014, 157 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who attempted to enter Australia by boat were detained on an Australian customs vessel for four weeks before being brought to the Australian mainland and then transferred to the offshore detention centre in Nauru. The Government had been considering options to return them to India (their point of departure), including through inviting Indian consular officials to meet with the asylum seekers and training some asylum seekers to operate the “unsinkable” lifeboats used in turnback operations. The Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Act passed in December 2014 gives the Immigration Minister the power to detain people at sea (including outside Australia’s jurisdiction) and send them to other countries or vessels, even without the permission or knowledge of those countries. As noted earlier, the Australian Government has also detained Vietnamese asylum seekers at sea, conducted ‘enhanced screening’ of their protection claims and then transferred them back to Vietnam.

Regional deterrence strategies: The Australian Government is working with other governments in the region to strengthen border protection and deterrence measures so as to combat people smuggling and reduce ‘irregular movement’. Measures have included donating patrol vessels to Malaysia and Sri Lanka, stationing Australian Customs and Border Protection officials in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka and capacity-building initiatives.

Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs)

Previous policy: TPVs were previously in place in Australia between 1999 and 2008. Granted to refugees who arrived in Australia by boat, TPVs allowed their holders to remain in Australia for three years, after which time they had to re-apply for protection. TPV holders could not travel outside Australia, sponsor family members for resettlement and had only limited access to services and support. The negative impacts of these conditions on the health, wellbeing and settlement outcomes of TPV holders have been well documented.[18] In practice, the TPV policy proved impractical because few refugees with temporary status were ever able to return home safely. By the time it left office in late 2007, the Howard Government had quietly granted permanent protection to more than 9,500 of the 11,300 refugees previously on TPVs.

Reintroduction of TPVs: Temporary Protection Visas were reintroduced in 2015 for all people found to be owed protection but who arrived in Australia without a prior valid visa (by sea or by air). TPVs allow a refugee to stay in Australia for a maximum of three years, after which time their protection claims are reassessed. In contrast to the previous TPV policy, TPV holders who are found to be in need of protection after their initial visa expires are only permitted to apply for another temporary visa and are not eligible for permanent residency. TPV holders are allowed to work in Australia and have access to Medicare, income support and English language tuition. They are also able to receive torture and trauma counselling and assistance with finding employment. However, they are not eligible for the full range of settlement support services available to other humanitarian entrants. Additionally, they cannot sponsor their family members to join them in Australia and will be barred from returning to Australia if they travel overseas (unless they are given permission from the Minister for Immigration and can demonstrate compelling circumstances for their travel outside Australia). People on TPVs will have difficulty engaging in education and training, as unlike holders of permanent humanitarian visas, they are not eligible for Federal Government programs designed to assist students with financing tertiary study. Unlike permanent residents, refugees on TPVs who require income support only receive payments through Special Benefit, rather than through other income support programs such as the Newstart Allowance, Youth Allowance or Austudy. Recipients of Special Benefit who wish to pursue tertiary study can only continue to receive income support if they are undertaking a vocational course that is likely to enhance their employment prospects and which can be completed in 12 months or less. As such, refugees on temporary visas undertaking courses which take more than 12 months to complete will not be able to receive income support during this time. This is likely to seriously limit tertiary education opportunities for these visa holders.

Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs): This new temporary visa is similar to the TPV but will be issued for a period of five years. A refugee living on a SHEV will need to indicate an intention to work and/or study in a designated regional or rural area. If SHEV holders undertake study or work without accessing income support for at least three-and-a-half years, they will be able to apply for another type of temporary or permanent visa (such as a skilled or family visa but not a permanent Protection visa). While SHEVs may provide a pathway to permanent residency for some refugees, it is unlikely that most will be able to satisfy the eligibility requirements for permanent visas as they currently exist. All states and territories have now opted into the SHEV arrangement.

Other measures

Use of term ‘illegal maritime arrivals’: In October 2013, the Australian Government instructed government staff and contractors to refer to asylum seekers arriving by boat as “illegal maritime arrivals” (previously “irregular maritime arrivals”), despite the fact that it is not illegal under Australian and international law to arrive without authorisation for the purpose of seeking asylum.

Denial of family reunion: Refugees who arrived in Australia by boat and have yet to achieve citizenship have virtually no opportunities for family reunion. While they can be technically eligible to apply to sponsor family members in some situations, their family reunion applications are given “lowest processing priority” unless there are special circumstances of a compassionate nature or where processing of applications would otherwise be unreasonably delayed. The “special circumstances of a compassionate nature” or reasonable timeframe are not defined in the Ministerial Directive. It effectively means for vast majority of applicants, their applications have very little chance of success.

TPV and SHEV holders cannot sponsor family members under any program and will not have the opportunity to become citizens unless the Minister for Immigration grants them permanent residency or they are able to satisfy the eligibility criteria for a permanent Australian visa (for SHEV holders).

