The Refugee Response Index (RRI) is a civil society initiative led by DARA that was officially launched in 2022 to assess and monitor countries’ responses to refugees and asylum seekers in an independent and comprehensive manner. It covers each component of an adequate refugee response and can be used in any country context, regardless of size and contribution to the global refugee response. Shortly after the RRI was launched, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) began coordinating a review of Australia’s response to refugees and people seeking asylum using the RRI methodology.
Why undertake this review?
Without a global monitoring and data collection tool to comprehensively assess how states contribute to refugee protection, well-evidenced policy and program design suffers. The RRI tool provides an independent and multi-dimensional measure of how a country is responding to refugees and people seeking asylum.
RCOA undertook this review to provide a baseline measure through which future policy in Australia can be assessed, as well as to expand the evidence base to highlight where Australia’s responses must be strengthened or reformed and where there are positive practices in Australia’s approach.
By undertaking this review, RCOA hopes that civil society groups in other countries will follow and the RRI will grow to be a useful tool for comparative purposes and to identify and learn from what other countries do well. The RRI Australia review team are happy to share information about our process with other country leads.
The RRI Australia Review report
The RRI Australia Review report is divided into four main sections:
- Section One provides further details about the RRI tool and methodology as well as the team involved, processes followed and limitations of this review.
- Section Two presents basic country facts and figures as outlined in the RRI methodology guidebook, giving readers a snapshot of the Australian context.
- Section Three presents the main findings of the review, broken down into the six pillars of the RRI and featuring both a narrative overview and numerical scores for the main components under each pillar.
- Section Four provides a short discussion of findings and what this review tells us about areas for reform and recognition of positive practices.
This RRI Australia review was undertaken for the 2021 calendar year. It should be noted that 2021 was an anomalous year in many ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However the findings of this review reflect policies that were developed and implemented well before the pandemic and highlight key areas in which Australia’s response to refugees falls short (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Overview of RRI Pillar scores, Australia RRI Review
What this review suggests is that Australia’s response falls far short when it comes to access to asylum. Australian domestic policies and legislation on access to asylum is incompatible with international commitments, undermining the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement. Since 2001, Australia has enacted a series of interdiction policies to prevent asylum seekers from arriving in Australia in order to claim protection. Obstacles to seeking protection are imposed via both unilateral and cooperative extraterritorial migration controls to keep refugees in their countries of origin and first asylum or impede them from reaching national territory.
Australia’s approach to recognising refugees is largely mired by inconsistency and a range of legal and institutional shortcomings. In particular, there exists two different refugee status determination (RSD) processes – one that is applied to refugees who arrive with a visa, and a ‘fast track’ process that is applied to a cohort of asylum seekers who arrived by boat before 19 July 2013 and hadn’t had a decision on their refugee claim prior to the change of government in September 2013. Regardless of which RSD process an asylum seeker is subject to, the lack of free legal assistance, shortcomings and under-resourcing of administrative and judicial decision-making bodies, and inadequacy of support for asylum seekers awaiting decisions for many years, all undermine the rigour of refugee recognition processes in the Australian context.
The extent to which refugees enjoy their rights in Australia is largely dependent on mode of arrival and, correspondingly, a person’s legal status and visa subclass. While refugees enjoy many rights, across all components in this Pillar significant differences can be seen in rights enjoyment, entitlements and access to services and assistance for those who arrived in Australia seeking asylum compared with those who were found to be refugees in another country and arrived as permanent residents (i.e., resettled refugees). Even within refugee cohorts, the variation in responses is considerable for those on temporary visas (who arrived by boat) and those who are granted an onshore permanent protection visa (who arrived in Australia on a different visa).
Australia has a broad spectrum of initiatives aimed at facilitating the economic and social inclusion of refugees, and to support their ability to become self-reliant and independent. As with Pillar 3, the extent to which these initiatives meet the needs of different cohorts of refugees varies considerably. Various gaps in policy and practice exist across the country, resulting in some refugees struggling to access entitlements and receive assistance to become fully self-reliant. This is particularly true for temporary and bridging visa holders who, on the whole, do not have the same level of support and access to services as resettled refugees and those on permanent protection visas.
