Refugees and asylum seekers

Harriet Spinks, Social Policy

Key issue

This year (2022) has seen global human displacement rise to record levels. Australia offers resettlement to refugees through the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), but the number of places available under this program remains relatively low, particularly in the context of increasing demand.

Australia also faces the question of resolving the status of almost 20,000 people currently living here on temporary protection visas, and that of the offshore processing cohort who have not yet been granted permanent resettlement in any country.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many restrictions on human movement globally over the last 2 years, the number of refugees worldwide has continued to rise. As at the end of 2021 there were around 89.3 million forcibly displaced worldwide, including around 27.1 million refugees and 4.6 million asylum seekers. Recent crisis situations in Afghanistan, Venezuela and Ukraine – there are now more than 6 million refugees from Ukraine alone – have pushed these numbers even higher. The UNHCR now estimates that the number of persons displaced around the world exceeds 100 million for the first time on record.

Australia has a long history of welcoming refugees and others in humanitarian need. However, Australia’s policy responses to human displacement have been the subject of much debate over the last several years, both within the Parliament and outside it. These policy issues, including the size of Australia’s humanitarian intake and the future of temporary protection visas and offshore processing, are likely to be of concern to the new Parliament.

Global refugee trends

Numbers of refugees and other displaced persons have reached record levels in the first half of 2022. As at the end of 2021, the UNHCR reported that the top source countries for refugees and people in refugee-like situations were Syria (6.8 million people), Venezuela (4.6 million people), Afghanistan (2.7 million people) and South Sudan (2.4 million people). Since then, Ukraine has become a major source country of refugees, with over 6.5 million refugees estimated to have left Ukraine for neighbouring countries since 24 February 2022.

Most refugees, and other people displaced across international borders, are hosted in countries close to the refugees’ country of origin. As at the end of 2021, some 83% of refugees were being hosted by low and middle income countries, with the largest refugee populations being hosted by Turkey (3.8 million), Colombia (1.8 million), Uganda (1.5 million) and Pakistan (1.5 million). Figure 1 shows the locations of refugees and other international displaced persons around the world, by population size, as at the end of 2021.

Figure 1          Refugees, people in refugee-like situations and Venezuelans displaced abroad, end of 2021

map graphic showing Refugees, people in refugee-like situations and Venezuelans displaced abroad, end of 2021

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2021, (Geneva: UNHCR, 2022), 21.

Australia is one of only 23 countries that accepted refugees for resettlement in 2021 through the UNHCR resettlement process. However, resettlement in a third country is available for less than 1% of the global refugee population each year, with those considered the most vulnerable prioritised for referral to resettlement countries. In 2021 UNHCR submitted resettlement applications for around 61, 000 people. Most refugees remain in countries close to their country of origin and wait either to be able to return home (voluntary repatriation), or for permission to remain permanently in their host country (local integration).

Australia’s Humanitarian Program

Australia maintains a formal Humanitarian Program under which people may be granted either a permanent visa to resettle in Australia from overseas (offshore resettlement), or, if they are already in Australia, a permanent protection visa permitting them to stay (onshore protection).

The offshore resettlement component of the program comprises both refugees who are referred to Australia for resettlement by the UNHCR (usually around 6,000 places per year), and people in humanitarian need who are proposed for resettlement by a person or organisation in Australia. People in the latter category do not need to demonstrate they meet the threshold for refugee status under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, although many do.

The onshore protection component of the program comprises people 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, either by boat or by air without a valid visa. People in this category who are found to be owed protection are currently not eligible for permanent visas and are not counted within the permanent Humanitarian Program. Instead, they are granted a temporary protection visa valid for either 3 or 5 years (see further discussion below).

The Government sets a planning figure for the Humanitarian Program each year. The planning figure was around 13,750 for many years (with a temporary boost to 20,000 under the last Labor Government in 2012–13). Under the Coalition Government the planning figure reverted to 13,750, but was then gradually increased beginning in 2015–16 to provide for an additional 12,000 places over 4 years for people displaced by conflict in Syria and Iraq, before being reduced again to 13,750 in 2019–20. Table 1 shows total Humanitarian Program visas grants over the last 10 years, by offshore and onshore components.

