Refugee Council of Australia
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Refugees in Australia: a quick guide

About this resource

This resource is for people looking for a quick guide on refugees in Australia, with links to the rest of our website for more information.

Who is a refugee?

‘Refugee’ is used commonly to refer to people who are forced to leave their homes for many reasons, including conflict and violence. Sometimes it is used to also refer to a person displaced due to a natural disaster environmental change.

The term ‘refugee’ has a more specific meaning under international law.

The most widely accepted legal definition of refugee is in the Refugee Convention, which defines a refugee as:

Any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.

Who is a refugee? Who is an asylum seeker?

Why do refugees leave?

There are many reasons why people may need to leave, and often these reasons are linked and reinforce each other. It can be useful to distinguish between reasons that trigger someone to leave immediately – such as conflict or a natural disaster – and the underlying reasons that can create those situations, such as climate change or poor governance.

The first can be thought of as ‘triggers’, while the second (sometimes referred to as ‘root causes’ can be thought of as ‘drivers’. For example, ‘drivers’ of forced migration include:

  • environmental drivers: including desertification and damming of tributaries
  • social drivers: such as limited education opportunities and tensions between communities
  • political drivers: such as poor urban planning and corruption, and
  • economic drivers: such as poverty and lack of access to markets.

Why people need to leave

How many are there? Who are they? Where do they go?

As at the end of 2017, there were 68.5 million people who had been forcibly displaced from their home. Of these, around 50 million were displaced within their own country (internally displaced), while 25.4 million are refugees. This includes 19.9 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, as well as 5.4 million Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate. Another 3.1 million were seeking asylum. The top five countries of origin make up 68% of refugees worldwide:

  • Syria, with 6.3 million
  • Afghanistan, with 2.6 million
  • South Sudan, with 2.4 million
  • Myanmar, with 1.2 million
  • Somalia, with 986,400

Distressingly, children make up an astonishing 52% of the world’s refugees in 2017.

People flee overwhelming to neighbouring countries. Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran (the top four) are close to major countries of origin. The country with the largest proportionate number of refugees is Lebanon, followed by Nauru. Australia is 57th on the list. The largest number of refugees compared to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are mostly in Africa. Australia is 94th on that list.

Global refugee numbers

UNHCR Global Trends 2017 – How Australia compares with the world

How do they come to Australia?

For decades, Australia has been protecting refugees under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program. The Minister for Immigration sets the number of people that Australia will take in and determines the priorities for deciding who will be accepted. In recent years, the number was set at 13,750 places, but this has gradually increased since 2015-16 to 18,750 places in 2018-19.

For many years, Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program has included both refugees who are resettled (the ‘offshore’ component), and refugees who apply once they are in Australia (‘onshore protection’). Although they both fall under the same Program, Australia treats refugees who are resettled very differently from those who seek protection in Australia.

Resettling refugees

Most of the Program is concerned with resettling refugees from overseas. For many decades, Australia has been a leader in bringing some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world from overseas, and supporting them to settle in Australia. It is a voluntary commitment designed to provide durable solutions for the many refugees who can neither remain where they are nor return home. Australia’s contribution is important, as relatively few countries resettle refugees. This commitment is even more valuable today when it is harder than ever for refugees to find protection in a safe country.

In the past, the main focus was on resettling refugees as recommended by UNHCR. However, an increasing part of the overseas resettlement program is being used to resettle refugees who have been nominated by people in Australia, typically family members, under the Special Humanitarian Program. This was originally introduced to address the humanitarian needs of those who may not meet the definition of refugee or have been formally recognised as such, but were in need of humanitarian protection. There are also other kinds of visas, such as for women at risk. There is also a small program,  known as the Community Support Program, to allow people in the community to propose resettlement of a refugee. This is more expensive and places a greater responsibility on those making proposals than under the Special Humanitarian Program. 

Resettlement under the  Refugee and Humanitarian Program

Why do people seek asylum rather than be resettled?

