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Children protest against TPV's
Why don't you let us stay? Also children protest against Temporary Protection Visas (TPV's). This image taken outside Australia House in London

Refugees: Facts and Myths

A lot of confusion exists amongst people in Australia about refugees versus asylum seekers.

Both terms have almost habitually become replaced in everyday usage by many Australians who following the preferred terminology of the Howard Government by the terms 'queue jumpers' and 'illegal immigrants'.

This page intends to serve as a page of background readings about the understanding we need to have about refugees and asylum seekers.

This page is also a position paper of Project SafeCom. We at Project SafeCom are rather unhappy with the Howard Government's position about 'asylum seekers' and 'refugees'. For this reason we invite you to come with us, back to the origins of both terms, and develop an understanding of the terms based on their origins.

The origins of the of how we understand the terms 'refugees' and 'asylum seekers' can be found in the period in and after the Second World War, and the formation of the United Nations.

Most of the work that we would have done in this position paper, has already been done by various other organisations in Australia. That's why this paper borrows heavily from other statements and explanations. On this page you will find material produced by two Australian organisations:

1. The Refugee Council of Australia

The Refugee Council of Australia has produced excellent and extensive explanations. Some of their Fact Sheets are reprinted here, and they form the basis of the understanding of refugees and asylum seekers.

2. Amnesty International Australia

We have reprinted the full text of Amnesty International Australia's initiative "Fair Go Australia", which is a position statement coupled with an on-line petition.

some little known facts

  • Tanzania hosts one refugee for every 76 Tanzanian people (1:76)

  • Britain hosts one refugee for every 530 British people. (1:530)

  • Australia hosts one refugee for every 1583 Australian people. (1:1583)

From the Edmund Rice Centre

What are Refugees?

Fact Sheet No 2

From The Refugee Council of Australia

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (and its 1967 protocol), to which Australia is a signatory, defines a refugee as:

Any person who owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.

The important parts of this definition are:

  • that the person has to be outside their country of origin;

  • the reason for their flight has to be a fear of persecution;

  • this fear of persecution has to be well founded (ie they have to have experienced it or be likely to experience it if they return);

  • the persecution has to result from one or more of the 5 grounds listed in the definition;

  • they have to be unwilling or unable to seek the protection of their country.

The United Nations body responsible for protecting refugees and overseeing adherence to the Convention is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Convention Definition is used by the Australian Government to determine whether our country has protection obligations towards an individual. If a person is found to be a refugee, Australia is obliged under international law to offer support and to ensure that the person is not sent back unwillingly to the country of origin.

The term "refugee" is often used colloquially to refer to people who have been displaced due to a natural disaster (eg an earthquake or volcanic eruption) or environmental change. Such usage is not strictly correct.

Another term that one sometimes hears is "economic refugee". Again, this term is not correct. The accurate description of people who leave their country or place of residence because they want to seek a better life is "economic migrant".

Refugees are frequently confused with migrants. There are in fact many differences. These are outlined in Fact Sheet No 3.

Refugees can also be confused with asylum seekers. See Fact Sheet No 4 for an explanation of the differences.

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Refugees vs Migrants

Fact Sheet No 3

From The Refugee Council of Australia

The terms "refugees" and "migrants" are frequently used either interchangeably or in close association. It is common to see, for example, reference to "migrants and refugees" in a policy statement. Rarely, however, is there any indication that there is recognition that the two words refer to very different groups of people.


As outlined in Fact Sheet No 2, refugees are people who have been forced to leave their countries because they have been persecuted.

Rarely do refugees have the chance to make plans for their departure: to pack their belongings, to say farewell to their friends and families ... Some refugees have to flee with no notice, taking with them only the clothes on their backs.

Others, like the family that pretends to be going on a weekend break, have to keep their plans a secret from all around them in case they are discovered.

Refugees often have little idea about where they are going. They are running away, not running to. Those who come to Australia often have scant understanding about our country and the nature of society here. They have had no opportunity to prepare themselves physically or psychologically for their new life in Australia.

A significant proportion of refugees have experienced severe trauma. Many have been tortured. Arrivals to Australia have included survivors of the Balkan internment centres and "rape camps" and prisoners of war from the Gulf War.


Migrants make a conscious choice to come to Australia. They are able to read about the country and learn about it from friends and families. They have time to study the language and explore employment opportunities before they make a final decision about whether to come.

One of the most significant differences is that migrants are able to pack their precious belongings and say good-bye to the important people in their lives.

Another very important distinction is that migrants can go home at any time if things do not work out as they had hoped or if they get homesick. They can also pick up a phone and talk to friends and relatives. Most refugees cannot.

Because refugees and migrants are different groups of people, with different prearrival experiences, it is important that the distinction be made in the services provided. Refugees have needs distinct from and additional to migrants, in particular in relation to torture and trauma counselling, secure housing and medical care.

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Refugees vs Asylum Seekers

Fact Sheet No 4

From The Refugee Council of Australia

The terms "refugees" and "asylum seekers" are often used interchangeably but they have quite distinct meanings.


