Background information on refugees and asylum seekers

For more information about refugees and asylum seekers, visit the Refugee Council of Australia website: www.refugeecouncil.org.au 

Who are refugees?

Until 1951 there was no commonly accepted term for people fleeing persecution. People who fled their country were known as stateless people, migrants or refugees. Different countries treated these people in different ways. Following the mass migrations caused by the Second World War (particularly in Europe) it was decided that there needed to be a common understanding of which people needed protection and how they should be protected.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (commonly known as the Refugee Convention), to which Australia is a signatory, 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.

The important parts of this definition are:

  • The person has to be outside their country of origin
  • The reason for their flight has to be a fear of persecution
  • This fear of persecution has to be well founded (i.e. they must have experienced it or be likely to experience it if they return)
  • The persecution has to result from one or more of the five grounds listed in the definition
  • They have to be unwilling or unable to seek the protection of their country

The Refugee Convention definition is used by the Australian Government to determine whether our country has protection obligations towards asylum seekers. If an asylum seeker is found to be a refugee, Australia is obliged under international law to offer protection and to ensure that the person is not sent back unwillingly to their country of origin.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated by the United Nations to lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems. Its purpose is to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees and seek lasting solutions to their plight.
What is the difference between an asylum seeker, a refugee and a migrant?

The terms ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘migrant’ are often used interchangeably, particularly in the media. However, there are important distinctions in their definitions.
A migrant is someone who chooses to leave their country to seek a better life. They choose where they migrate to and they are able to return whenever they like.
Refugees are forced to flee from their country and cannot return unless the situation that forced them to leave improves. Some are forced to flee without any warning; many have experience torture and trauma. The motivating factor for refugees is safety and protection from persecution and human rights abuse, not economic advantage.

An asylum seeker is a person who is seeking protection as a refugee and is still waiting to have his/her claim assessed. Every refugee has at some point been an asylum seeker.

Rights of refugees

Refugees have certain rights as set out in the Refugee Convention, which all signatory countries must respect. The most important of these is the principle non-refoulement, which prohibits the forcible return of a refugee to a situation where their life or freedom may be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

The Refugee Convention also stipulates that refugees should not be penalised for entering a country without prior authorisation if they are fleeing from danger and present themselves to authorities. Hence, refugees have a lawful right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents. The Convention also contains guidance about recognition of civil rights and access to employment, education and the legal system.

Refugees are able to apply for nationality of their country of residence (or another) after meeting residence requirements. In Australia, if you hold have a permanent protection visa, you can apply for Australian citizenship after two years of permanent residence.

What have refugees experienced

Refugees have a variety of experiences, and every individual’s ‘refugee journey’ is different. Most have faced deeply distressing and harrowing experiences and many have survived a range of physical, psychological and emotional traumas.

Some common experiences of persecution include torture, beatings, rape, disappearance or killing of loved ones, imprisonment without trial, severe harassment by authorities, land confiscation, conflict-related injuries and months, years or even decades spent living in refugee camps or urban slums.

Rarely do refugees have the chance to make plans for their departure: to pack their belongings, to say farewell to their friends and families. Some refugees have to flee with no notice, taking with them only the clothes on their backs. Others, like the family that pretends to be going on a weekend break, have to keep their plans secret from all around them in case they are discovered.

Refugees who come to Australia often have scant understanding about our country and the nature of society here. They have had no opportunity to prepare themselves physically or psychologically for their new life in Australia.

Refugees in Australia

Australia has a long history of successfully resettling refugees and humanitarian entrants. Since Federation, Australia has offered a permanent home to more than 800,000 refugees and others in need of humanitarian protection. Many former refugees are prominent in Australian business, government, education, the arts, sport and community life.

Where do Australia’s refugees come from?

Over the years, Australia has assisted refugees from many parts of the world. After the Second World War, most came from countries such as Germany, Poland and the Ukraine. In the 1950s we saw refugees coming from Hungary and in the 1960s many came from Czechoslovakia. In the 1970s refugees started coming from Indochina (Vietnam) and Latin America (Chile and El Salvador), and these groups continued to arrive well into the 1980s.

The 1990s were dominated by the Balkan War, with large numbers of refugees coming from Bosnia and Croatia. There were also significant numbers arriving from the Middle East and South Asia during this decade. Many of these people were from ethnic and religious minority groups or opponents of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

In the 2000s the majority of entrants coming in under the Refugee and Special Humanitarian Program were from Africa, in particular Sudan. Refugees also continued coming from the Middle East and South Asia.

How do Refugees come to Australia?

Australia’s Humanitarian Program has both an onshore and an offshore component. Within the offshore component, the majority of applicants who are considered under the Refugee category are referred for resettlement by the UNHCR after being identified as a refugee. The Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) is for applicants who are subject to substantial discrimination amounting to gross violations of their human rights and who are living outside of their home country. Applications for the SHP visa must be supported by a proposer who is an Australian citizen, permanent resident or a community organisation based in Australia. SHP entrants must meet health and character tests and they receive less support than Refugee Visa entrants.

Refugees also arrive as onshore asylum seekers who seek refugee status after arriving in Australia. The majority enter as visitors or students, while others arrive by boat without valid travel documentation. Once an asylum seeker has lodged a written application for refugee status with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIPB) the application is assessed by an officer of the Department to establish whether the person is eligible for a protection visa. If the decision is positive, the asylum seeker is granted a protection visa. For those who arrived with a valid visa, this is a permanent protection visa. For those who arrived by boat from late 2013, it is temporary and will be reassessed in three years.

In the first half of 2013, Australia received 18, 300 claims for asylum (not including boat arrivals), just four percent of the global total. In 2012-13 a total of 20, 019 visas were granted under the Humanitarian Program, of which 12, 515 visas were granted under the offshore component and 7504 visas were granted under the onshore component.