Contributions to durable solutions by Australia mostly come in the form of local integration and resettlement. Questions of safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation as a durable solution are less relevant in this context because most people found to be refugees are granted permanent visas. This review found that local integration as a durable solution has been significantly undermined by the introduction of temporary visas for refugees who arrived by boat. Although some changes to this policy were announced in February 2023, in 2021 when the review is focused, there were close to 19,000 refugees who had been granted protection for whom a permanent, durable solution was nowhere in sight. While Australia’s resettlement commitments have historically been honoured, that the Australian government did not find a way to facilitate resettlement in 2021 during the pandemic, including by rolling over unfulfilled places to subsequent years, meant a lower score in this component than would have been anticipated for a country that prides itself on its long history of facilitating refugee resettlement.
Finally, the Australian government makes a notable contribution to making the international system work, evidenced in terms of financial commitments, engagement in global dialogue and cooperation, and enabling monitoring of its approach. There are, however, some significant areas for improvement, particularly in relation to Australia’s regional and bilateral cooperation towards improved refugee protection.
The review of Australia’s response to refugees using the Refugee Response Index methodology provides a clear picture of what is a very complex policy environment. There are areas for which Australian practices and policies are to be commended and recognised for the high international standards for which they promote. This includes how social, economic and cultural inclusion is facilitated for refugees who are given the chance to rebuild their lives in Australia, how refugee self-reliance is supported as a principle and in practice, and how, for the most part, the civil and political rights of refugees are upheld in a richly multicultural country. The Australian government’s support for making the international system work is also notable in many areas – such as in its cooperation, engagement and financial support for key global institutions and forums.
Undertaking this review has also brought into stark relief how inconsistent Australia’s response to refugees is dependent on how a person arrives in this country. Applying the RRI measures demonstrates clearly the extent to which Australia has fallen short of upholding some of the fundamental principles of the international refugee regime—the right to access asylum (Pillar 1) and for upholding fair legal recognition processes (Pillar 2). In scoring many of the indicators in Pillars 1 and 2, Australia’s response could frequently be characterised as the lowest possible standard. For example, Australia has introduced and funds an entire and extremely costly infrastructure to arbitrarily turn away people seeking asylum, contrary to Component 1.1 of the RRI (Asylum seekers are not arbitrarily turned away). The Australian government has also held in place for many years a policy whereby all non-citizens who are in Australia without a valid visa must be detained, regardless of their circumstances. This includes people seeking asylum and refugees whose visas have been cancelled. Moreover, immigration detention can be indefinite. As a result, at the end of 2021, the average time for a person held in immigration detention facilities was 689 days. For this, and for many of the other problematic areas of Australian policy and practice that have been highlighted in this review, there is much work that continues to need to be done.
None of the findings of the RRI Australia Review will come as a surprise for those who are familiar with the complexities of Australian refugee and asylum policy. It is RCOA’s hope in undertaking such a comprehensive and rigorous review that it will bring into the light some of Australia’s policies and practices and hold them up to a broader international standard. It is also hoped that this review provides an indication of priorities and guidance for where reform is most needed, a benchmark for ongoing monitoring and evaluation, and lessons and learnings for future policymaking both in Australia and elsewhere who may look to Australia for inspiration or for caution.
The full RRI Australia Review Report and appendix with scores for each indicator can be dowloaded below.
- Pillar 1. Access to asylum
- Pillar 2. Recognition as refugees
- Pillar 3. Refugees enjoy their rights
- Pillar 4. Refugees become self-reliant
- Pillar 5. Towards durable solutions
- Pillar 6. Making the international refugee system work
Other country reports
Links to RRI reports from other countries will be added here when they become available.
 Component 1.4 deals with how a country limits detention practices concerning asylum seekers