Table 1            Humanitarian Program by component, 2011–12 to 2020–21

Year Offshore
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
2018–19 17,112 1,650 18,762
2019–20 11,521 1,650 13,171
2020–21 4,558 1,389 5,947

Source: Department of Home Affairs, Australian Migration Statistics 2020–21, Table 3.0, December 2021.

The 2019–20 and 2020–21 program years saw a significant drop in the number of entrants under the Humanitarian Program due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting border closures. The granting of offshore humanitarian visas was suspended on 19 March 2020 (p. 12), and resettlement of refugees who had already been granted a visa under the offshore component of the Humanitarian Program was also largely suspended in March 2020, in line with the UNHCR and International Organization for Migration (IOM) suspension of resettlement travel. With borders not reopening to humanitarian entrants until December 2021 it is possible the Humanitarian Program planning figure may similarly not be reached for 2021–22.

Stakeholders have been calling for an increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake for many years, in line with the UNHCR’s goal of increasing third-country resettlement places globally, and in response to recent crisis situations such as in Afghanistan. The Morrison Government announced in January 2022 that it would provide 10,000 humanitarian visas for Afghan nationals over the next 4 years (as well as quarantining 5,000 family visas for Afghans) but these places were to be allocated within the existing Humanitarian Program quota, not in addition to it. More recently, there have been calls for Australia to accept large numbers of refugees from Ukraine on top of the existing Humanitarian Program quota.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) has not expressly committed to increasing the humanitarian intake, but its 2021 National Platform states that it ‘aspires’ to progressively increase the intake to 27,000 per year (p. 123). This was the figure recommended by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers in 2012, and, if reached, will represent Australia’s largest annual humanitarian intake on record.

What next for those on temporary protection visas?

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 currently 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 2 temporary visas- a 3-year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or a 5-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 3 and a half years without claiming social security payments, and can meet the criteria for a permanent skilled or family visa. For both visas, the protection claim must be reā€‘proved every 3 or 5 years in order to be eligible for a subsequent TPV or SHEV (unless they have met the SHEV permanent residency pathway requirements).

There is a large group of refugees in Australia holding a form of temporary protection- as at 30 April 2022 there were 18,959 people in Australia holding either a TPV or a SHEV. These are people who arrived in Australia prior to the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013, and so were not transferred offshore for processing (see discussion of offshore processing below). Temporary protection has been widely criticised by refugee advocates and human rights groups 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. The ALP has argued that temporary protection is ‘costly and wasteful’, and unnecessary for deterrence, so long as boat turnbacks and offshore processing remain in place.

The ALP has committed to abolishing temporary protection visas and moving refugees currently on temporary visas onto permanent visas (p. 123). This will require amendments to the Migration Regulations 1994, which currently provide that a person who is an unauthorised maritime arrival (as defined by section 5AA of the Migration Act) or who holds, or has ever held, a TPV or SHEV, is unable to make a valid application for a permanent protection visa (regulation 1401(3)(d)). It will also require the minister to ‘lift the bar’ under section 46A of the Migration Act to allow people in this cohort to make a valid visa application—section 46A provides that a visa application is not valid if it is made by an unauthorised maritime arrival in Australia who is an unlawful non-citizen or who holds a bridging visa, temporary protection visa, or a temporary visa of a prescribed kind, unless the minister makes a determination that this provision does not apply.

While amending the Regulations will be sufficient to enable people currently on TPVs and SHEVs to be granted a permanent visa, it is the Act, not the Regulations, that provides for the existence of these temporary visas. Abolishing these visa classes entirely would therefore require the Government to amend the Migration Act.

