FactCheck: Does Australia take more refugees per capita through the UNHCR than any other country?

Tony Abbott said Australia takes more refugees on a per capita basis than any other country. AAP/Lukas Coch

We are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other. We take more refugees than any other through the UNHCR on a per capita basis, but obviously this is a very grave situation in the Middle East. – Prime Minister Tony Abbott, press conference, September 6, 2015.

The first part of the prime minister’s statement that “we are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other” is not correct.

The prime minister is correct to say that Australia’s resettlement program through the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the highest per capita globally.

However, less than 1% of the world’s refugees are handled by the UNHCR resettlement program. It is a very tiny part of the picture.

When you look at the big picture, other countries – including many developing countries – host or take more refugees per capita than Australia.

They just don’t do it through the UNHCR resettlement program.

What is ‘resettlement’ and how many does Australia take?

The number of people displaced due to persecution, violence and conflict is estimated to be almost 60 million, the highest number since the second world war. This includes an estimated 19.5 million refugees. The UNHCR estimates that approximately 42,500 persons are displaced per day. Almost one in every four refugees is Syrian.

For those refugees who cannot go home or who cannot stay in the country where they have sought protection, the UNHCR may seek to “resettle” them in a third country.

Only a small number of countries have agreed to accept refugees for resettlement. These include Australia, the United States, Canada and a variety of Nordic countries.

In 2014, approximately 73,000 people were resettled to third countries. The UNHCR says:

Of the 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, less than 1% is submitted for resettlement.

The highest number of refugees resettled in Australia was following the Vietnam War, under Malcolm Fraser’s government (with opposition leader Gough Whitlam’s support). The numbers peaked in 1980-81, when Australia granted 20,795 visas mostly to Indo-Chinese refugees as part of the Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Since the early 2000s, the annual intake of refugees referred from the UNHCR has been around 6,000, with the exception of the year 2012-13 when the Gillard Labor government doubled the intake to 12,000 in response to the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers.

Temporary protection by way of “safe haven visas” such as those granted to the East Timorese and Kosavar refugees are not included in our permanent resettlement program.

In 2014, Australia accepted 6,501 refugees for resettlement. This is the second-biggest resettlement program in the world. The United States takes the largest number, approximately 50,000-80,000 (but Australia is still highest per capita).

The UNHCR has also praised Australia as having one of the best refugee resettlement programs in the world.

The prime minister is correct to say that Australia’s resettlement program is the highest per capita globally.

However, while Australia has a generous resettlement program, it must also be recognised that Australia does not receive a large number of people seeking asylum.

Global perspective

The Refugee Council of Australia and academic Robin Davies have criticised the way Australia’s refugee response has been framed as the most generous in the world.

The Refugee Council of Australia has said that Australia received just 0.43% of the world’s asylum claims in 2014.

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program has two components: the issuing of protection visas to refugees through Australia’s domestic asylum process (the onshore component) and the resettlement of refugees from other countries overseas (the offshore component).

The total number of visas granted in this program annually is about 13,750. However, these are not all allocated to resettled refugees.

Within the offshore program are two primary categories of permanent visas.

The first is the refugee category for which the majority of applicants are identified and referred to Australia for resettlement from the UNHCR (as stated above, this amounts to approximately 6,000 people per annum).

The second is the special humanitarian category, which is for people who are outside their home country who are subject to “substantial discrimination amounting to gross violation of human rights in their home country” and who are supported by an immediate family member in Australia who has been granted protection in Australia.

The Refugee Council argues that a fairer analysis is to consider the total number of refugees in Australia in both the onshore and offshore program and compare it to refugees resettled and asylum seekers received in other countries. Based on statistics from the 2014 UNHCR Global Trends report, the Refugee Council says:

By this measure, Australia assisted 0.43% of the refugees recognised or resettled in 2014. It was ranked 22nd overall, 28th per capita and 46th relative to total GDP…

The 2014 statistics are similar to those of the previous decade. In the 10 years to 31 December 2014, the 141,047 refugees recognised or resettled by Australia accounted for 1.16% of the global total of 12,107,623 – with Australia ranked 23rd overall, 27th per capita and 46th relative to national GDP.

Germany resettled around 3,000-4,000 in 2009-13. However, Germany also hosted over 200,000 refugees in 2014. And with around 173,100 new asylum applications, Germany was the largest recipient of new asylum claims in 2014.

Germany has also just announced it will accept and admit 800,000 asylum seekers by the end of this year.

Developing countries shoulder the most significant burden, hosting around 86% of the world’s refugees, compared to 70% ten years ago. Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan each host more than 1 million refugees.

Verdict

The first part of the prime pinister’s statement that “we are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other” is not correct, as is evident from the statistics provided in the FactCheck. The FactCheck focused on the second part of that statement, which is correct. The prime minister is right to say that Australia’s resettlement program through the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the biggest per capita relative to GDP.

However, less than 1% of 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world are submitted for resettlement.


Review

This is a sound analysis. Australia’s annual resettlement quota has been one of the most generous and sustained with the UNHCR resettlement scheme. However, the global resettlement need for refugees has doubled since 2005, while the Australian government annual resettlement quota has remained static (the peak being the 2012-2013 quota under Gillard government). – Sara Davies

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated on September 8 to clarify that the first part of the prime ministers statement, that “we are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other” is incorrect. Originally, the FactCheck had focused only on the second part of his statement, which is correct.


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