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Refugee frequently asked questions: get the facts

Your questions answered.

Fact checking refugee myths

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.

But 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.

This definition has its origins in the history of the development of the Refugee Convention after World War II. It has often been criticised for being too narrow, in part because it does not expressly recognise common causes of mass displacement, such as war or general violence. It is, however, clear that people affected by conflict and violence will often satisfy the definition. As well, the definition has been criticised for restricting the grounds on which a person may be persecuted (known as the ‘Convention grounds’).

Who is a refugee?

What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?

People have been moving from one place to another since the beginning of time. The term ‘migration’ is used broadly to cover any movement of people. There are, however, many different types of migration.

Defining a ‘migrant’

People can migrate within the borders of the country in which they were born (‘internal migration’) or outside of the country (‘international migration’). All people move from one place to another, so they are both migrating to (‘immigrating’) and migrating from (‘emigrating’) from a place.

People can move for a short time, for a significant period, or forever. However, there is no agreement as to who counts as a ‘migrant’ , with different countries using the term differently. The UN defines a ‘long-term international migrant’ as being someone who is living in another country for at least a year.

In Australia, the term ‘migrant’ has traditionally been used to refer to someone who moves permanently to Australia, although there is an increasing trend towards more long-term temporary movement into Australia.

Reasons people move

People move for many different reasons, including to study, to work, to reunite with family, or to find safety. There can, and often is, more than one reason people move. The reasons people move can change during and after their journey. They may enter a country as a student, but when things change in their home country they may find themselves to be refugees.

Migrants and refugees

Although ‘migration’ is a very broad term that includes all kinds of movements, there is an important difference between the way we use the terms ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’. ‘Migrants’ choose to move, mainly to improve their lives, and can always return home safely. ‘Refugees’ have to leave their country because they are fleeing conflict or persecution, and cannot return home safely. Another important category is the ‘internally displaced’, people who are (like refugees) forced to leave home but move within their own country. This is by far the largest category of people forcibly displaced.

How do they come to Australia?

The Minister for Immigration sets the number of people that Australia will resettle and determines the priorities and composition of the Program. Last year, Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program was increased to 20,000 places per year from the 17,875 places in 2022. This year’s Program is also set for 20,000 places.

How do refugees come to Australia

Have refugee issues always been so politicised?

While Australia’s two major political parties have varied over the past 20 or 25 years in their policy approaches to people seeking asylum, both Liberal-National Coalition and Labor governments have shown strong support for refugee resettlement over the past 75 years. This is reflected in the Refugee Council of Australia’s analysis of the numbers of refugee visas issued by each government since 1947.

Australia draw closer to milestone of 1 million refugee arrivals

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

UNHCR most recently estimated that, by the middle of 2023, for the first time in recorded history, the number of people forcibly displaced is now over 110 million, with over 36.4 million refugees.

How many refugees are there in the world?

Most refugees stay in a country near their country of origin. Only a few countries host almost half of the refugees in the world. Apart from Germany, these are mostly countries that neighbour the countries with high numbers of refugees.


Is it illegal to seek asylum?

No, it is not illegal to seek asylum.
Everyone has the right to seek asylum and protection from persecution.

Refugees and international law

Is Australia's response to refugees generous?

For many decades, Australia has been a leader in bringing some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world from overseas through resettlement (the Humanitarian Program), and supporting them to settle in Australia. 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.

The scale of Australia’s international contribution can best be seen when refugee recognition and resettlement are considered together. Over the 10 years to December 2022, Australia recognised or resettled 180,073 refugees, 0.75% of the global total of 23.99 million refugees recognised or resettled in that period. On this measure, Australia was ranked 30th overall, 41st on a per capita basis and 77th relative to national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The largest overall contributions were made by Türkiye, Germany, Uganda, Sudan, Lebanon, Poland, Jordan, Ethiopia, United States and Bangladesh, with Lebanon ranked first per capita and relative to GDP.

How generous is Australia?

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.

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 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 accused of not being ‘genuine’ refugees, even though historically, between 70 and 100% of them have been found to be refugees.

Fleeing danger is messy. If you are being persecuted, it is very risky 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.

How does Australia treat people seeking asylum?

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

For people who are already in Australia, there are long delays for them to get a decision on their refugee protection application. A decade ago, the then Immigration Department aimed to decide applications for onshore protection visas within 90 days. Now, people wait an average of 866 days (2.4 years) for a primary decision from the Department of Home Affairs, 1,330 days (3.6 years) for a merit-based review from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), and 1,872 days (5.1 years) for appeals at the court level. This means that some applicants can wait 11 years for a final outcome. There are approximately 80,000 people waiting for decisions from the Department, the Tribunal or the courts.

Most people seeking asylum live in the community: they are our neighbours, our colleagues, and our friends. Many of them are forced into destitution because they are eligible to support for their basic needs in they are sick, injured, caring for others, or have a disability. They are forced to live like this for years, as it takes the government years to process their claims.

Australia's asylum policies

What is going on with immigration detention?

Immigration detention is supposed to be administrative, meaning it is NOT punitive like correctional facilities (e.g. prisons).

People in Australia who do not have a valid visa are required by law to be detained (which is why Australia has a policy of ‘mandatory detention’). This includes people who come to Australia and claim asylum without a valid visa (typically by boat), but also includes other people, including people who have had their visas cancelled by the government. There is no time limit to their detention and no independent review of whether they should be detained.

People are held even if they are have never committed a crime. Those now in administrative detention have been there on average for more than a year, with some detained now for more than 13 years.

What is the NZYQ High Court decision?

In November 2023, the Australian High Court found that indefinite immigration detention was unlawful and unconstitutional. This meant that people who could not be returned to their home countries could not continue to be detained.  If people in this situation had been convicted of a crime, they had already served their correctional sentence.

Immigration detention is not punitive, and with the High Court unanimously ruling that indefinite immigration detention was unlawful and unconstitutional, people had to be released. Not everyone was released, and there are still 879 people in immigration detention facilities, with the average time they have been there being 620 days.

Australia's detention policies


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