Australia hosted some 16,700 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2000. These included 7,502 persons resettled during the fiscal year, nearly 2,500 persons granted protection visas (of which some 1,600 were permanent and about 900 temporary), applicants in 6,500 pending asylum cases, and up to 250 persons (Kosovars and Indonesians) with temporary safe haven visas.


Under its refugee and special humanitarian programs, Australia allocated 12,000 admission places for fiscal year 1999-2000, which ended June 30, 2000. In addition, some 800 unused places were available from the previous fiscal year.

The 12,000 places consisted initially of up to 10,000 "offshore places" for refugees resettled from overseas and an anticipated 2,000 "onshore places" for persons granted asylum in Australia (later amended to 8,000 offshore places and 4,000 onshore places; see below). Although the 12,000 figure represented a cap, numbers could be moved between the asylum and resettlement components, according to need.

Of the 8,000 offshore places, 4,000 were for the refugee category (persons meeting the UN Refugee Convention definition). Another 3,100 were for the "special humanitarian program" (SHP) for people found to have suffered discrimination amounting to a gross violation of human rights, and who had strong support from an Australian citizen, resident, or community group. Finally, 900 offshore resettlement places were for the "special assistance category" (SAC) for persons who had close links to Australia and who were particularly vulnerable but did not meet the criteria of the other categories.

The refugee category was further broken down into subsets for women at risk, emergency rescue cases, and persons still in their countries of origin but who were referred for resettlement because of persecution.

In February, Australia's immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, ordered a freeze on the processing of offshore refugee visas. This was necessary, Ruddock said, because the number of unauthorized arrivals granted asylum had increased sharply and threatened to exhaust the combined regional ceiling for overseas admissions and asylum. Australia allowed some 3,000 available offshore visas to carry over into the FY 2000-2001 program year, in anticipation of a large number of onshore visa grants to arrivals from Afghanistan and Iraq (who reportedly had more than a 90 percent approval rate).

In announcing the freeze, Ruddock said, "It is grossly unfair to people who are refugees outside Australia in the most vulnerable situations, that their places may be taken by people in Australia who may be able to establish claims. ... I'm very upset about it, I don't like it, but it's the only way in which we can ensure the system will function effectively."

The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) wrote to the Australian government urging it to "de-link the overseas refugee program and the asylum program so that increased arrivals in one program will not negatively affect the other." USCR added, "While resettlement from overseas is an important form of refugee protection, provisions for granting asylum are equally important. Many undocumented arrivals flee the same types of persecution as persons applying as refugees from overseas."

A spokesperson for an Australian nongovernmental organization noted, "The only visas issued onshore are temporary visas, so by not issuing offshore visas, which are permanent, [Mr. Ruddock] is cutting Australia's refugee program." A leading Australian senator said the freeze would "just encourage asylum seekers to try and enter illegally."

Almost 45 percent of all visas granted for overseas resettlement went to people from the former Yugoslavia. Thirty percent were granted to persons from the Middle East, including a significant number from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The main African nationalities resettled were Sudanese and Somalis, followed by Sierra Leoneans, Ethiopians, and Eritreans. In total, just under a quarter of the humanitarian program visas (resettlement, SHP, and SAC) were granted to persons from Africa.

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 adopted regulations that significantly changed its asylum system in 1999 and continued to implement those changes in 2000. Since the 1999 changes, protection visas have been divided into two subclasses: permanent visas and temporary visas.

Successful asylum applicants who enter Australia legally may receive permanent visas. "Unauthorized" arrivals seeking asylum upon arrival may, if found to be refugees, be granted only temporary visas, valid for three years. Adjudications for both visas are based on the "well founded fear of persecution" standard.

Temporary visa holders are eligible to work and to receive certain benefits – including Australia's Medicare program – but not others.

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 again prove a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to his or her country of origin).

In late 1999, Australia enacted legislation – the Border Protection Legislation Amendment Act – that introduced "forum shopping" and "safe third country" provisions similar to those in place in many European countries.

Under the "forum shopping" provisions, the government can deny refugee status to any applicant, including a legal arrival, who has not taken "all possible steps" to enter and reside in "any country apart from Australia" where the applicant has the right to enter. 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).

