Refugees and asylum seekers—where to from here?

Harriet Spinks, Social Policy

Key issue
The number of refugees and asylum seekers around the world has reached record breaking levels, with 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. In light of this, Australia has a number of issues to consider including the optimal size of the Humanitarian Program, resolving the status of refugees in Australia on temporary visas, finding long-term resettlement solutions for the people remaining in Nauru and on Manus Island and possibilities for improved regional cooperation in responding to asylum flows.

The world is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of human displacement. At the end of 2017 there were 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, including 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum seekers, and the UNHCR estimates that nearly 1 person is forcibly displaced every 2 seconds as a result of conflict or persecution. As the number of refugees and asylum seekers around the world continues to rise, the question of how Australia should respond to these movements, and contribute to durable solutions for displaced populations, is becoming increasingly pertinent.

Australia has a long history of welcoming refugees and others in humanitarian need. However, policy responses over the last several years have been the subject of intense criticism and debate both within Parliament and outside it. Several key issues remain at the forefront of public and political debate at the start of the 46th Parliament, and how best to resolve these issues is likely to be a key concern for the new Government, and Parliament.

Australia’s Humanitarian Program

Australia has, for many decades, managed a formal humanitarian program, under which people may be either granted a permanent visa to resettle in Australia from overseas (offshore resettlement), or be granted permanent protection while in Australia and permitted to stay (onshore protection).

The offshore resettlement component of Australia’s Humanitarian Program includes refugees who have been referred to Australia for resettlement by the UNHCR, and people in humanitarian need who are proposed for resettlement by someone (usually a relative) already living in Australia.

The onshore protection component comprises those who arrive in Australia with a valid visa and subsequently apply for, and are found to be owed, protection. It does not include those who arrive in Australia irregularly (that is, irregularly by boat or by air without a valid visa) and are found to be owed protection. Instead, these people will be granted a temporary visa to remain in Australia, for either three or five years, or (for irregular boat arrivals who arrive after September 2013), transferred offshore to a regional processing centre in PNG or Nauru.

The Government sets a planning figure for the Humanitarian Program each year. For many years, the planning figure remained stable at around 13,750 places annually, but over the last three years it has been increased gradually to 18,750 places. The ALP favours a significant increase in the program but the Coalition position is that it will remain at the current level.

Table 1: Humanitarian Program by component, 2008–09 to 2017–18

2008–09 11,010 2,497 13,507
2009–10 9,236 4,534 13,770
2010–11 8,971 4,828 13,799
2011–12 6,718 7,038 13,756
2012–13 12,515 7,507 20,022
2013–14 11,016 2,752 13,768
2014–15 11,009 2,750 13,759
2015–16 15,552 2,003 17,555
2016–17 20,257 1,711 21,968
2017–18 14,825 1,425 16,250

Source: Department of Home Affairs (DHA), Australian Migration Statistics 2017–18, DHA.

The share of the program allocated to refugees referred by the UNHCR is currently around 6,000 places per year (although this figure was higher in 2015–16 and 2016–17 due to the commitment made to resettle an additional 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq). Australia is one of only a small number of countries that accepts refugees for resettlement through the UNHCR resettlement process, and our annual allocation generally makes us one of the top three resettlement countries, along with the US and Canada. However, the UNHCR estimates that resettlement in a third country will only be possible for less than one per cent of the global refugee population each year. Instead, most refugees around the world are hosted in countries close to the refugees’ countries of origin. In 2017, the largest refugee populations were being hosted by Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda; the UNHCR has called for states to offer more resettlement places to help ease the social and financial impacts on these, and other, large refugee-hosting countries.

Table 2: Top ten refugee-hosting countries, end of 2017

Country Refugees
Turkey 3,480,348
Pakistan 1,393,143
Uganda 1,350,504
Lebanon 998,900
Iran 979,400
Germany 970,400
Bangladesh 932,200
Sudan 906,600
Ethiopia 889,400
Jordan 691,000

Source: UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, June 2018.

Temporary protection

As noted above, asylum seekers who arrive in Australia irregularly, either by boat or by air without a valid visa, and are found to be owed protection, are not counted in the permanent Humanitarian Program, as they are not granted a permanent visa. Instead, under changes made to the Migration Act 1958 in 2014, they are granted one of two temporary visas—a three-year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or a five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV). The latter offers a chance at permanent residency for those who work or study in a designated regional area for three and a half years, and can meet the criteria for a permanent skilled or family visa. In both cases the protection claim must re-proved every three or five years upon expiry of the visa (unless they have met the SHEV permanent residency pathway requirements).

Temporary protection has been criticised by refugee advocates, and by the ALP and the Australian Greens, who argue that it keeps refugees in a state of fear and uncertainty, making it difficult for them to settle into the community and rebuild their lives. There is a sizable group of refugees in Australia holding a form of temporary protection—as at March 2019, there were 15,133 people who had been granted a form of temporary protection since these arrangements were introduced in 2014, and a further 9,315 applications were in process or under review. As these temporary protection visas expire, those in this cohort will be required to have their protection claims reassessed. While some may qualify for permanent residency via the SHEV pathway, many will not, and there is no permanent residency pathway for those on TPVs. This will result either in large numbers of people having their refugee status revoked, and being required to return to their country of origin, or large numbers of people continuing to remain in Australia on temporary visas with an uncertain future. Either outcome will present challenges for the Government, and will likely be opposed by advocates both within and outside the Parliament.