Citizenship Delays and proposed changes to citizenship criteria: People of refugee background have been facing significant delays when applying for citizenship. Despite having passed all legal requirements for citizenship, including passing the citizenship test, many have not been invited to attend their citizenship ceremony. The ceremony is the final stage where applicants pledge to commit to Australia and receive their Australian citizenship. One of the reasons for this delay is the change to the way the Department of Immigration confirms a person’s identity. People whose cases need more thorough identity checks are put in a “complex case” group. According to the Department of Immigration at the end of 2016, 10,231 people were in that group. In a survey of 1000 people conducted by Refugee Council of Australia, the average waiting time is 16 months, with some people waiting up to three years. On 20 April 2017, the Government proposed a number of changes to the criteria for Australian citizenship. They include: requirement to be permanent resident for four years before applying for citizenship; requirement for all applicants to pass a stand-alone English test (applicants are required to reach “competent” level or equivalent of band 6 of proficiency in IELTS test, close to the standard required for entry to Australian universities); changes to citizenship test to assess people’s understanding of Australian values; and limiting the number of times an applicant can fail a citizenship test to three. There is concern that refugees could be disproportionately disadvantaged by these changes as they are more likely to struggle to pass the English test.


Updated August 2017


Global refugee numbers: The number of people forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, generalised violence and human rights violations as at 31 December 2016 was estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at 65.6 million. This is 300,000 more than the previous year and 6.1 million more than in 2014. Of that number, 40.3 million were internally displaced persons, 22.5 million were refugees and 2.8 million were asylum seekers. Of the 22.5 million refugees, 17.2 million were refugees under UNHCR’s mandate and 5.3 million were Palestinian refugees under the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency.[1]

Key countries of origin and asylum: The top five countries of origin for refugees under UNHCR’s mandate as at December 2015 were Syria (5,524,377), Afghanistan (2,501,445), Somalia (1,012,323), South Sudan (1,436,651) and Sudan (646,036). The five countries hosting the largest number of refugees were Turkey (2,541,352), Pakistan (2,869,421), Lebanon (1,012,969), Iran (979,435), and Ethiopia (940,835). UNHCR ranked Australia 46th for hosting refugees (59th per capita and 94th relative to total national Gross Domestic Product) with 42,188 refugees.[2]

Protracted situations: UNHCR estimates that 11.6 million (67% of those under its mandate) are in protracted refugee situations (left with no durable solution for five years or more).[3] The University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre says that the average length of displacement of these refugees is “approaching 20 years”.[4]

Asylum seekers: In 2016, 4,024,866 people sought asylum (2,176,066 individual asylum applicants, 971,860 seeking asylum through group recognition and 876,940 through temporary protection processes) and 2,318,725 people were recognised as refugees (971,860 through group recognition, 876,940 through individual recognition processes and 469,925 granted temporary protection). The largest numbers of newly recognised refugees were in Uganda (532,725), Germany (443,310), Turkey (347,297), Sudan (107,629), Democratic Republic of the Congo (82,755) and Ethiopia (81,299).  As at 31 December 2016, 2,826,508 asylum cases were still pending. Australia received 0.92% of the global share of new asylum seekers (33,454 applications) and recognised 6,567 asylum seekers as refugees (0.28% of the global total).[5]

World’s largest refugee crisis – Syria: The number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries in the Middle East reached 4.9 million by the end of 2016. As of August 2017, 122,203 refugees were registered in Egypt; 244,605 in Iraq; 660,582 in Jordan; 1,001,051 in Lebanon and 3,106,932 in Turkey.[6]

Movements by boat: The number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat peaked at 20,587 in 2013. Since January 2009, Australia has received 51,781 boat arrivals (excluding crew). Around 900 people are believed to have lost their lives at sea en route to Australia over the same period.[7] Since September 2013, Australia has returned 30 boats carrying 765 people back to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Vietnam.[8] The number of boat movements across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen from 2009 to 2013 totalled 406,511. Over the same period, boat movements across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain totalled 189,432.[9] Irregular boat journeys across the Mediterranean increased dramatically from 2014 to 2016. In 2015, over one million people (1,000,573) crossed the Mediterranean Sea mainly to Greece and Italy. Of these, 3,735 were missing and believed drowned.[10] IOM reports an estimated 363,401 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea in 2016, while 71,029 have arrived from 1 January 2017 to 1 June 2017.[11]  The number of Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma across the Bay of Bengal from 2013 to 2014 is estimated at more than 100,000. Of these, 1,500 to 2,000 are believed to have died.[12]