Human rights and church groups said that the law contravened the UN Refugee Convention and would prevent some refugees from obtaining protection. Ruddock said the legislation was needed to stem the surge in undocumented migration to Australia, particularly the organized smuggling of persons from China and the Middle East. Ruddock said "whole villages in Iran" were on their way to Australia.

The Australian government reported that 4,174 people arrived without authorization on 75 boats in fiscal year 1999-2000, compared with 920 people on 42 boats in 1998-1999 – an increase of 354 percent.

Of the more than 10,000 unauthorized boat arrivals to Australia since 1989, some 27 percent have been from Iraq, 24 percent from Afghanistan, and 18 percent from China.

DIMA officers decide initial asylum applications. When applicants are denied either a temporary or permanent protection visa, they have 28 days to seek a merits review of that decision either by 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 about $500 U.S. dollars ($1,000 Australian 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 allowed about 130 rejected asylum seekers to remain in Australia temporarily on "humanitarian and compassionate" grounds in fiscal year 1999-2000.

During the fiscal year, Australia received 12,713 applications for protection visas, an increase of 4,456 over the previous year. Australia granted nearly 2,500 protection visas during the period. Of those, some 1,600 were permanent protection visas and nearly 900 were temporary.

DIMA officers granted about 850 permanent visas and 800 temporary visas after initial asylum interviews. DIMA officers granted another 650 permanent visas and 33 temporary visas after the RRT remanded appealed cases for reconsideration. The immigration minister granted another 76 permanent visas by exercising his public interest powers.

Persons from Iraq and Afghanistan accounted for nearly one-third of the asylum applications submitted during the fiscal year. China represented about 7 percent. The largest numbers of protection visas granted in the first instance went to persons from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka.

All asylum statistics concern applications (cases) rather than individuals. The government 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. Some 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.

Australian courts decided several significant asylum-related cases during the year. In one, the High Court determined that the third child of parents from southern China had a well-founded fear of persecution based upon membership in a particular social group, being "children born in violation of China's one-child policy." The court held that China's denial of food, shelter, medical treatment, and education to such children could be persecutory, even if such policies have a legitimate purpose or objective.

Restrictive Measures

In addition to implementing the 1999 "border protection" legislation, Australia took other steps during 2000 to discourage unauthorized migration.

One such effort came in the form of an overseas media campaign designed to portray Australia as a dangerous destination for would-be immigrants and asylum seekers, particularly from Iran, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Pakistan. Videos showed open-mouthed crocodiles and sharks with the warning that persons attempting to enter Australia illegally by boat could be eaten alive. If that fails to happen, say the videos, the migrants could be stuck in an inhospitable desert where the snakes could get them.

In response to critics saying the videos represented "shock tactics," Ruddock said, "You might think they are a little sensational ... . [But] the information in all these videos is based on fact. These are very powerful weapons against a criminal trade in human misery."

Ruddock said Australia was working with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and other countries to crack down on human smuggling in the region.

Australia also continued using detention as a means of discouraging unauthorized migration. In accordance with 1994 legislation, all noncitizens who unlawfully enter Australia, including those seeking asylum, are placed in detention. They may be released from detention if they meet certain criteria, such as old age, ill health, or having suffered torture or other trauma. According to the U.S. State Department, the majority of asylum seekers are detained for the length of the asylum adjudication process. Detained asylum seekers are offered publicly funded legal assistance. Those found to be refugees are released into the community after health and security checks are completed. However, the entire process often takes months or sometimes years.

Refugee advocates criticized the location of detention facilities, often in remote areas far from available legal council, as well as the security measures and living conditions at the facilities. The year saw several hunger strikes, riots, and other forms of protest by detention-center residents, as well as the escape of at least 750 residents (all of whom were captured and returned).

In November, medical officers claimed that sexual abuse of children at the Woomera Detention Center in South Australia was rampant.

In September, USCR wrote to the Australian government to urge it to refrain from detaining asylum seekers unless in exceptional circumstances and to examine more closely conditions within its detention centers. The letter noted that recent governmental actions "suggest a fundamental failure to recognize that many asylum seekers who enter without documents are legitimate refugees." USCR urged Australia to adopt alternative models of detention, as proposed by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA).

