Get the facts: How many refugees make Australia their home each year?

June 16, 2022

Australia has a long history of welcoming refugees to its shores, and is home to a diverse multicultural population of recent migrants. But the country is also responsible for brutal policies that have left people seeking asylum traumatised and living in limbo for years.

So how many refugees does Australia accept? What is the process for people seeking safety in Australia? And what does the future look like for refugees?

In this article: 

  • How do people become refugees in Australia? 
  • How many refugees does Australia welcome each year?
  • Why has the refugee intake dropped dramatically since Covid-19?
  • Will a new government = a bigger refugee intake?
A young girl wearing a headscarf looks at the camera, she is surrounded by other children wearing colourful clothes.
Refugee children in Kabul, Afghanistan. Image: Shutterstock.

How do people become refugees in Australia? 

Before we dive in, it’s important to understand the different ways to become a refugee in Australia. Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program is mainly made up of two sub-programs: 

  • Onshore protection program: This is for people who arrive in Australia on a valid visa, such as a student or tourist visa, and then apply for asylum. People in this category can wait up to five or more years on temporary ‘bridging visas’ while their claims are processed. While they wait, most have no access to Centrelink, irregular access to Medicare and sometimes no work rights.
  • Offshore resettlement program: Where people have their refugee status decided overseas, and are then resettled to Australia and granted permanent residency. They can access services including Centrelink and Medicare immediately after arriving in Australia.

Note: Not included in these categories are people who try to arrive to Australia by boat. Although under international law everyone has the right to seek asylum, the Australian government treats boat arrivals as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ and currently denies them permanent protection visas.

The Australian government has cruelly detained people seeking asylum who arrived by boat in hotels and immigration detention centres.

How many refugees does Australia welcome each year?

The total number of places in the Refugee and Humanitarian Program is decided in the Federal Government’s Budget, which is handed down before each financial year ends. However the figure is a cap, meaning the Department of Home Affairs doesn’t have to grant that exact number of refugee visas. From 1995 to 2020, the department generally delivered around the same number as the cap, but in recent years the number of visas granted has been far lower.

Here’s a brief wrap of the last couple of decades:

  • From 1995 to 2012, the planned intake remained between 12,000 and 13,750 each year. The number of actual visas granted was generally just above or just below the cap.
  • In 2012-13, the Labor government, acting on a recommendation of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, increased the planned intake to 20,000 places. 19,998 visas were granted.
  • After the Coalition government came into power in 2013, it reduced the planned refugee intake to 13,750 places a year.
  • In 2014, the then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced the refugee intake would increase to 18,750 places over four years.
  • In 2015, in response to conflict in the Middle East, Australia made a special pledge to resettle 12,000 extra refugees from Syria and Iraq. As a result, in 2016-17, Australia granted its highest ever number of refugee visas to more than 24,000 people. 
  • In 2017-18 the cap increased to 16,250 and in 2018-19 the cap increased to 18,750.
  • In 2020-21, the cap dropped to 13,750, but just 5947 refugee visas were granted.

In 2022, the Australian government pledged a special allocation of 16,500 visas for Afghan refugees over four years.

A woman holds her child on her back and smiles.
Refugees come to Australia seeking safety from persecution and danger in their home countries. Image: Shutterstock

Why has the refugee intake dropped dramatically since Covid-19?

Since Covid-19, there have been many global conflicts and events that have seen the number of globally displaced people rise dramatically. In 2020, there were a record 82.4 million people forcibly displaced across the world. But despite the increased need, Australia has been resettling fewer refugees.

In 2019-2020, the government failed to meet its target intake of 18,750 refugees by a long shot. In that year, just 13,171 humanitarian visas were granted. The Department of Home Affairs pointed to the “temporary suspension of granting of all offshore humanitarian visas in March 2020 as a result of Covid-19 travel restrictions”. 

In October 2020, the Morrison government slashed the intake cap from 18,750 to 13,750, saying the pandemic made it too hard to resettle refugees. The number of visas granted was still far smaller – in 2020-21 just 5947 refugee visas were granted.

The Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power said the pandemic was not an excuse for the failure to meet the target. 

“Everyone understands that the COVID pandemic limited travel to Australia but it did not prevent the Australian Government from issuing visas under its migration and humanitarian programs,” he said. 

“The Department of Home Affairs began the 2020-21 year with a backlog of 37,497 onshore protection visa applications and, in a year when new applications were lower than previous years, managed to reduce the backlog by only 4508 to 32,989.”

Minister Penny Wong and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Anthony Albanese became Prime Minister when the Labor Party won government in the May 2022 Federal Election.

Will a new government = a bigger refugee intake?

The Labor Party’s 2022 Federal Election win created hope for people seeking asylum and refugee advocates in Australia. 

The party had promised to increase the refugee intake to 27,000 places per year. It also said it would grant permanent protection to people who travelled to Australia by boat and have lived in limbo for years on temporary protection visas. Since winning the election, the government has allowed the Nadesalingam family, famously taken from their home and detained alone on Christmas Island, to return home to Biloela

There are signs that Australia’s refugee policies will improve under the new government, but there is much work to be done. In recent years, the visa processing times for people who apply onshore has blown out, causing prolonged stress and uncertainty to people as they wait. Human rights supporters must continue to watch the government’s actions closely and campaign for change & fair processes for people seeking asylum in Australia.

Sources / further reading:

It’s time for us to start rebuilding, post-Federal Election 3 new jobs for people seeking asylum: A day at the ASC