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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. In the past decade, the number of people displaced from their home has almost doubled, from 41 million to 79.5 million. 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.

1 in 97 people are now forcibly displaced, an increase from 1 in 159 in 2010, with the rate of global displacement now outpacing population growth. Understanding the facts about forced migration is as important as ever. The information below can help you have an informed conversation about why and how people seek safety. It can also help clear up some common misconceptions and misunderstandings.

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. In 2019, 73% of refugees and people seeking asylum resided in their neighbouring countries. The top hosting countries are:

  • Turkey (3.6 million)
  • Colombia (1.8 million)
  • Pakistan and Uganda (1.4 million)
  • Germany (1.1 million).

Around the world in 2019, 2 million new claims for asylum were lodged with governments or through UNHCR. Australia reported 23,266 claims were made within Australia, and 70,621 from outside of Australia over the 2019-2020 financial year.

No. In 2019, most refugees and people seeking asylum (73%) resided in their neighbouring countries if it was safe for them to do so. Most of these were developing countries, with 85% of refugees overall being hosted by low to middle income countries.

For example, in 2019, Bangladesh continued to host 854,782 people in a refugee-like situation from Myanmar and in 2018 Turkey granted temporary protection to 397,600 refugees from Syria.

Over the past 10 years, of all resettled refugees 55% went to the United States of America (575,600), 20% to Canada (210,600) and 11% to Australia (114,500). The gap between needs and actual resettlement is growing, with some States significantly reducing the number of resettlement places on offer.

No. Some people believe that people seeking asylum who come to Australia by boat or air 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 and situations of vulnerability, rather than waiting time.

In 2019, there were 26 million refugees worldwide. 26 countries admitted 107,800 refugees for resettlement despite UNHCR assessing 1.4 million refugees were in need of this lifeline. During that year, Australia resettled 18,200 refugees from overseas.

In 2020, the global places made available by states to UNHCR was 57,600. COVID-19 has impacted the ability of states to fill those spaces.  

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

At the end of 2019 there were 26 million refugees worldwide. This is the highest ever number recorded. More than two-thirds came from just five countries:

  • Syrian Arab Republic (6.6 million)
  • Venezuela (3.7 million)
  • Afghanistan (2.7 million)
  • South Sudan (2.2 million)
  • Myanmar (1.1 million)

In 2018–19, Australia granted a total of 18,762 refugee and humanitarian visas. The majority of these people came from:

  • Iraq
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Myanmar
  • Syria
  • Afghanistan

The number of children seeking safety is steadily increasing worldwide. In 2019, it was estimated that there were between 30 to 34 million children below 18 years of age who had been forcibly displaced, comprising 40% of the overall displaced population and 50% of the refugee population.

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.

In the financial year of 2019-20, Australia granted refugee status to 14,993 people, either through resettlement from other countries or granting protection to people who had applied for asylum in Australia.

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% 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 limited formal supports and resources.

They want to work and be self-reliant, but often find it difficult, due to a combination of factors, including temporary visa status, limited understanding of how to find work in Australia, lack of recognition of overseas qualifications and limited English language skills (with little to no support to learn or improve English until they have been recognised as refugees)

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.

Australia has a long history of humanitarian resettlement, providing safety to more than 880,000 people since World War II.

Refugees make an important contribution to Australia in many areas including social engagement, workforce participation, business ownership and volunteering within our communities.

Most families from refugee backgrounds are able to adjust effectively over time and generate substantial economic and social benefit. The Centre for Policy Development, for example, reports that in Australia, refugees are more than twice as likely to establish their own businesses compared to the broader population.

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

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