As outlined in Fact Sheet No 2, refugees are victims of persecution who have been recognised as fitting the definition of a refugee contained in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory.

Refugees have certain rights as set out in this treaty. The most important is protection from refoulement, ie from being sent back to their country of origin against their will. Also included in the Convention are stipulations with regard to issues such as access to employment, education, the legal system and civil rights.

Refugees come to Australia in one of two ways. Most come under the Refugee and Special Humanitarian Program, which is the humanitarian component of the migration program. These people are selected overseas, usually after referral from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They enter Australia with a visa that entitles them to permanent residency (and to apply for citizenship after the prescribed waiting period).

Other refugees have applied for asylum once in Australia (see below). Depending upon their method of arrival, once they have been determined to be refugees, they either have the same rights and entitlements as refugees who have entered under the Refugee and Special Humanitarian Program or are granted a three year Temporary Protection Visa (Visa Subclass 785) which has very different entitlements.

Asylum Seekers

For some of the world's refugee population it is either impractical or impossible to go first to a neighbouring country and then to seek resettlement from there. This could be because the neighbouring countries are not signatories to the international laws that would ensure their protection in these countries (few countries in this region, for instance, are signatories to the Refugee Convention). It could also be because they would not be safe in a neighbouring country, in particular if that country was sympathetic to the persecutory regime. In these cases, individuals may choose to try to go directly to a country, such as Australia, where they can seek protection.

Such people are called asylum seekers. Those who come to Australia have usually entered with a visitors', student or other temporary visa. Some arrive with no documents or with false documents.

Arriving without appropriate papers should not be interpreted as an attempt to defraud the system. By definition, refugees are people who are at risk of persecution. In most cases, the agent of persecution is their government. Applying for a passport and/or an exit visa can be far too dangerous for some refugees; so too can be an approach to an Australian Embassy for a visa. These actions can put their lives, and those of their families, at risk. In such cases refugees may have to travel on forged documents or bypass regular migration channels and arrive without papers.

Because boat arrivals receive much publicity, one could be forgiven for thinking that the number of asylum seekers entering Australia is increasing. This is not the case. The number of asylum seekers coming to Australia this year is not appreciably higher than the numbers for last year (8,257 to June 1999). The difference is in the profile of people seeking protection.

If a person enters Australia legally and applies for asylum, they are given a Bridging Visa that allows them to remain legally in the country while their application for refugee status is being considered. If their application was made within 45 days of arrival, they are also entitled:

  • to apply for a work permit; and
  • to receive Medicare assistance.

Welfare support is limited. After a 6 month waiting period, and only during the primary application stage, some receive income support equivalent to 89% of welfare benefits. Asylum seekers are not eligible for any other welfare assistance or state government support programs. A small proportion of asylum seekers receive application advice from government funded legal centres and agencies.

Once an asylum seeker has been determined to meet the definition of a refugee (and meet health and character requirements), they are granted permanent residence and, as explained above, have the same entitlements as refugees who have entered Australia under the Refugee Program.

If a person enters without a valid visa or passport, he/she is detained for the duration of the determination process in one of the five immigration detention centres: Sydney (Villawood), Melbourne (Maribyrnong), Perth (at the Airport), Woomera and Port Hedland. Provision for release exists only for children (but not their parent or caregiver), the elderly and victims of severe torture/trauma. Asylum seekers in detention receive assistance to lodge their claims for refugee status. These applications are given priority status by decision makers. If they arrived without a valid visa or passport after 20 October, 1999 an asylum seeker is not eligible for permanent residence and can only be granted a three year Temporary Protection Visa (Visa Subclass 785) which has the following entitlements:

  • access only to Special Benefits through Centrelink for which a range of eligibility criteria apply;
  • no family reunion rights (including reunion with spouse and children);
  • limited access to DIMA funded settlement services;
  • access to school education subject to state policy (full fees imposed for tertiary education);
  • permission to work, but ability to find employment influenced by temporary nature of visa; and
  • no automatic right of return if the visa holder leaves the country.

The Refugee Council is strongly opposed to the imposition of this new three year Temporary Protection Visa as these new measures are contrary to our international obligations and will have a profound and lasting impact on the people concerned and the communities from which they came.

All refugees have at one time been asylum seekers but once their status is recognised, it is no is no longer appropriate to use this term.

Some asylum seekers are refugees. The act of recognition of refugee status does not make someone a refugee. He/she has been a refugee all along; the granting of status merely makes it official. This is why it is important to presume that asylum seekers are refugees until proven otherwise. Failure to do this can mean that a country does not meet its legal obligations to genuine refugees.

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Australian Myths

Fact Sheet No 8

From The Refugee Council of Australia

There is a lot of confusion about refugees: not just about who they are but also about the impact they have on Australian life. Here are just some of the myths:

Charity begins at home: we should help Aborigines and other disadvantaged groups in Australia first!

"Charity" is not something that should be considered in terms of "us" and "them". If we are being responsible members of the human community we should seek ways to assist all those in need.

