Australia's refugee program

Since Federation, Australia has resettled over 750,000 refugees and humanitarian entrants. The history of refugee settlement in Australia, however, extends back at least 170 years.

The first easily identifiable group of refugees were Lutherans who began settling in South Australia from 1839 to escape restrictions on their right to worship within the state of Prussia. During the 19th century, other settlers included Hungarians, Italians and Poles leaving situations of religious and political persecution.

After Federation, the new Australian nation continued to allow refugees to settle as unassisted migrants, as long as they met the restrictions imposed by the Immigration (Restriction) Act 1901, the basis for a collection of laws lasting until 1973 referred to as the ‘White Australia Policy’. In the following three decades, small numbers of Russian, Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian, Assyrian and Jewish refugees were permitted to settle, after proving they met Australia’s migration criteria. Between 1933 and 1939, more than 7000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were settled. In 1937, the Australian Jewish Welfare Society pioneered the first refugee settlement support services, with financial assistance from the Australian Government. This settlement program was cut short by the outbreak of World War II.

After the war, a much larger refugee program was commenced as Australia launched an ambitious immigration program to meet labour shortages in a growing economy. This program developed as follows:


July 1947 Australian Government enters an agreement with the new International Refugee Organisation to settle displaced people from camps in Europe.
1947–1953 Australia welcomed more than 170,000 refugees, the largest groups being from Poland, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
1953–1973 The overwhelming majority of refugees were Eastern Europeans fleeing persecution in Soviet Bloc countries. There was a substantial increase in humanitarian arrivals following the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Warsaw Pact countries’ invasion of (former) Czechoslovakia in 1968.
1972 Refugee intake began to diversify. 198 Asians expelled by Uganda’s President Idi Amin were settled.

Humanitarian settlement from Chile commenced after a military coup deposed the Allende Government.


Cypriot refugees began arriving after the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus.


The war in East Timor brought 2500 evacuees to Darwin, marking the beginning of a Timorese refugee diaspora in Australia.

The fall of the South Vietnamese Government in April 1975 began a chain of events which prompted a rethinking and reorganisation of Australia’s refugee program. The mass flight of Vietnamese refugees into nearby countries prompted an international response to which Australia committed support. By late 1975, the first 400 Vietnamese refugees had been selected by Australia for resettlement from camps in Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. Over the next two decades, Australia was to resettle more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees from various Asian countries.

Even in the first few months after the fall of Saigon, the scale of the refugee crisis being created was apparent. This prompted the Australian Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence to begin an investigation of how Australia should respond. In 1976, the committee, in its report, Australia and the Refugee Problem, identified an urgent need for a new approach to refugee settlement. In response to the report, the Federal Government announced a new national refugee policy in 1977. The new policy included procedures for responding to designated refugee situations, a series of strategies to involve voluntary agencies in resettlement programs and plans to allow the settlement of people in humanitarian need who did not fall within the UNHCR mandate or Refugee Convention definitions.

In the early 1980s, the refugee program expanded to an annual intake of up to 22,000, the largest annual intake in 30 years and a level not seen since. Vietnamese refugees from camps in Asia made up the bulk of new arrivals, with significant numbers of refugees also from Laos, Cambodia and Eastern Europe and smaller groups of Soviet Jews, Chileans, El Salvadorians, Cubans and members of ethnic minorities from Iraq (Assyrians, Armenians and Chaldeans). In 1984, the refugee program included 106 Ethiopians, the first significant group of Africans.

The mid 1980s saw increases in the number of refugees and humanitarian entrants from Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania), the Middle East (Lebanon and Iran), Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Latin America (El Salvador and Chile), with continued, though declining, settlement of refugees from Indochina.

Over the last decade, the regional composition of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program has shifted significantly. Resettlement from Europe has declined dramatically while resettlement from Africa has increased. The continuing crisis in Iraq and the commencement of large-scale resettlement of Burmese from Thailand and Bhutanese from Nepal have seen the program shift to one evenly divided between Africa, Asia and the Middle East.