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Facts about refugees and asylum seekers

On this page ....

  • Refugees, asylum seekers and resettlement

  • Seeking asylum is not illegal

  • Are "boat people" queue jumpers?

  • Refugee numbers

  • Australia's refugee and humanitarian program

Refugees, asylum seekers
 and resettlement

War, violence or persecution force many people to leave their homes in search of protection. If they remain within their own country, they are called Internally Displaced People, but if they leave their own country they are refugees.

Some refugees then seek resettlement in a third county via UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). Only a small number of countries accept refugees in this program, with United States, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Scandinavian countries accepting the most in recent years.


Only a small percentage of those seeking it are resettled in any year.

As a result many people spend long periods in refugee camps close to their home country, or else take the initiative to travel to a safe country and seek asylum, as provided by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Almost 150 countries are party to this Convention.

For more, see UNHCR.

Are "boat people" queue jumpers?

People seeking asylum are not ‘queue jumpers’, because there is no queue for resettlement. 

Resettlement is not an orderly or easy process, and only a small proportion of the world's refugees are resettled each year.

Asylum-seekers typically flee their home countries at short notice because their lives are in danger.
They try whatever options are available to find a safe haven. Some seek assistance from UNHCR, but others are not able to contact UNHCR.


Thus many refugees have no option but to try to reach a safe country in whatever way they can. Boat people, like those resettled by UNHCR, are simply seeking safety as best they can.

For more, see Refugee Council of Australia.
Photo: UNHCR.

Seeking asylum is not illegal

People who seek asylum by boat are not breaking the law. It is not a crime to come to Australia without first getting a visa.


Australia is a party to the Refugee Convention, which recognises asylum seekers may be in an emergency situation, and so allows them to seek asylum without a visa. 


The phrase ‘illegal immigrant’ is therefore highly misleading. The Australian Press Council says:
ms such as ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘illegals’ may constitute a breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice."

For more, see Refugee Council of Australia.


Refugee numbers

The United Nations estimates that almost 80 million people were forcibly displaced at the beginning of 2020. This is 1% of the world's population.

About 46 million were internally displaced, 26 million were refugees and 4.2 million were asylum seekers. Almost three quarters were hosted in neighbouring countries.


About 1.4 million of these refugees are assessed as being in urgent need of resettlement, but UNHCR is only able to resettle about 4.5% of these urgent cases each year.

More information: UNHCR.
Refugee camp photo by UNHCR.


Australia's Refugee and Humanitarian Program

Australia has one of the most generous refugee programs in the world. The 2019/20 intake was set at 18,750, but due to Covid-19, the eventual number who came to Australia under this program was 13,171.


Almost half of these were refugees, almost 40% were part of a humanitarian program where entrants are sponsored by Australians, and one in eight were asylum seekers who had arrived in Australia.


Australia's treatment of asylum seekers has been much criticised within Australia and by UNHCR.

More: Australian Department of Home Affairs

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