Resettling the offshore processing cohort

One of the most criticised aspects of Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies over the last decade has been the processing of asylum seekers in Australian-funded centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG). The transfer of asylum seekers to offshore processing centres, which had been a feature of asylum policy under the Howard Government from 2001 to 2007, recommenced under the Gillard Labor Government in 2012. Since September 2013, offshore processing, along with turning boats around at sea, has been a cornerstone of Operation Sovereign Borders, the Coalition Government’s response to asylum seekers arriving by sea. Numerous critics including refugee advocates, human rights groups, and legal and medical experts have condemned this policy, arguing that it has caused significant harm to the people transferred offshore, has wasted billions of dollars, and is in breach of Australia’s international obligations. Offshore processing has also been the subject of multiple inquiries and reviews investigating allegations of self-harm and physical and sexual abuse.

The ALP has stated that it will retain the key elements of Operation Sovereign Borders by continuing to turn asylum seeker boats back at sea ‘where it is safe to do so’, and maintaining an offshore processing capability in Nauru for any irregular maritime asylum seekers who cannot be safely turned back. With most vessels now being intercepted and turned back at sea, it is unlikely that large numbers of asylum seekers will be transferred for offshore processing in the future. The key issue for the incoming Government will therefore be finding suitable resettlement outcomes for the people from this cohort who remain in limbo in Nauru and Australia.

It was initially intended that people transferred from Australia to a processing centre in PNG or Nauru who were found to be refugees would either settle there permanently (in the case of PNG) or be granted a long-term visa to remain (in the case of Nauru). PNG finalised its refugee resettlement policy in June 2015 and resettlement of refugees began late in 2015. Regional processing arrangements in PNG ended on 31 December 2021 and people remaining in PNG after this date are no longer considered part of Australia’s regional processing caseload. Their resettlement options (either in PNG or elsewhere) will be determined by the Government of PNG.

Regional processing remains in place in Nauru, with a new memorandum of understanding to ‘establish an enduring regional processing capability’ there having been signed in September 2021. As at 30 April 2022 there were 112 people remaining in Nauru who had been transferred there under Operation Sovereign Borders- 83 confirmed refugees, 12 still in a refugee status determination process, and 17 who had been found not to be refugees. Additionally, as at 4 April 2022 there were 1,175 ‘transitory persons’ in Australia (p. 12)- that is, people from the offshore processing cohort who have been temporarily brought to Australia, generally for medical treatment or to accompany someone who requires medical treatment. None of these people is eligible to settle permanently in Australia, and the ALP has stated that it will continue the policy of not allowing them (or any potential future maritime arrivals) to settle here. Currently, the long-term options available to this group of people are to voluntarily return to their country of origin, settle permanently in Nauru, or apply for resettlement to the US or New Zealand.

The Turnbull Government announced in November 2016 that it had agreed on a resettlement arrangement with the US, under which up to 1,250 people who had been found to be refugees would be resettled to the US from the Regional Processing Centres in Nauru and PNG. As at 30 April 2022, 1,002 refugees had been resettled in the US under this arrangement- 401 departed from Nauru, 427 departed from PNG and 174 departed from Australia. This means there are roughly 250 places remaining under this arrangement.

In March 2022, following many years of refusing to accept a resettlement offer from New Zealand, the Morrison Government announced that it had reached an agreement with New Zealand to resettle up to 150 people from the offshore processing caseload there each year for the next 3 years. These 450 resettlement places, and the remaining places in the US resettlement agreement, will offer a chance at permanent resettlement for around half of the people remaining in the regional processing caseload. A small number of people have been resettled in other countries, including Canada, through private sponsorship arrangements. This option will likely still exist, but the numbers available through this pathway are likely to continue to be very small. Resolving the status of the remaining several hundred people in this cohort is therefore likely to be a significant challenge for the incoming Government, and a subject of intense interest to many in the Parliament.

Further reading

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2021, (Geneva: UNHCR, 2022).

Janet Phillips, Australia’s Humanitarian Program: a Quick Guide to the Statistics Since 1947, Research paper series 2016–17, (Canberra: Parliamentary Library, 2017).


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