Australia’s humanitarian program: a quick guide to the statistics since 1947 - January 2017 update

17 Jan 2017


Australia has a long history of accepting refugees and other humanitarian entrants from all parts of the globe, including those in need of assistance during and immediately after World War II. Since 1945, when the first federal immigration portfolio was established to administer Australia’s post-war migration program, over 800,000 refugees and other humanitarian entrants have settled in Australia. However, it was not until Indochinese asylum seekers, fleeing conflict during the Vietnam War, began to arrive by boat that the Australian Government developed a specific refugee policy. Australia’s first planned Humanitarian Program designed to deal with refugee and humanitarian issues, including the determination of onshore protection claims, was subsequently established by the Fraser Government in 1977.

Since then, permanent migrants have entered Australia via one of two distinct programs—the Migration Program for skilled and family migrants or the Humanitarian Program for refugees and those in refugee-like situations. The Australian Government allocates places, or quotas, each year for people wanting to migrate permanently to Australia under these two programs. Annual statistics on Migration and Humanitarian program ‘outcomes’ (visa grants) published by the Immigration Department since the 1970s, provide the most accurate source of data on the number of people granted visas to migrate to Australia.

It is important to understand that there are two main components of Australia’s Humanitarian Program—offshore and onshore:

  • the offshore component of the Humanitarian Program offers resettlement in Australia to refugees and humanitarian entrants from overseas under two categories. Most offshore refugees are referred to Australia by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and are formally accepted and resettled under the ‘Refugee’ category. These entrants have been assessed and accepted as refugees under Refugee Convention criteria. The Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) also offers resettlement to those offshore who, while not necessarily being refugees, face human rights abuses in their home country and have a connection with Australia. Applicants must have a sponsor (e.g. a permanent resident, Australian citizen or organisation). Applications from family members of people already in Australia are referred to as ‘split family’.
  • the onshore component of the Humanitarian Program offers protection to people who have arrived in Australia, lodged an asylum claim, and been granted protection. Onshore humanitarian entrants may have been found to be refugees under Refugee Convention criteria or may otherwise engage Australia’s protection obligations under other human rights conventions.

This quick guide includes humanitarian entrant estimates between 1947–48 and 1976–77 (provided to the Parliamentary Library by the Department of Immigration in 2001) and Humanitarian Program visa grants since 1977–78.

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