While Australia’s resettlement program is world-class, Australia’s treatment of refugees who come to Australia seeking protection is now leading the world in the opposite direction – to the most punitive policies aimed to deter vulnerable people from seeking safety.

Many Australians think the ‘normal’ way for refugees to come is to be brought to Australia under our resettlement program. In fact, resettlement is not as common as it should be, and the need for resettlement is much greater than can ever be met. There is no ‘queue’ for people to join. Instead, the ‘normal’ way for refugees to find protection across the world is to cross a border and claim protection as a refugee. This is commonly called ‘seeking asylum’.

Are people seeking asylum ‘queue jumpers’?

This way of seeking protection is protected under the Refugee Convention (the main international treaty protecting refugees). While governments can choose to resettle refugees, if they sign the Refugee Convention they are obliged to consider the claims of refugees who arrive in their territory.

Are people who seek asylum by boat illegal?

While Australia’s asylum policies are focused on people arriving by boat, other people seek asylum after entering Australia by plane with a visa (for example, as a tourist or student). Often, people coming by boat are considered not to be ‘genuine’ refugees, even though historically over 80% of them have been found to be refugees.

Refugees across the world often find they must cross borders without permission, or without the right kind of permission (known in most places, including Australia, as a ‘visa’). However, this is not a criminal act. Indeed, the Refugee Convention bans a State from penalising a refugee who crosses the borders without permission. The right to seek asylum is also part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The reason for this is that fleeing danger is messy. If you are being persecuted, it is very risky even to try to get a passport from your government or a visa to another country. Countries in general do not allow someone to apply for a visa because they are a refugee and need protection. In some countries, you still need an ‘exit visa’ – permission to leave the country. If you are fleeing war or conflict, you don’t generally have time to research, plan and apply for a visa. Governments increasingly have very strict border protection policies that is making it harder and harder to get in a country if they think you may claim asylum.

Because Australia has decided to include them in the overall Refugee and Humanitarian Program, politicians and others may say that these people are ‘taking away places’ from ‘genuine refugees’. First, it is untrue that these people are not genuine refugees, as they have been found to be refugees by the Australian Government.

Second, there is no reason why the Australian Government has to include these people within the Refugee and Humanitarian Program at all. It did not when the Program began. In recent years, too, refugees who arrived by boat and are given only temporary protection are no longer included in the overall Program.

How do refugees come to Australia under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program?

How does Australia treat people seeking asylum?

Australia is stopping people seeking asylum from coming (by boat or plane). If any do come by boat, they are sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea to be ‘processed’ for years, and are being left to languish there with little prospect of living safely and supporting themselves.

Offshore processing

Those who enter Australia without prior notice are, by law, required to be detained. There is no time limit to their detention and no independent review of whether they should be detained. People are held despite committing no crime. Those now in administrative detention have been there on average for more than a year, with some detained now for nine years.

Australia’s detention policies

In recent years, most people seeking asylum have been released into the community. While this is very welcome, their difficulties do not stop there. Many of them are forced into destitution, because they are not given enough (or, most recently, anything) to live on. They were barred from working for years, and have not received any real help to settle in Australia by the government. They are forced to live like this for years, as it takes the government years to process their claims.

Living on the margins

How does Australia determine refugee status?

Even when they are found to be refugees, the punishment continues. Under current policy, refugees who come by boat are forced to live on temporary protection visas forever, meaning they must apply every three or five years to stay in Australia. They cannot be reunited with family, or even visit them without the permission of the government.

Temporary protection

Another growing concern is the increasing number of people seeking asylum by plane, as they are now waiting several years for their claims to be determined. People who come to Australia with a valid visa (for example, on a tourist or student visa) but then seek protection face fewer restrictions than those who come by boat, but still face enormous challenges. Their visa conditions typically depend on the conditions of their original visa, which often means (if they were, for example, tourists or students) that they are not entitled to Medicare and may be unable to work or receive any form of income support. As they are not permanent residents, they are generally unable to access most social security programs and often other supports, such as access to women’s refuges in cases of domestic violence.

Statistics on people seeking asylum in the community


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