Refugee resettlement: In 2016, only 189,291 refugees (1.1% of the world’s total) were resettled. While the total number of refugees in 2016 grew by over 1 million, only 82,240 more resettlement places were offered. The 189,291 refugees resettled included 124,255 through UNHCR processes with the remainder being resettled through non-UNHCR programs such as Australia’s Special Humanitarian Program or the private sponsorship arrangements in Canada and the United States. Just over 90% of the resettled refugees went to just three nations – United States (51.2%), Canada (24.7%) and Australia (14.6%).[13]

Global resettlement needs: In its planning for 2018, UNHCR has identified 1,195,349 refugees in need of resettlement. These refugees are divided (by region of asylum) between the Middle East and North Africa (279,855, 23.41%), Africa (510,676 people, 42.72%), Asia (100,988 people, 8.45%), Europe (302,000, 25.26%, 90 percent of them being Syrians from Turkey) and the Americas (7,773, 0.15%). [14]

Australia’s global role in resettlement and refugee recognition: Australia resettled 27,626 refugees in 2016, an increase of 18,277 over the previous year. It was third overall and second per capita for the resettlement of refugees from their country of asylum. When the combined impact of refugee recognition and resettlement is considered, Australia contributed to 1.36% of the initial or further protection offered to refugees in 2016. By this measure, Australia was ranked 16th overall, 18th on a per capita basis and 42nd relative to national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[15]

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program: Of the 17,555 Refugee and Humanitarian visas issued by Australia in 2015-16, 6,730 were part of the offshore Refugee Program, 5,032 were offshore Special Humanitarian Program visas, 1,277 were for Woman at Risk and 2,003 were Onshore Protection visas.[16] The offshore component includes an extra 3,790 visas granted to people as part of the Government’s commitment to resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from the crises in Syria and Iraq. The remaining 8,210 people of the 12,000 places are expected to arrive in the 2016-17 financial year. Unlike previous years, the Department of Immigration has not provided a breakdown of arrivals by region. In 2014, 45% of arrivals were from the Middle East, 40% from Asia and 15% from Africa. During 2014-15, the Australian Government received 62,709 offshore Refugee and Humanitarian visa applications.[17]

Refugee arrivals as a proportion of Australia’s total migration: The Refugee and Humanitarian Program made up 8.5% of the 207,325 permanent additions through migration in 2015-16. The total number of settler arrivals and onshore visas issued by migration category were: Family 60,885 (29.4%), Skilled 128,550 (62.0%), Special Eligibility 565 (0.3%) and Refugee and Humanitarian 13,756 (8.5%).[18] Humanitarian arrivals peaked at 48.9% of Australia’s settler intake in 1949-50 and exceeded 20% in 1948-49, 1950-51, 1979-80 and 1983-84.

Refugee arrivals to Australia since Federation: The total number of refugees settled in Australia between 1901 (when Australia gained independence) and June 2014 is estimated at 854,390. This figure includes 20,000 refugees settled as migrants before 1947 (Parliamentary Library estimate), 738,085 offshore arrivals since 1947 and 64,839 asylum seekers recognised as refugees.[19]

Immigration detention in Australia and Offshore: As at 30 April 2017, 1,392 people were held in closed immigration detention facilities in Australia, 377 of whom were asylum seekers who had arrived by boat. 556 asylum seekers were living in the community under community detention arrangements and 23,573 people who arrived by boat were living in the community on Bridging Visas. Of those in closed detention facilities in Australia, 541 people (39% of the total population) had been detained for more than one year, of whom 314 had been detained for over two years. There were under 5 children held in closed detention facilities in Australia, 216 in community detention arrangements and 3,818 in the community on Bridging Visas. In addition, 1,194 asylum seekers were detained in Australian-funded Offshore Processing Centres – 373 in Nauru and 821 on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.[20] They included 45 children detained in Nauru.

Refugee status determinations on Nauru and Manus Island: As of 30 April 2017, the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) handed 1,015 initial refugee status determinations, of which 510 were positive and 505 were negative. 711 refugees (70% of the total) have been given a positive final determination and 224 people were given a negative final determination. The government of Nauru handed down 1209 refugee status determinations, of which 1034 were positive (85% of the total) and 175 were negative. People with positive refugee status determinations reside in the Nauruan community or in the processing centre under “open centre” arrangements.[21]

Refugee status determination through the fast-track process: As of 30 April 2017, there were 24,836 asylum seekers who were subject to fast-track processing. Of that number, 4,375 had their applications finalised (72% received their visa at the primary assessment stage, 4% received their visa at post-review stage and 25% received final refusal). 7,853 people were yet to lodge an application 12,608 people applied and had their cases at hand. In the latter group, as of 30 April 2017, most cases were at primary assessment stage. However, 7% have been indicatively found not to be a refugee but their applications were in the process of being quality checked prior to the completion of the primary decision and 10% were at review stage.[22]

[1] Analysis of political claims about numbers of deaths at sea can be found at

[2] The year to 30 June 2013.

