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Refugees in Australia: a quick guide

About this guide

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

Who is a refugee?

‘Refugee’ is often used to describe anyone who is forced to leave home for many reasons, such as conflict or violence. Sometimes it is also used to describe someone who has to move because of a natural disaster.

‘Refugee’ has a more specific meaning under international law.

The Refugee Convention 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 home. Often, there are several reasons that are linked to each other. For example, a person may be poor because the government discriminates against them.

Somes reasons trigger someone to leave immediately, such as conflict or a natural disaster. These are sometimes called ‘triggers’.

However, there may be other reasons that create that situation, such as climate change or poor governance. These are sometimes called ‘root causes’, or ‘drivers’ of migration.

Drivers of migration can be environmental, social, political or economic. Some examples include:

  • environmental change making it impossible to live somewhere
  • limited education
  • corruption, and
  • 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 2018, 70.8 million people had been forced to leave their country. Of these, around 41.3 million were displaced within their own country (internally displaced). 25.9 million are refugees, including 5.5 million Palestinian refugees. There were 3.5 million people seeking asylum.

The top five countries of origin were:

Syria, with 6.6 million
Afghanistan, with 2.7 million
South Sudan, with 2.3 million
Myanmar, with 1.1 million
Somalia, with nearly a million.

People flee overwhelming to neighbouring countries. Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, and Sudan (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 50th on the list. The largest number of refugees compared to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are mostly in Africa. Australia is 90th on that list.

Global refugee numbers

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 decides how many people Australia will take every year. He also sets the priorities for the program. 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 apply overseas and those who apply in Australia. Those who apply overseas are ‘resettled’. This part of the program is often called the ‘offshore component’ of the Program.

Those who apply in Australia (‘seek asylum’) are counted under the ‘onshore component’ of the Program. Although they both fall under the same Program, Australia treats these two groups very differently.

Resettling refugees

Most refugees come overseas under the Program. For many decades, Australia has been a leader in bringing vulnerable refugees to live in Australia.

Australia chooses to resettle refugees who cannot stay where they are or go home. Australia’s contribution is important, as not many countries resettle refugees.

Australia has for years been one of the top three resettlement countries in the world. This commitment is even more valuable now when it is harder than ever for refugees to find protection.

In the past, UNHCR (the UN’s Refugee Agency) mostly referred refugees for resettlement. However, more visas (Special Humanitarian Program visas)are now being given to refugees who are sponsored by people in Australia, often family members.

Under the Community Support Program, people in Australia can also sponsor a refugee. This is more expensive than the Special Humanitarian Program and sponsors are required to do more. There are not many places under this Program.

How do refugees come to Australia?

Why do people seek asylum rather than be resettled?

Australia’s resettlement program is world-class. However, its treatment of pepole seeking asylum is the opposite. The purpose of Australia’s asylum policy is to deter people from seeking safety.

Many people think that being resettled is the ‘normal’ or ‘better’ way for refugees to come to Australia. In fact, seeking asylum is the ‘normal’ way to become a refugee in most of the world.

Resettlement and asylum are simply two different ways to help people. It is similar to a hospital, where there is an emergency room and a booking system.

Are people seeking asylum ‘queue jumpers’?

Seeking asylum is protected under the Refugee Convention (the main international agreement for refugees). Countries that sign the Refugee Convention also promise not to return people before considering those claims.

Are people who seek asylum by boat illegal?

Australia’s asylum policy focuses on people who come by boat. Others seek asylum after entering Australia by plane with a visa (for example, as a tourist).

Often, people coming by boat are considered not to be ‘genuine’ refugees. In fact, historically over 80% of them have been found to be refugees.

Refugees often find they must cross borders without permission (a ‘visa’), or without the right kind of permission. This is not a crime and 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.

This is because fleeing danger is messy. If you are fleeing war or conflict, you don’t often have time to research, plan and apply for a visa. If you are being persecuted, it is risky even to try to get a passport or a visa to another country. In some countries, you still need an ‘exit visa’ – permission to leave the country.

Most countries do not allow someone to apply for a visa because they are a refugee. Instead, most governments have very strict policies that are making it harder to enter a country if they think you may claim asylum.

You may hear people, including politicians, say that these people are ‘taking away places’ from ‘genuine refugees’. This is because Australia has chosen to count people who seek asylum in Australia as part of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

First, both of these groups are refugees. They simply come in a different way, depending on their circumstances.

Second, the Australian Government doesn’t have to count these people as part of the Program. It didn’t count them when the Program first began. Since 2013, refugees who came by boat and are given temporary protection are not included in the Program.

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

How does Australia treat people seeking asylum?

Australia’s asylum policy punishes rather than protects people. The harsh policies cause terrible suffering to vulnerable people.
Australia’s asylum policies

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’. They are then left there with little prospect of living safely and supporting themselves.

Offshore processing

Those who enter Australia without a visa must be detained by law. They can be released only if the Minister allows it. There is no time limit to their detention. No one can independently review whether they should be detained. People are detained even if they haven’t committed a crime. They are being held for longer and longer, on average for around 450 days. Some have now been detained for as long as 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.

Many of them are forced into poverty, because they are not given enough (or sometimes anything) to live on. For years, the government stopped them from working. The government has not offered them any help to settle. Meanwhile, the government takes 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. 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

In recent years, more people seeking asylum by plane have been waiting longer for their claims to be determined.  While these people face fewer restrictions than those who come by boat, they can still face enormous challenges.

They live in the community, usually on the conditions of their original visa. For some visas, such as tourist or student visas, this means they cannot get Medicare, cannot get income support, and may be unable to work. They are also often unable to access other supports, such as women’s refuges.

Statistics on people seeking asylum in the community

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