Immigration—issues for Australia’s humanitarian program

Janet Phillips, Social Policy and Elibritt Karlsen, Law and Bills Digest

Key Issue
Australia has a long history of accepting humanitarian entrants and is one of only a handful of industrialised countries in the world that participate in the formal refugee resettlement program administered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, Australia’s asylum seeker policies, in particular the offshore processing arrangements in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), remain controversial.

Australia’s humanitarian program

Since 1945, when the first federal immigration portfolio was established to administer Australia’s post-war migration program, 7.5 million people have settled here—including over 800,000 refugees and other humanitarian entrants.

Today, there are two formal programs administered by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to facilitate the entry of Australia’s permanent migrants—the Migration Program for skilled and family entrants, and the Humanitarian Program for refugees and other humanitarian entrants (the Migration Program is discussed elsewhere in this Briefing Book).

The Humanitarian Program has two main components—offshore and onshore. Most offshore refugees are referred to Australia for resettlement by the UNHCR. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) defines a ‘refugee’ as any person who:

...owing to well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

These entrants are formally resettled in Australia under the ‘Refugee’ category. The Special Humanitarian Program also offers places to people who may not be refugees, but who face human rights abuses in their home country and have a connection with Australia.

The onshore component of the Humanitarian Program offers protection to people who have arrived in Australia, lodged an asylum claim, and been granted protection. Onshore entrants may have been found to be refugees under Refugee Convention criteria or may otherwise engage Australia’s protection obligations under other human rights conventions. Statistics on humanitarian entrants are available back to the 1940s. The following table provides figures since

Refugee and humanitarian entrants by category since 2000–01

Year Refugee (offshore) Special Humanitarian (offshore) Protection Visas (onshore) Total
2000–01 3 997 3 116 5 741 13 733
2001–02 4 160 4 258 3 891 12 349
2002–03 4 376 7 280 869 12 525
2003–04 4 134 7 669 2 020 13 823
2004–05 5 511 6 585 1 082 13 178
2005–06 6 022 6 736 1 386 14 144
2006–07 6 003 5 313 1 701 13 017
2007–08 6 004 5 110 1 900 13 014
2008–09 6 499 4 586 2 417 13 507
2009–10 6 003 3 233 4 534 13 770
2010–11 5 984 2 966 4 828 13 778
2011–12 5 988 714 7 043 13 745
2012–13 11 985 503 7 510 19 998
2013–14 6 499 4 507 2 753 13 759
2014–15 6 002 5 007 2 747 13 756

Source: J Phillips, Australia’s humanitarian program: a quick guide to the statistics since 1947, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

Responding to irregular maritime arrivals

Australia has a highly managed migration system and public perceptions or concerns over boat arrivals of unauthorised asylum seekers continue to strongly influence government policy. In response to rises in the number of unauthorised boat arrivals in Australian waters between 2001 and 2013, there has been increasing pressure on both Coalition and Labor governments to adopt and maintain measures that are seen to deter future boat arrivals, address border security concerns and combat people smuggling.

Both major parties agree on most of the key measures that have been put in place to deal with these issues, including mandatory immigration detention for unauthorised arrivals—introduced in 1992 by the Keating (Labor) Government—and offshore processing arrangements in the Pacific—first introduced by the Howard (Coalition) Government in 2001 and reintroduced by the Gillard (Labor) Government in 2012. Currently, the only major policy difference centres on whether onshore asylum seekers found to be refugees should be offered temporary or permanent protection visas in Australia.

Since forming government in 2013, the Coalition has continued to pursue the regional processing arrangements in Nauru and PNG and there are currently about 1,300 asylum seeker transferees being processed offshore. The Government has made it clear that these asylum seekers will not be able to settle in Australia, arguing that this would act as a pull factor to other unauthorised boat arrivals. As a result, there are limited resettlement options for this cohort—most of whom have been accommodated in regional processing centres since the second half of 2013.

Australia’s offshore processing regime has been the subject of vigorous debate for some time. Critics have highlighted evidence of poor mental health outcomes for long-term detainees and note the risk of physical harm in the centres, particularly for women and children in the Nauru centre. With public concerns escalating, and a new legal challenge in the High Court of Australia arising from the recent PNG Supreme Court ruling that the PNG centre was unconstitutional, there is significant pressure on the Government to come up with effective resettlement solutions for those affected by this policy. It is highly likely that this issue will continue to challenge the Parliament.

The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers established in 2012 to advise the Australian Government on ‘the best way forward’, acknowledged the complexities of the issues arising from the arrival of asylum seekers by boat, noting that there ‘were no quick or simple solutions’. The panel argued for an integrated suite of short-term and long-term proposals that included deterrence measures such as the reintroduction of an offshore processing regime. Long-term non-deterrence proposals included recommendations that the Government create better migration pathways and protection opportunities for refugees, coordinated within an ‘enhanced regional cooperation framework’. However, many of the long-term proposals along the lines of those recommended by the panel have not been pursued by either of the major parties to date.

Stakeholders and experts in the field have urged the Australian Government to move forward on asylum seeker policy by creating better protection opportunities in the region under a variety of burden-sharing arrangements. Proposals include:

  • developing a broader regional cooperation framework that improves protection more generally for all refugees within the region
  • discouraging asylum seekers from engaging the services of people smugglers by: providing alternative legal migration pathways to safe countries in the region, including Australia;  negotiating agreements to develop effective processing arrangements with countries in the region, such as Malaysia and Indonesia; and increasing the number of refugees Australia resettles from Malaysia and Indonesia and
  • closing the offshore processing centres in PNG and Nauru and resettling the refugees in Australia, but maintaining turnbacks to prevent further boat arrivals.

Further reading

J Phillips, Australia’s humanitarian program: a quick guide to the statistics since 1947, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

E Karlsen, Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG: a quick guide to  statistics and resources, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

J Phillips, Asylum seekers and refugees: a quick guide to key Parliamentary Library publications, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.


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