Australia hosted nearly 17,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 1999. These included about 10,000 persons resettled during the year, about 2,000 granted asylum, applicants in 3,886 pending asylum cases, and about 1,250 persons (Kosovars and East Timorese) with temporary safe haven visas.

During 1999, Australia adopted new asylum laws and policies that made it more difficult for refugees to seek or obtain permanent protection in Australia.


Under its refugee and special humanitarian programs, Australia allocated 12,000 admission places for fiscal year 1998-99, which ended June 30, 1999. These consisted 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. Although the 12,000 figure represented a cap, numbers could be moved between the asylum and resettlement components, according to need.

Of the 10,000 offshore places, 4,000 were for the refugee category (persons meeting the UN Refugee Convention definition), 4,300 for the "special humanitarian program" or SHP (for people found to have suffered discrimination amounting to gross violation of human rights, and who had strong support from an Australian citizen, resident, or community group), and 900 for the "special assistance category" or SAC (for persons who had close links to Australia and who were particularly vulnerable but did not meet the criteria of the other categories).

Within these humanitarian categories, priority was given to regions of the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Almost half of all visas granted for overseas resettlement went to people from countries of the former Yugoslavia. Sizable numbers were also granted to people from the Middle East, particularly from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Thirty percent of all humanitarian program visas (resettlement, SHP, and SAC) were also granted to persons from the Middle East.

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

"Onshore" Asylum

Australia significantly changed its asylum system in 1999. In October, the government issued regulations dividing protection visas into two subclasses: permanent visas and temporary visas.

Under the new system, asylum applicants who are lawfully in Australia may apply for permanent visas. "Unauthorized" arrivals seeking asylum upon arrival may apply only for temporary visas (they are also initially detained under Australia's mandatory detention policy). Those found to be refugees are granted visas valid for three years. Adjudication follows the standard protection visa process.

After 30 months, the holder of a temporary visa may apply for a permanent protection visa, but this is treated as a new application (i.e., the applicant must prove a well-founded fear of future persecution at that point). Once granted a permanent protection visa, an individual has permanent resident status. Holders of temporary protection visas cannot sponsor their immediate family members, as holders of permanent visas can do. They are eligible to work and to receive certain benefits, including Australia's Medicare program.

In November, Australia enacted a new law, the Border Protection Legislation Amendment Act, which instituted "forum shopping" and "safe third country" provisions similar to those in place in much of Europe. Under the "amendments to prevent forum shopping," the government can deny refugee status to any applicant, including a legal arrival, who "has not taken all possible steps to avail himself or herself of a right to enter and reside in, whether temporarily or permanently, and however that right arose or is expressed, any country apart from Australia." Under the "safe third country" provision, the immigration minister can designate certain countries that fulfill "relevant human rights standards" and to which the applicant "has a right to re-enter and reside" (if the applicant previously resided there for at least seven continuous days).

At the end of the year, the new law had yet to be implemented. However, human rights and church groups sharply criticized the law, saying it contravened the UN Refugee Convention and would prevent some refugees from obtaining protection. The government said the legislation was needed to stem the surge in undocumented migration to Australia, particularly by persons from the Middle East. The immigration minister, Phillip Ruddock, warned that "whole villages in Iran are on the move" and were headed for Australia. The Australian government reported intercepting 34 boats with passengers from the Middle East (primarily Iraq and Afghanistan) between July and November. Many of the boats arrived via Indonesia. The vessels carried 1,643 people, more than the total of people reaching the country by boat in the previous three years. Nearly 500 Chinese asylum seekers arrived by boat in 1999.

The government also reported that, since 1996, an increasing number of people had arrived without documents at Australia's airports.

The new law makes no changes to the asylum adjudication process. Officers of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs decide initial asylum applications. When an applicant is denied either a temporary or permanent protection visa, he or she may seek a merits review of that decision, within 28 days, from either the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), depending on the basis for refusal. When the RRT rejects an appeal, the applicant must pay a fee of $1,000 Australian dollars (about $595 U.S. dollars). Protection visa applicants rejected by the RRT (and who have no other legal reason to be in Australia) must leave the country within 28 days. The immigration minister has the power to intervene if the RRT has rejected the application and if, in the minister's view, a more favorable decision is in the public interest.

The immigration minister continued to exercise his discretion to allow some 200 rejected asylum seekers to remain in Australia on humanitarian grounds.

During the fiscal year (which ended before the temporary protection visa was instituted), Australia received 8,371 new applications for protection visas. During the same period, it adjudicated 7,145 cases in the first instance, granting 979 and denying 6,160 – a 14 percent approval rate.

During the same period, the RRT received 5,505 new appeals and decided 7,392 (including pending cases). Of those, it rejected 5,261 cases and granted 560 cases – an 8 percent approval rate. The minister issued an additional 108 discretionary protection visas in the public interest.

Although the majority of asylum appellants were Chinese, those most likely to be granted asylum were Iraqis, Algerians, and Iranians.

At the end of the fiscal year, 3,886 applications for protection visas were pending first-instance adjudications.

In previous years, Australia provided calendar year data to the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR). Because only fiscal-year data are now available, 1999 figures overlap somewhat with those in the 1999 World Refugee Survey and cannot be directly compared.

All asylum statistics concern applications (cases) rather than individuals. The DIMA does not release numbers of individuals.

Certain asylum applicants who cannot meet their basic subsistence needs are eligible for financial assistance through the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme, funded by the Australian government and administered by the Australian Red Cross. In 1999, the government expanded the program to cover certain persons in need while they appealed their failed asylum claims. Certain asylum seekers, including those in detention, are also eligible for services under the Immigration Advice and Application Assistance Scheme, which provides help in preparing and filing asylum applications.

