U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Australia

Australia hosted nearly 15,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 1998. These included about 10,000 persons resettled during the year, about 2,000 persons granted asylum, and applicants in 2,972 pending asylum cases. Australia provided no temporary protection visas at the end of 1998.


Under its refugee and special humanitarian programs, Australia allocated 12,000 admission places for fiscal year 1998-99, which began on July 1, 1998. This consists of up to 10,000 "offshore places" for refugees resettled from overseas and up to 2,000 "onshore places" for persons granted asylum in Australia (the latter number is for planning purposes only; there are technically no limits on the number of persons who can be granted asylum while in Australia). Of the 10,000 offshore places, 4,000 are for the refugee category (persons meeting the UN Refugee Convention's definition), 4,250 for the "special humanitarian program" or SHP (for people found to be experiencing substantial discrimination amounting to a gross violation of human rights, and who have strong support from an Australian citizen, resident, or community group), and 1,750 for the "special assistance category" or SAC (for groups who have close links to Australia and who are particularly vulnerable but do not meet the criteria of the other categories).

Within these humanitarian categories, priority is given to regions of the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and Africa. Offshore allocations during the year went to persons from: the Americas – 50; Africa – 1,495; Middle East and Southwest Asia – 2,945; South and Southeast Asia – 180; Europe (including former Yugoslavia) – 4,550; and other/unallocated – 780. Of the 4,000 refugee places, 420 are allocated to women at risk.

In partnership with other government and community agencies, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) helps refugees and other SHP entrants resettle in Australia. Such persons also have immediate access to income support, English language instruction, and translating and interpreting services.

"Onshore" Asylum

Australia received 7,792 new applications for protection visas (PVs) in the 1998 calendar year (compared with 10,965 for calendar year 1997). Nationals of Indonesia (mostly East Timorese), China, Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines represented the majority of asylum seekers. Once granted a protection visa, an individual has permanent resident status.

During 1998, DIMA adjudicated 9,808 PV applications at the primary stage (including cases pending from the previous year), approving 844 (9 percent) and denying 8,748 (89 percent). Another 211 cases were withdrawn or otherwise resolved. At year's end, 2,972 asylum applications were pending at the primary stage.

Persons from Iraq, Sri Lanka, Iran, Burma, and Pakistan received the largest number of asylum grants.

Persons whose applications for onshore asylum are rejected at the primary stage may, within 28 days, apply to the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) for a full merits review of their claim (in addition, the immigration minister has discretionary authority to hear appeals). During 1998, 7,470 appeals were filed with the RRT. It adjudicated 8,583 cases (including cases pending from the previous year), of which it reversed the decision (i.e., granted asylum) in 752 cases (nine percent). The RRT affirmed the government's decision denying asylum in 6,959 cases (81 percent), and it otherwise resolved 872 cases. At the end of 1998, 8,756 appeals were pending.

In September, a senior Federal Court judge sharply criticized the government's failure to translate RRT decisions into the applicant's own language. If proper interpretation services were provided, said the judge, the number of applications for judicial review would substantially decrease.

Just two years after enacting asylum reforms, Australia in 1998 imposed new restrictions on asylum seekers' access to employment. To obtain work authorization, an asylum applicant must apply for a protection visa within 45 days of arrival in Australia. The applicant is granted a temporary "bridging visa" until the claim is adjudicated. Applicants with bridging visas who appeal denial of their asylum claims (either to the courts or the administration) are not permitted to work.

The government defended the new legal changes by saying too many people were abusing the law to delay deportation. A spokesperson for immigration minister Philip Ruddock said protection visa applications had jumped from 500 a year in the late 1980s to about 11,000 a year in 1998. Ruddock said many of the claims are "manifestly unfounded."

Certain asylum applicants who cannot meet their basic needs are eligible for financial assistance through the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme (ASA), funded by the Australian government and administered by the Australian Red Cross. The ASA meets the cost of health care necessary for primary diagnosis, with further treatment covered only for urgent conditions.

Under a new ASA agreement effective on May 1, 1998, asylum applicants cease to be eligible for ASA when their cases are decided at the primary level. Such assistance is also not available to applicants seeking review through the RRT or the AAT.

