Refugee Council of Australia
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How Australia determines if a person is a refugee

The interview

The Department will normally interview the applicant. The applicant can bring a lawyer or other person along, but this person cannot provide legal advice.

The officer will ask questions about the person’s story and check details of the story. For example, they may ask about the dates or events, and for explanations. There will be an interpreter and the interview is recorded.

These interviews are very important. Yet there are many risks in these interviews. 

The complexity of determining refugeehood (Journal of Refugee Studies) .

People speak different languages

These interviews pose challenges because of the different languages people speak. While there will be an interpreter, there can often be differences in dialect or context when an interpreter is used.

Some interpreters can go too far in their interpretation, or convey a nuance that is not intended. Sometimes, people are concerned about whether the interpreter will tell their story or judge them, and lose trust in the interpreter.

Cross-cultural communication

People from different cultures communicate differently. For example, in some cultures you do not look directly at people in authority, and defer to them by agreeing with them. In other cultures, it is impolite to disagree with someone.

Things that are important in some cultures may be less important than others. For example, in some cultures people may not know their exact age or the age of those close to them.

An important part is that behaviour that is common in one culture may seem implausible in Australia. For example, in countries that are corrupt, people will often not report incidents to the authorities. In countries where law is not enforced, people will more often break the law.

Another example is that, in some countries, domestic violence is so common that victims don’t even think of it as a crime, especially if it was not physical or more than the ‘usual’ level of violence.

The effects of trauma and shame

A person who has suffered trauma will often have difficulty remembering things. It is common, for example, for details such as dates and times to be lost, but for the memory of the traumatic event to be very fresh.

In some cases, the trauma may make it very difficult for someone to remember, or speak of, the event or events. In some cases, this is made worse by a sense of shame or stigma.

For example, it is often very difficult for people who are gay or lesbian or for victims of sexual offences to talk about what happened to a stranger.

Often, they have to tell their story many times, which can make it harder. An interviewer might also think someone is lying, because they didn’t talk about this earlier.

The lack of other evidence

Another problem is that very often there is no other evidence of what happened. Any evidence either doesn’t exist, or is overseas and beyond reach.

In many cases, there will be no evidence of acts of persecution. For example, many kinds of harassment or crimes will not be reported to the police, because the police will either do nothing or may sympathise with the persecutor. Sometimes, the threats will be verbal and not witnessed by anyone.

Sometimes, there is not even evidence of their identity. People may arrive without documents, with false documents, or documents that are not accepted by Australia.

Identity documents

The Department will use reports about the country (‘country information’) to try and decide whether the person‘s claims are plausible. However, they will tend to rely on official reports by governments and major international organisations. In Australia, the decision-makers must consider reports produced by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). This role used to be conducted by the Refugee Review Tribunal itself. It can also consider other reports.

Country Information Reports (DFAT)

Find country information (ECOI)

Find country information (Refworld)

This can lead to gaps. For example, in many repressive countries, non-governmental organisations can no longer work, and the media cannot report freely. In other places, such as the highlands of PNG, there will be very little information available.

Other checks

The person and his or her family must also satisfy other criteria, including health and security checks. These are often completed after the government has decided a person is a refugee. 

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