People Seeking Asylum and Refugees

What is the current situation?

National Situation


Many people come to Australia seeking asylum from persecution in their country of origin or residence. People who seek asylum are not acting illegally because they have a human right to seek asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, regardless of how they arrive in Australia or whether or not they have a valid visa when they do. Australia has also ratified (HRC) the 1951 Refugee Convention under which it has an obligation to assess asylum seekers applications for protection. However, both the current Australian Government and past government’s policies towards people seeking asylum and refugees are far removed from the Convention’s requirements.

Turning Back Boats

No one has sought asylum in Australia who arrived on a boat since 2013 which could be due to the Australian Government’s policy and practice of turning back boats headed to Australia. As of December 2017,  since “Operation Sovereign Borders” began on 18 September 2013, 31 vessels had been intercepted with 771 individuals on board.  Despite the perception, because of Australia’s geographic isolation, the number of people seeking asylum arriving in Australia by boat is actually very small. For example, in the same period, Yemen received more than 24 times the number of people seeking asylum by boat.

Processing and Detention

“Offshore Processing”

In August 2012 the Australian Government began a policy of “offshore processing” (which invariably involves some form of detention)  under which people seeking asylum who arrive by boat without a valid visa are transferred to “Regional Processing Centres” in Nauru or Papua New Guinea to have their asylum claims assessed by the laws of those nations. (HRC). Australia is the only country in the world to have this policy and practice.

As of 30 April 2018, the Refugee Council of Australia concludes based on Senate estimates An estimated 1,695 people are still in Nauru or Papua New Guinea and as of 26 February 2018, there are 158 minors still on Nauru.

“Offshore Processing” has led to has led to prolonged and indefinite detention and enormous human suffering, inhumane conditions, with grossly inadequate health care and consistent reports of sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

Mandatory Detention

In 1992, Australia introduced a policy of mandatory, indefinite detention under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) for any non-Australian citizen present in the country without a valid visa. Because of the persecution they face, most people seeking asylum cannot obtain a visa before they arrive. In July 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee found that the indefinite detention of these people breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Those who seek asylum after arriving in Australia on a valid visa are processed “onshore”, although they are frequently detained in closed immigration detention facilities until their claims are assessed. As at 30 April 2017, 1,392 people were held in closed immigration detention facilities in Australia, 377 of which were asylum seekers who had arrived by boat. (RCOA)


Since 2013, under Australian law, a person who arrives by boat without authorisation is barred from applying for any sort of visa, including a Protection Visa, unless the Minister for Immigration personally intervenes to “lift the bar”. As a result, asylum seekers who arrive anywhere in Australia by boat cannot apply for a visa except at the discretion of the Minister for Immigration. (RCOA)

‘Fast Track’

In December 2014, the refugee status determination system for people who came by boat after 13 August 2012 changed. The new process, called ‘fast tracking’, meant the Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA) would no longer hear directly from people claiming asylum. The Refugee Council has raised concerns about the risks and lack of fairness of this process.

Processing of applications

By the end of March 2018, there were 14,471 applications still on hand with the Department, compared with 16,298 applications finalised by the Department. the average time taken between a claim being lodged and the Department making its decision was 415 days for temporary protection visas, and 316 for Safe Haven Enterprise visas and Permanent Protection visas was 257 days.  The Refugee Council of Australia states there are now at least 15,000 people seeking asylum in our community who are still waiting for the government to decide on their refugee claims, many of whom came here more than five years ago and have children who were born here.

Types of Protection

(Permanent) Protection Visa (Subclass 866)

This visa is only available to people who arrived in Australia on a valid visa, “engage Australia’s protection obligations” and meet the conditions of Refugee and complementary protection under the Migration Act 1958. It allows someone to live and work in Australia as a permanent resident. If someone arrived in Australia without a valid visa and did not apply for a protection visa before 1 October 2017, the Government requires them to depart Australia immediately.

The Refugee Council of Australia has an extensive and helpful section on its website about applying for refugee status in Australia how the Australian Government determines whether a person is a Refugee.

Temporary Protection

Since 2014, people who arrived without a valid visa can no longer get a permanent visa regardless of when they arrived. People either qualify for a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) for three years or a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) valid for five years and have to reapply for their visa before it expires or risk deportation from Australia. Both visas allow people to work and study in Australia but a SHEV requires people to work or study in regional Australia.

There are several issues with temporary protection visas. People may never be able to reunite with their family overseas, who may also be facing persecution, making it harder to make a new life for themselves here without family support and they will never have the same rights as other Australians or permanent residents even if they spend the rest of their lives here.

Community Detention and Residence Determinations

Community detention allows people to live at a specified place (and may need to report to the authorities regularly) in the community while still officially being in immigration detention while the Minister of Immigration determines their application for a visa. They receive limited social support and access to Medicare but cannot work.

Bridging Visas

In October 2011, numbers of people seeking asylum who were held in closed immigration detention facilities were released into the community on Bridging Visas (subclass E). They may have reporting requirements and restrictions on their ability to work.

As of 30 April 2017, there were 556 people (including 216 children) in community detention and 23,573 people living in the community after the grant of a Bridging Visa E. (RCOA)

Status Resolution Support Service 

Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) is the program that supports vulnerable migrants who are waiting for the government’s decision on a visa application, including people seeking asylum. Both programs provide a basic living allowance (typically 89% of Newstart allowance), casework support and access to torture and trauma counselling.  The Refugee Council of Australia has a more detailed explanation of the SRSS and the different categories within it. In 2018 this support mechanism is in the process of being cut for more categories of people who currently receive it.

Complementary Protection

Because the definition of Refugee in the Refugee Convention is limited, it does not encompass all peoples in need of protection. Countries, such as Australia, who have signed a number of other international agreements that respect human rights, such as the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child cannot send people seeking asylum back to countries where they be arbitrarily deprived of life, or exposed to other cruel, degrading or inhuman punishment.  In 2011 the Australian Government introduced a system of Complementary Protection which considers the needs of people who are not refugees under the Convention but who may face torture or other human rights violations if they are returned to their country of origin. A person’s claim for complementary protection is considered at the same time as their claim for refugee status.

The Global Situation

The UNHCR states that we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. It also estimates that there are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

According to Amnesty International, over 1.19 million women, men and children need to be resettled in a safe country, yet only 30 countries offer just over 100,000 annual resettlement places.

According to Amnesty: by the end of 2015, 65.3 million people worldwide had been forced to leave their homes as a result of conflict, persecution, violence and human rights violations. Of these:

  • 3 million people had to escape to another country. These people are referred to as refugees.
  • 2 million people have sought safety in another country. These are people seeking asylum.
  • 8 million people were displaced within their own country. These people are described as internally displaced persons.

Right now,  the vast majority of the world’s refugees live in developing regions, with half of the 20 million refugees in just 10 countries.

More Information and Getting Involved

  • To find out more about the different conditions of people seeking asylum and refugees click here.
  • To find out more about what the Church teaches click here.
  • For more information and how you can get involved click here.