Persons granted asylum and released from detention may also be eligible for the range of services provided to refugees and other humanitarian entrants.

The immigration ministry sought in 1998 to further limit the judicial review of RRT decisions. The Law Council of Australia, Amnesty International, and the International Commission of Jurists collectively urged Ruddock to conduct the inquiry. The groups also said asylum seekers received inadequate legal assistance.

Ruddock dismissed the idea of the inquiry, saying that the United Nations recognized Australia's refugee system as among the fairest in the world. Earlier, Ruddock had accused federal court judges of searching for loopholes deliberately to undermine the government's refugee policies.

In August, the federal court granted an injunction deferring the deportation of two Kenyan teenagers whose asylum claims the RRT had denied. Immigration department officials had escorted the asylum seekers to the airport and put them on a plane bound for Singapore. The plane took off five minutes after the court's decision. Although Ruddock said the pair could return, he said the government would amend the law to make RRT decisions final and conclusive.

Although UNHCR has an office in Canberra, the Australian capital, it neither extended mandate status nor provided material assistance to persons in Australia during 1998.

Refugee lawyers, human rights advocates, UNHCR, and members of parliament criticized Australia's detention policies during 1998. Applicants for protection visas are not exempt from Australia's law on mandatory detention of all noncitizens who arrive without authorization. A report by Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner noted that detention is often prolonged and that conditions of detention are often unacceptable, particularly for women and children.

Observers particularly criticized detention in remote areas where many asylum seekers have no access to legal assistance.

Asylum Seekers from East Timor

Australia is one of the few countries that recognize Indonesia's 1976 annexation of East Timor. The United Nations still considers East Timor a Portuguese-administered UN territory. Thousands of East Timorese have fled the province, and many have lived in legal limbo in Australia for up to seven years.

In 1996, the RRT ruled that Australia need not grant refugee status to East Timorese. Because Portugal considers them its citizens, the RRT said, East Timorese do not need international protection. In 1997, in the case of asylum seeker Jong Kim Koe, the full Federal Court ruled that the RRT had made no legal error in its decision that certain East Timorese, including Mr. Jong, are Portuguese nationals for purposes of the UN Refugee Convention. However, the court also concluded that nationality must be "effective" for purposes of the convention and that the RRT had failed to consider this effectiveness as a "distinct issue." This issue was returned to the RRT to decide. The ruling revived the hopes of more than 1,200 East Timorese asylum seekers in Australia, for whom the Jong decision was a test case. In May 1998, the RRT affirmed the government's denial of asylum, determining that Portugal did afford Mr. Jong effective protection.

In June, Portugal blocked Australia's attempt to deport 1,600 East Timorese to Portugal, saying Portuguese nationality laws were "not designed to force the assimilation of East Timorese people into the Portuguese state but to positively provide them with a free choice." Portuguese officials also said it is ironic that although Australia recognizes Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor, when it comes to granting them protection it considers them Portuguese.

(In late January 1999, in a surprise move, the Indonesian government announced it would consider granting independence to East Timor. Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer expressed concern that up to 15,000 residents of East Timor who originally come from elsewhere in Indonesia could become refugees.)

Temporary Protection

Although Australia has no legislative system of temporary protection, it has previously created classes of temporary visas in response to upheaval in individual countries. At the end of 1997, more than 2,000 persons (1,817 from Sri Lanka and 525 from the former Yugoslavia) had visas providing temporary protection until July 31, 1998. However, there were no temporary visa categories remaining at the end of 1998.

Other Developments Indonesians of Chinese descent reportedly sought refuge in Australia in record numbers during 1998. Most of the ethnic Chinese Indonesians claimed persecution stemming from the country's worsening economic and political crisis. Australia overwhelmingly denied their claims.

Asylum seekers from mainland China also had little success in seeking protection in Australia. Boat arrivals were promptly deported under an agreement between Chinese and Australian authorities.

In July, the leader of Australia's controversial One Nation party, which favors immigration restrictions, proposed sending refugees home after conditions in their homeland improve. The president of the United Nations Association of Australia called such temporary refuge unacceptable, saying, "It would be churlish indeed to adopt such a heartless approach to these people who have been uprooted and forced to make a complete change in their life situation."


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