[3] Read more about Refugees with Adverse security assessment by ASIO here:

[4] Decisions available at and

[5] See the definitions at

[6] RCOA’s submission on the ABF Act is available at:

[7] For a briefing on the full suite of changes to RSD and the other laws, see RCOA’s document Migration And Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving The Asylum Legacy Caseload) Act 2014: What It Means For Asylum Seekers, available at

[8] Some unaccompanied children who arrived with valid visas and have been immigration cleared might be able to continue having access to free migration advice.

[9] Corlett, D. (2015). “Sinhalese asylum seekers’ on-water claims accepted by UN.” The Saturday Paper, 31 January.

[10] Doherty B. (2016). “Vietnamese asylum seekers forcibly returned by Australia face jail”, The Guardian, 24 May.

[11] As at 2 June 2017, seven refugees recognised in Nauru have taken up the Australian Government’s offer of moving to Cambodia. However, four of them since left Cambodia and returned to their home countries (Myanmar and Iran). Of those remaining in Cambodia, two are from Syria (with one moving them as recently as the last week of May 2017) and one from Myanmar. Furthermore, another two people, originally from Syria, have moved to Canada to be reunited with family members resettled there.

[12] Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (2017), Operation Sovereign Borders monthly update: April 2017,

[13] The White House (2017). Statement by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 31 January 2017,

[14] Full PNG Supreme Court decision is available here:

[15] Report of UNHCR’s monitoring visit to the Republic of Nauru, 7-9 October 2013, ; Report of UNHCR’s monitoring visit to Manus Island, 23-25 October 2013,; This is Breaking People: Human rights violations at Australia’s asylum seeker processing centre on Manus Island, PNG, Amnesty International,; Island of Despair: Australia’s “processing” of refugees on Nauru, Amnesty International,

[16] On 26 March 2015, the Senate resolved to establish the Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru to inquire into and report on the responsibilities of the Commonwealth Government in connection with the management and operation of the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru. On 15 June 2015, the Senate agreed to an extension of time to report until 31 July 2015. The committee was re-established on 10 August 2015 with a new reporting date of 31 August 2015. Read the full report here: On 12 September 2016, the Senate referred the following matters to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for inquiry and report by 30 March 2017: the serious allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers in relation to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, and any like allegations in relation to the Manus Regional Processing Centre. On 20 March 2017, the Senate agreed to an extension of time of reporting until 21 April 2017. Read the full report here:

[17] Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee (2016). Official committee Hansard, Immigration and Border Protection portfolio, Supplementary Budget Estimates 2016–17,;query=Id%3A%22committees%2Festimate%2F516239db-3ab5-4777-8b43-33f6d160c55d%2F0000%22, p. 45

[18] See the Refugee Council of Australia’s policy brief on TPVs at

[1] UNHCR (2017). Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2016. Geneva: UNHCR,, plus statistical annexes at

[2] UNHCR 2017, Global Trends 2016.

[3] UNHCR 2017, Global Trends 2016.

[4] See the PRS Project website coordinated by the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford,

[5] UNHCR 2017, Global Trends 2016.

[6] UNHCR (2017), Syrian Regional Refugee Response: Regional Overview,

[7] Estimate from the Australian Border Deaths Database maintained by the Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University. See


[9] Australian figures from Janet Phillips, Parliamentary Library, Boat arrivals in Australia: a quick guide to the statistics, 23 January 2014  2009-13 figures for Gulf of Aden and Mediterranean Sea from UNHCR website (, accessed 17/8/14)

[10] For 2014 figures, see; For 2015 figures, see


[12] International Organization for Migration (2014), Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration,

[13] UNHCR 2017, Global Trends 2016. Global resettlement figure for 2016 compared to total number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate only.

[14] UNHCR (2017). UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2018. Geneva: UNHCR.

[15] UNHCR 2017, Global Trends 2016.

[16] Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2016). Department of Immigration and Border Protection Annual Report 2015-16,

[17] Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2015). Department of Immigration and Border Protection Annual Report 2014-15,

[18] Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2016). Department of Immigration and Border Protection Annual Report 2015-16,

[19] For details on the sources of these figures, see National and Global Statistics appendix to the Refugee Council of Australia’s submission on the 2014-15 Refugee and Humanitarian Program (see Table 11, p 8), These statistics have been updated with information from DIBP (2014), State and Territory Migration Summary – 30 June 2014, Table 1.19 (p 27)

[20] Australian Border Force (2017). Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary, 30 April 2017,

[21] Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (2017), Operation Sovereign Borders monthly update: April 2017,

[22] Department of Immigration and Birder Protection (2017). IMA Legacy Caseload: Report on Status and Processing Outcomes, April 2017,