Temporary Safe Haven: Kosovars and East Timorese

Twice during 1999, Australia provided temporary safe haven to certain people "displaced from their homelands by violence." The government created a special category of visa for this purpose, consisting of two subclasses: Kosovar Safe Haven, and Humanitarian Stay. Applicants for this visa category had to sign a declaration that they understood and agreed to the Australian government's offer of temporary safe haven for a limited period, and would leave when the government required. Holders of these visas were legally prevented from applying for any other kind of visas unless the immigration minister decided it was in the public interest for them to do so.

The government first used the new visa for Kosovars. In April, Australia announced it would provide safe haven for up to 4,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo who were then living in camps in Macedonia (this was in addition to the permanent resettlement of some Kosovars through Australia's refugee and humanitarian programs). Australian immigration officials flew to Macedonia to select people for admission. Between May 7 and June 23, more than 3,900 Kosovars arrived in Australia under Operation Safe Haven. After spending four days at a reception center for health screening, most were placed in accommodations at military bases in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania.

Australia initially granted the Kosovars three-month safe haven visas, later extending them until October 30. In July, after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assessed the situation in Kosovo as being secure enough for most refugees to return home, Australia began organizing voluntary repatriation in coordination with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Because of the severity of the Kosovo winter, Australia provided a "winter reconstruction allowance" of $3,000 Australian dollars (about $1,780 U.S. dollars) for each adult and $500 Australian dollars (about $300 U.S. dollars) for each child who returned to Kosovo between August 31 and October 30. Press reports accused the government of "applying a blowtorch" to get the Kosovars to go home, by cutting off cash assistance and forcing them to relocate. The immigration minister said Kosovars who would not leave would be moved to facilities in Victoria and Tasmania following the closure of the East Hills barracks in Sydney. He also said living allowances, phone cards, and other services would no longer be available at East Hills.

The government extended the visas, on a month-to-month basis, for those Kosovars who chose to remain in Australia after October 30, and consolidated them in a few locations. At the end of 1999, about 500 of the 3,900 Kosovars remained in Australia (including 32 babies born there). Advocacy groups and members of Australia's political opposition urged the government to allow them to stay, saying many still had reason to fear returning home.

In September, following East Timor's referendum on independence and the massacres that ensued, Australia announced that it would provide temporary safe haven for East Timorese evacuated to Darwin, just across the Timor Sea in northern Australia. (Around the same time, Indonesia agreed to accept an Australian-led international peacekeeping force in East Timor.) Australia granted three-month safe haven visas to the 1,800 evacuees, including 1,500 who had sought shelter at the UN compound in the East Timor capital of Dili.

As was the case with East Timorese refugees elsewhere, some suspected militia members – blamed for the bloodshed in East Timor – were among the evacuees. Australian police separated them from the rest of the group.

When the East Timorese arrived in Australia, the government initially housed them in a "tent city" in Darwin. In mid-October, it moved most of the refugees to special accommodation centers, including the military barracks previously occupied by the Kosovars.

Near the end of October, UNHCR determined that East Timor was safe for the return of the evacuees. A first group left the Darwin airport on October 28. Another 600 returned in December. When more than 100 refused to relocate to different accommodation sites (pending return to East Timor), the government said it would cut off their living allowance. Political opposition members accused the Australian government of coercing them to return. To encourage their repatriation, Australia offered them rice, blankets, and other reintegration materials. At the end of the year, 753 remained in Australia, including 12 babies born in Australia. Some stayed to receive medical treatment, pending the availability of adequate facilities in their homeland.

Australia provided a range of services to the Kosovars and East Timorese, including food, medical care, education for the children, English language training, recreation, and professional counseling. The physical accommodations, however, sparked much controversy among the refugees and the Australian public. In June, about 100 Kosovars refused to get off buses after being transferred from the East Hills facility in Sydney to the Singleton army barracks in Newcastle. The refugees said the Singleton facility was unsatisfactory. Immigration Minister Ruddock said Australia had never promised the Kosovars "five star hotel accommodation." Eventually, all but one family agreed to move into the Singleton barracks.

East Timorese Asylum Seekers

Prior to the August 1999 referendum on independence for East Timor, Australia was one of the few countries that recognized Indonesia's 1976 annexation of East Timor. Nevertheless, thousands of East Timorese sought asylum in Australia during the years of Indonesia's occupation. Many of them remained there for years in legal limbo. In early 1999, some 1,650 East Timorese asylum seekers resided in Australia.

In November 1999, while most of the 1,800 East Timorese evacuated from Dili were still in Australia, several hundred other East Timorese and supporters demonstrated in Melbourne against the government's refusal to grant them asylum. As of the end of the year, the cases of the 1,650 East Timorese were still pending, and a special tribunal had been proposed to hear a test case. Ruddock refused to allow them to stay on humanitarian grounds.

Other Developments

In January, Australia delayed the deportation of a rejected Somali asylum seeker following intervention by Amnesty International and the UN Committee Against Torture (a specialized UN agency created by the UN General Assembly). The government then flew the asylum seeker to Melbourne from a detention facility in Western Australia. The man's pro bono lawyers had complained that they could not afford the trip to Western Australia and said access to clients was an ongoing problem in Australia. In December, the government flew about 180 Afghan asylum seekers to a remote detention camp at a former nuclear test range in South Australia State.

Australia continued its policy of refusing to grant asylum to persons fleeing China's one-child policy, despite a public outcry regarding the case of an eight-and-a half-month pregnant woman deported to China in 1997. The woman, who already had one child and had applied for asylum in Australia, was reliably reported to have undergone an abortion upon her return. The case came to the attention of Australia's prime minister in 1999 and was the subject of a senate inquiry in November.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.