Where to for the refugees in Nauru and on Manus Island?

Arguably the most contested issue in relation to Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies is the processing of asylum seekers in Australian-funded centres in Nauru and on Manus Island in PNG. The transfer of asylum seekers to offshore processing centres was, like temporary protection, a feature of the Howard Government’s asylum policy. It was ended in 2008 by the Rudd Labor Government, but recommenced in 2012 by the Gillard Labor Government. Since September 2013, offshore processing has, along with turning boats around at sea, been a cornerstone of the Coalition’s response to asylum seekers arriving by sea (known as Operation Sovereign Borders).

The previous iteration of offshore processing, under the Howard Government, resulted in large numbers of refugees being returned to Australia for resettlement. In contrast, offshore processing under Operation Sovereign Borders is characterised by a commitment to not only process asylum seekers outside of Australia, but to also resettle those found to be refugees outside of Australia. This continues the policy of denying resettlement in Australia which was announced by Prime Minster Kevin Rudd in 2013. The Australian Greens and numerous refugee and human rights advocacy groups have called for those remaining in PNG and Nauru to be brought to Australia. However, the Coalition has consistently reiterated its position that none of the refugees from the processing centres in PNG and Nauru will be permanently resettled in Australia.

The resettlement issue has proved to be the biggest pressure point for the policy of offshore processing. Currently, people who are found to be refugees may be offered a 20-year visa to remain in Nauru, be resettled permanently in PNG, or be resettled permanently in the US. The US has agreed to resettle up to 1,250 refugees from PNG and Nauru and, as at 26 March 2019, 508 people had been resettled in the US under this arrangement. However, the US arrangement will not provide resettlement for everyone currently in Nauru and PNG—Department of Home Affairs officials have estimated that some 800 to 900 people will remain in PNG and Nauru once the US quota is filled. One available option is New Zealand, which has offered to assist with resettlement; but this offer has been rejected by the Coalition due to its view that resettlement in New Zealand would provide an easy pathway to Australia.

While people are not being resettled from PNG and Nauru in Australia, large numbers have been transferred to Australia for medical treatment—as at March 2019 there were 953 people from PNG and Nauru temporarily in Australia for medical treatment, or accompanying someone brought here for medical treatment.

The new Parliament is likely to be asked to consider legislation to repeal the provisions commonly known as the ‘medevac legislation’ which were inserted into the Migration Act in February 2019 by the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Act 2018.  These provisions were intended to ensure that people considered by medical practitioners to be in need of urgent medical treatment would be transferred promptly to Australia to obtain that treatment (but not to be permanently resettled here). While the Coalition has committed to repealing the provisions, this will not mean an end to medical transfers, which were happening prior to this legislation being passed (albeit sometimes only as a result of court proceedings). 

Regional cooperation

Successive Australian governments, from both sides of politics, have pointed to the benefits of regional cooperation in responding to asylum seeker movement. Yet there has been no agreement on what this regional cooperation should look like, and little progress has been made towards achieving a multilateral regional solution. Much of what has been promoted as ‘regional cooperation’ could more accurately be described as bilateral agreements between Australia and individual countries in the region—for example, the processing and resettlement arrangements with PNG and Nauru, the 2014 resettlement arrangement with Cambodia, and the 2011 asylum seeker transfer agreement with Malaysia (the legislative basis of which was deemed invalid by the High Court and subsequently did not proceed).

The reintroduction of offshore processing in PNG and Nauru by the Gillard Government followed a recommendation of the 2012 Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. The Expert Panel recommended this action in the short term, as a ‘circuit-breaker’, but with a longer-term view to developing ‘an integrated regional framework for the processing of asylum claims’. Little progress has been made on this front in the intervening seven years.

A number of existing frameworks and high-level agreements provide opportunities for more meaningful regional cooperation on asylum and refugee movements. These include the Regional Cooperation Framework under the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime and the recently adopted United Nations Global Compact on Refugees.

The kinds of actions that are envisaged under these frameworks include: providing safe alternative migration pathways for people in refugee and refugee-like situations; an increased commitment to burden sharing globally and in the region, including through the provision of more resettlement places; and improving the protection spaces available to refugees in the region through building capacity in partner countries, and providing increased financial and other support to countries hosting large refugee populations. While it is early days for the Global Compact on Refugees, these frameworks present opportunities for Australia to build on its current bilateral arrangements and work towards achieving broader, long-term regional cooperation that achieves the dual purpose of reducing irregular movement, and improving the protection of refugees and asylum seekers in the region. 

Further reading

E Karlsen, Developments in Australian refugee law and policy: the Abbott and Turnbull Coalition governments (2013–2016), Research paper series, 2016–17, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 22 September 2017.

J Phillips, Australia’s Humanitarian Program: a quick guide to the statistics since 1947, Research paper series, 2016–17, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 17 January 2017.


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