Australia's humanitarian system

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program has two components – the onshore protection program and the offshore resettlement program. An annual quota is set for the total intake of these programs, which for 2010-11 was set at 13,750 people.

Offshore component

The offshore component of the program is for people outside Australia who are in need of resettlement. This is a voluntary commitment by Australia designed to provide durable solutions for the many refugees who can neither remain where they are nor return home. The people in this stream are refugees referred by UNHCR, outside their home country and are subject to substantial persecution or discrimination amounting to a gross violation of their human rights.

Onshore component

The onshore component of the program is for asylum seekers who apply for refugee status after arriving in Australia. Most enter as visitors or students; some arrive without authorisation. The onshore component is designed to meet Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention to recognise and provide protection to people fleeing persecution. There is no quota or ‘cap’ for the onshore component of the program.

Unlike any other refugee accepting nation, Australia’s onshore and offshore programs are numerically linked. This means that every time an onshore applicant is granted a protection visa, a place is deducted from the offshore program. So, the figure of 13,750 set for offshore entrants will not be met, because there have already been several thousand onshore entrants accepted as refugees. This is where the ‘queue’ argument is derived from and the linking adds to misconceptions around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ refugees, those who wait and those who don’t. In recent years the majority of onshore entrants who come without authorisation are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Burma and Iraq – for these people there is no ‘queue’ to join en-route and no Convention signatory country along the way who could provide sustainable protection.

Visa subclasses

The offshore program has two categories:

Refugee category – for people who are subject to persecution in their home country and who are in need of resettlement. The majority of applicants who are considered under this category are identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and referred to the Australian Government by the UNHCR; and

Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) category – for people who, while not being refugees according to the definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention, are subject to substantial discrimination amounting to a gross violation of their human rights in their country of origin.

The onshore program now has one visa category. Previously, there were permanent and temporary protection visas (TPVs) depending on whether a person arrived by plane with a visa or by boat without a visa. TPVs were valid for either three or five years and holders were not entitled to apply for any family members to join them. TPVs were in existence from 1999 to 2008. Some people were granted one TPV after another, having to reapply and facing the possibility of being returned to the place they fled. People’s ability to study, find employment and become part of the community was inhibited by the temporary nature of their legal stay in Australia. After 2008, these visa holders were granted Resolution of Status visas, Class CD (Subclass 851) - see fact sheet from Dept of Immigration and Citizenship for more information.

Visa subclass for 2009/10


Refugee Visa (Subclass 200)
Refugee category
People subjected to persecution in their country of origin and in need of resettlement. 5173
Emergency Rescue Visa
(Subclass 203)
Refugee category
An accelerated processing arrangement for people who satisfy refugee criteria and whose lives or freedom depend on urgent resettlement. 0
Woman at Risk Visa
(Subclass 204)Refugee category
Female applicants and their dependents who are subject to persecution or are of concern to UNHCR, are living outside their home country without the protection of a male relative and are in danger of victimisation, harassment or serious abuse due to gender. 806
In-country Special Humanitarian Program Visa
(Subclass 201)Refugee category
People who have suffered persecution in their country of origin and who have not been able to leave that country to seek refuge elsewhere. 24
Global Special Humanitarian
Program Visa
(Subclass 202)

For people who are not refugees, but are subject to substantial discrimination and human rights abuses in their home country. The applicant must be proposed by an Australian citizen or permanent resident over 18 years, an eligible New Zealand citizen or an organisation operating in Australia. The proposer must pay for the applicant to travel to Australia and is expected to assist in the settlement of the applicant.

(plus 11 granted by ministerial intervention)
Protection Visa
(Subclass 866)Onshore program
Those who apply for protection after arriving in Australia (either on another visa or without authorisation). The person must: be a refugee as defined by the Refugee Convention, be currently in Australia, pass character and security checks, undergo the required health examinations and sign an Australian Values Statement. 4515

Bridging visas

Bridging visas are used to legalise the status of a ‘non-citizen’ who would otherwise be unlawfully in Australia for the following reasons:

  • while a person is awaiting the processing of a substantive visa (for example a Protection visa);
  • arrangements are being made for the person’s departure from Australia eg, failed asylum seeker not in immigration detention; and
  • if the person is undergoing judicial review or Ministerial review relating to their substantive visa and they are not in immigration detention.

Bridging visas are temporary and have limited rights attached to them. For example many have no work rights attached, although in some cases a person can apply to have this right instated. See Dept of Immigration and Citizenship page on bridging visas for more information.

Becoming an australian

While migrants to Australia must wait two years before they can access most social security payments, including unemployment assistance, sickness benefits or student allowances, this waiting period does not apply to refugees and other humanitarian entrants on permanent protection visas. Once granted a permanent protection visa a person is able to access the same government services and entitlements as other permanent residents.

After four years, permanent residents can apply for Australian citizenship if they have remained in Australia for most of that time (three of the previous four years and nine months of the previous 12 months). Since changes to Australia’s citizenship legislation were made in 2007, all people between the ages of 18 and 60 seeking to become Australian citizens must sit a citizenship test to demonstrate an understanding of basic English and knowledge of Australia and the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship.

Australian citizenship entitles people to:

  • vote in federal, state/territory and local elections and in referenda;
  • apply for work in the Australian Public Service or in the Australian Defence Force;
  • seek election to parliament;
  • apply for an Australian passport;
  • receive help from an Australian official while overseas; and
  • register children born overseas as Australian citizens by descent.

More information about Australian citizenship.