The government responded by noting that "Australia does not have a policy of detaining asylum seekers, but is required [by law] to detain unauthorized arrivals. Some of these people subsequently apply for asylum. Most arrive either without documentation or with fraudulent documentation, so their identity is not clear." The government added, "It is important to note that the majority of asylum seekers are free in the community while they pursue their claims. Mandatory detention is the result of unlawful entry, not the seeking of asylum."

The letter to USCR said that conditions and service delivery in all detention centers must meet quality levels established by Australia and designed to meet international obligations. The government noted that Australia's human rights commission regularly visits detention centers and that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has visited them on a number of occasions. The government also said that while the alternative detention model proposed by the RCOA may reduce the time a person spends in detention, it would not address various other concerns, including total cost to the government and the risk that persons released would abscond.

Temporary Safe Haven

The government created a temporary safe haven visa in 1999 to provide temporary protection for certain people "displaced from their homelands by violence." The visa initially consisted of two subclasses: Kosovar Safe Haven (for up to 4,000 ethnic Albanian Kosovars admitted from Macedonia in May and June 1999 under Operation Safe Haven) and Humanitarian Stay (the general temporary safe haven visa for persons other than Kosovars). In September 1999, Australia granted safe haven visas to 1,800 East Timorese following the militia violence there.

In January 2000, a boat carrying 54 asylum seekers from Ambon, Indonesia arrived in Darwin, Australia. After initially detaining the Ambonese at the Port Headland detention center, Australia granted them temporary safe haven visas. At the end of the year, some of the Ambonese were believed to have returned to Indonesia, while others remained in Australia under the safe haven visas.

Recipients of the visas must sign a declaration that they understand and agree to the Australian government's offer of temporary safe haven for a limited period, and will leave when the government requires. Holders of these visas are legally prevented from applying for any other kind of visa unless the immigration minister decides it is in the public interest for them to do so.

In July 1999, after 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). Some Kosovars refused to return, and the government began cutting off services to induce them to agree. At the end of 1999, about 500 of the 3,900 Kosovars remained in Australia.

In April 2000, 116 Kosovars repatriated after abandoning a prolonged court battle to be permitted to stay. Some 20 others who still refused to leave were placed in detention to await deportation. Later in the year, Australia determined that some Kosovars could not return to Kosovo because of ongoing protection concerns or because of trauma. As a result, the government granted 300 Kosovars temporary visas allowing further stay in Australia (in some cases for up to three years) and allowed some to apply for protection visas.

Critics charged that the government sent the Kosovars home without adequate resources or information. Television news bulletins showed returning refugees with all their possessions in plastic bags being left at their homes with no means to repair them, and without food or money. Those with Australian dollars were reportedly not able to exchange them.

Australia's prime minister, John Howard, defended the repatriation, saying conditions in Kosovo were better than when the refugees were evacuated. He emphasized that it was an international obligation to support the returnees. Howard added that had the Kosovars been permitted to stay, they would have jumped ahead of people with equal or greater claims to refugee status.

Australia began returning the 1,800 East Timorese evacuees in October 1999, after UNHCR assessed East Timor as safe for the return of the evacuees. The repatriation was completed by May 2000. As with the Kosovars, some of the East Timorese had attempted to remain in Australia. In February, some 250 East Timorese set up a blockade at Sydney's East Hills "barracks" to protest returning home. A few days later, they relented and were flown back to Dili, the East Timorese capital.

East Timorese Asylum Seekers

At the end of 2000, more than 1,650 East Timorese asylum seekers resided in Australia. This group was distinct from the 1,800 East Timorese evacuated to Australia in 1999 and provided temporary safe haven.

Thousands of East Timorese sought asylum in Australia during the years of Indonesia's occupation, which ended in 1999. Many of them remained in Australia for years in legal limbo, while the executive branch and the courts debated whether the asylum seekers had the protection of Portugal – the former colonial power in East Timor.

In October 2000, the AAT granted refugee status to an ethnic Chinese man from East Timor who had been seeking asylum in Australia for five years. The tribunal found that the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) could not adequately protect ethnic Chinese from racial persecution. The tribunal also found that there was no effective protection available for the man in Portugal or Indonesia.

Viewed as a test case, the ruling raised the hopes of the other asylum seekers. The lawyer for the man granted asylum predicted that the government would grant refugee status at least to the ethnic Chinese, who account for most of the East Timorese seeking asylum in Australia. The case also appeared to remove the possibility of Australia deporting any of the asylum seekers to Portugal.


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