Refugees take our jobs which is balanced by the contradictory myth: all refugees go on unemployment benefits

It is true that newly arrived refugees have higher unemployment rates than the community average. This is not unexpected.

Amongst the refugee arrivals are people who have been tortured and deeply traumatised. This can interfere with employment. There are also a significant number of entrants whose qualifications are not recognised in Australia and they need time to make adjustments. There is also the issue of learning English. Refugees are entitled to 510 hours of free English language instruction which must be taken in the first 2 years - and it is beneficial that the entrants do this as they are unlikely to do this later.

The fact that refugees "come from behind" in the employment stakes highlights the need for specifically targeted intervention programs that recognise issues such as their trauma, their unrecognised qualifications and their lack of English. Targeted programs that do this have shown that they are very successful at placing refugees in the workforce. If we are to bring refugees to Australia (and it is Australia's decision that we do so) it is important that we recognise their specific needs and address these. If we do this, we will reap the benefits. Most refugees want to work, both to restore their damaged sense of self esteem and to repay what they see as their debt of gratitude to Australia for providing them with protection.

Whether "refugees take our jobs" is the sort of question that has no easy answer. Refugees do compete for jobs but they are also consumers. Because they arrive with nothing they have to purchase household goods, clothing etc, all of which provides jobs for the people who make and sell these commodities.

Refugees have no right to come here and expect us to help them

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries freedom from persecution".

It is an accident of birth that we are born in a country where human rights are respected. Do we have a moral right to protect these at the expense of others? This does not mean that Australia alone must take the full burden for protecting the persecuted. It does mean that we have to play a part in an international response that includes a wide spectrum of initiatives from addressing root causes to providing asylum to people whose human rights have been violated.

Refugees are economic migrants who come here to get a better life.

The distinction between refugees and migrants is outlined in Fact Sheet No 3.

Refugees get all sorts of handouts from the government

Refugees essentially have the same rights and entitlements as permanent residents.

They are, however, exempt from the waiting period for Social Security benefits and they get 510 hours of free English language instruction and some get access to post-arrival assistance. These extra entitlements are in recognition of their particular needs.

If we let one in, they will come in floods

Australia is one of the most difficult countries in the world to get to. We have no common borders and there are universal visa requirements and carrier sanctions. Because of this it is highly unlikely that we will ever see the large numbers of asylum seekers other countries experience.

There is also the erroneous perception in the public's mind that everyone in the world wants to come to Australia. We are little known in the total scheme of things and far less of an incentive than countries such as the United States.

It is realistic to expect that asylum seekers will keep coming to Australia but unlikely that there will be "floods" of people with the wherewithal and inclination to make the journey by irregular means.

The best way for Australia to deal with asylum seekers is to process their claims expeditiously. This way those in need of protection receive it and those whose claims are without merit can returned to their country of origin to "send a message" to others in similar circumstances that it is not so easy to get to Australia.

One of the things that is important to recognise in this debate is that any response a country makes must protect those in genuine need of protection ie there must be the presumption of a genuine claim until it is determined to be otherwise, not the presumption that the person is rorting the system.

Refugees cannot possibly contribute anything to us

It is a myth that all refugees are illiterate peasants. The majority that come to Australia are educated middle class people - whose education, profession or political opinions have drawn them to the attention of the authorities and resulted in their persecution.

By definition refugees are survivors. They have survived because they have the courage, ingenuity and creativity to have done so. These are qualities which we value in Australia. The challenge for Australia is to assist newly arrived refugees to process the experiences of their past and rebuild their lives in Australia. If we do this we will reap the benefits of the qualities and experiences they bring to Australia.

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Fair Go Australia

From Amnesty International Australia

Fair Go Australia is an initiative of the United Nations Association of Australia and Australian Council for Overseas Aid for action by community and church leaders to promote justice for asylum seekers...."

The United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) are seeking to build a broad coalition of Church and Community representatives to lead a national community action campaign to focus on humanitarian solutions for asylum seekers and to demonstrate Australians basic commitment to a fair go for all.

Recently, many Australians have become increasingly alarmed by government actions, which undermine international human rights standards and set disturbing precedents for dispersing asylum seekers.

We wish to join with like-minded organisations and individuals to promote an informed debate and develop alternative strategies.

We need a national effort to dispel the myths and propose responsible approaches to address the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers.

Online petition

Fair Go Australia: A community pledge for asylum seekers

As concerned citizens of Australia we urgently want a fair go for asylum seekers.

We commit ourselves, on the basis of our common humanity, to work for:

  1. constructive and transparent debate about Australia's obligations to protect asylum seekers under the 1951 Refugee Convention;

  2. an end to misleading rhetoric which exaggerates the situation affecting Australia, and promotes anxiety amongst Australians;

  3. humanitarian alternatives to mandatory detention;

  4. promotion of positive dialogue with the United Nations, support for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and encouragement for the international community to focus on the global refugee crisis;

  5. a response to the global refugee situation which focuses on the causes of people movements, especially gross violations of human rights;

  6. advocacy for a Refugee Summit, hosted by Australia, to enable human rights advocates and government leaders to develop an International Refugee Action Plan.

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