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Refugee and asylum seeker facts

What you need to have an informed conversation about refugees and people seeking asylum.

A father and son from Myanmar share a moment of happy relief after reaching the safety of a camp on the Bangladesh border. (Photo: Australian Red Cross/Antony Balmain)

Every year, millions of people are forced to flee their homes to find safety. Red Cross Red Crescent works with these people all over the world: in the places they flee from, the places they pass through, and the places they arrive.

The information and facts below can help you have an informed conversation about why and how people seek safety. It can also help clear up some common myths and misconceptions.

An asylum seeker is a person looking for protection because they fear persecution, or they have experienced violence or human rights violations.

A refugee is a person who asked for protection and was given refugee status. They may have been resettled in another country or be waiting for resettlement. Not every asylum seeker becomes a refugee, but every refugee starts out as an asylum seeker.

A migrant is a person who leaves or flees their home to go to new places – usually abroad – to seek opportunities or safer and better prospects. Migration can be voluntary or involuntary, but most of the time a combination of choices and constraints is involved.

No. Everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. It is not illegal for people to flee persecution in their homeland or to cross borders without documents or passports in order to seek asylum. It is also not a crime under Australian law to arrive here by boat without a valid visa and ask for protection.

All people who arrive here by boat without a valid visa are subject to mandatory detention.

No. Many people arrive by plane with a valid visa then claim asylum while they are here.

Unlike people who arrive in Australia by boat, people who arrive by plane are generally not subject to mandatory detention.

No. Most people seek asylum in their neighbouring countries if it is safe for them to do so.

Around the world in 2017, 1.9 million claims for asylum were lodged with governments or through UNHCR. Of these, 36,200 were made in Australia.

While this number is fewer than 2% of the world’s total, it is particularly high for Australia. By comparison, the United States of America received highest number of new asylum applications, with 331,700.

No. Most refugees reside in their neighbouring countries if it is safe for them to do so.

In 2017, 3.5 million refugees around the world had their status recognised or were successfully resettled. Of those, 23,111 (0.65%) were assisted by Australia.

By comparison, Turkey granted protection to 681,000 refugees, while Bangladesh registered 655,500 people in a refugee-like situation from Myanmar.

No. Some people believe that people seeking asylum who come to Australia by boat are “queue jumpers”, and are taking the place of people who have registered with UNHCR or those who are waiting in refugee camps.

The UN resettlement system does not operate in this way. A queue implies that resettlement is an orderly process and by waiting for a period of time, a person will reach the front of the queue. The UN resettlement system prioritises asylum seekers for resettlement according to considered needs, rather than waiting time.

For example, refugees waiting for resettlement may return home if conditions in their home country improve.

In 2017, there were 25.4 million refugees worldwide. In the same year, the number of globally available resettlement places was reduced from 163,000 to 75,000, despite UNHCR assessing 1.2 million refugees were in need of resettlement.

The Refugee Council of Australia says that if this global queue did actually exist, people joining the back of the queue might wait more than 180 years for resettlement.

At the end of 2017 there were 25.4 million refugees worldwide. More than two-thirds came from just five countries:

  • Syrian Arab Republic (6.3 million)
  • Afghanistan (2.6 m)
  • South Sudan (2.4 m)
  • Myanmar (1.2 m)
  • Somalia (986,400).

In 2016–17, Australia granted a total of 21,968 resettlement visas under the humanitarian program. The majority of these people came from:

  • Iraq (7,478)
  • Syria (6,261)
  • Afghanistan (1,958)
  • Myanmar (1,747).

People can be forced to migrate because of conflict, persecution, environmental degradation, poverty and development.

Most refugees and people seeking asylum reside in their neighbouring countries if it is safe for them to do so. In many countries, including in Asia Pacific, refugees and people seeking asylum do not have a legal right to stay, work or access basic service. This affects their ability to remain safe and support the most basic needs of their families.

Generally, people seeking asylum have very limited options available to them.

Where people can exercise choice in determining their destination country, they can be influenced by the presence of social networks, historical ties between the countries of origin and destination, and the knowledge or belief that a certain country is democratic, where human rights and the rule of law are likely to be respected.

Under international law, whether in Australia or another country, a person undergoes a rigorous process to prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution before they are granted refugee status. This may be for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, resulting in the suffering of serious human rights violations including torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.

In Red Cross' experience, the majority of people who apply for asylum do so because their lives and safety are under threat from war, violence or human rights abuses in their homeland. Most people do not wish to leave the homes, families, friends and communities that they know and love.

Yes. All refugees and people seeking asylum undergo security checks.

In Australia, the Department of Home Affairs can refuse to grant or cancel a person’s visa if they are a risk to the Australian community.

Under both the UN Refugee Convention and Australian law, the right to refugee protection is not given to anyone strongly suspected of having committed a crime against peace, a war crime, a crime against humanity or a serious non-political crime outside their country of refuge, or anyone guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Where people are eligible for support, the Australian Government provides basic income support, a maximum of 89 per cent of the Centrelink unemployment benefit. Through community service providers, the Government also provides limited assistance to this group to meet their basic needs, such as assisting people to access health and social services.
Not every person seeking asylum in the community is eligible for support under these programs. People who are not eligible receive no Government financial assistance.

In Red Cross’ experience, the majority of people seeking asylum living in the community do so with access to few resources and almost no possessions.

They want to work and be self-reliant, but often find it difficult because of limited English language skills, lack of recognition of overseas qualifications, insecure or temporary visa status and limited understanding of how to find work in Australia.

How to help asylum seekers living in poverty
How to help asylum seekers find work

When refugees arrive in Australia through the Humanitarian Program, they arrive as permanent residents and can immediately access income support payments in the same way as any other Australian permanent resident. They also receive some support specific to their needs such as access to caseworkers, help finding housing and English classes to help them become independent members of the community as quickly as possible.

Humanitarian entrants make an important contribution to Australia in many areas including social engagement, workforce participation, business ownership and volunteering within the community.

Most humanitarian entrants’ families, especially those in the second generation, are able to adjust effectively over time and eventually match, and in many cases exceed, Australian-born levels of economic and social contribution.

Many of Australia's successful and respected citizens have been refugees, having fled their home country to escape persecution.

How hiring refugees and people seeking asylum can help your business.

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Young Red Cross volunteer talking to school children in a classroom

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We can talk with your school, workplace or community group about why people seek safety.

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