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FactCheck Q&A: what are the real numbers on refugees and other migrants coming to Australia?

Q&A panellists discussed migration and refugees, but struggled to agree on what the numbers show. Q&A

The Conversation is fact-checking claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email.

Excerpt from Q&A, October 10, 2016.

SHEN NARAYANASAMY: I think there is an alternative because when you understand that we take 800,000 people a year and we have done so since Prime Minister John Howard, the highest intake in history, it’s because we know it turbo-charges our economy and contributes to our society.

JIM MOLAN: 800,000 per year?

SHEN NARAYANASAMY: 800,000 per year.

JIM MOLAN: 200,000 per year.


JIM MOLAN: 200,000 per year.

SHEN NARAYANASAMY: This is the problem.

JIM MOLAN: 200,000 per year.

JANE MCADAM: Permanent. 600,000 temporary….

… TONY JONES: The fact checkers are going to be all over this one.

– The architect of Australia’s Sovereign Borders strategy, retired general Jim Molan, speaking with GetUp’s Shen Narayanasamy, director of UNSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law Professor Jane McAdam and host Tony Jones on Q&A, October 10, 2016.

On Q&A, panellists duelled over the numbers of migrants Australia takes a year. Is it 200,000 or 800,000? How many are permanent and how many are temporary?

Let’s check the facts.

Checking the source

The Conversation asked the three panellists for sources and comment to support their statements.

Shen Narayanasamy referred to a recent speech she had given. Her figure of 800,000 included visas issued under categories such as family reunion, skilled workers, a special eligibility category, humanitarian visas issued to refugees, student visas, 457 temporary workers visas and 417 working holiday visas. You can read her full response here.

Jim Molan said it was “important to understand the nature of these 800,000 visas and what relevance they have to a discussion on how generous we are to refugees”.

Jane McAdam said that her comment was intended to clarify the breakdown of the figures quoted by Shen Narayanasamy, “specifically that the 200,000 figure mentioned by Jim and Shen referred (roughly) to the number of new permanent migrants each year, and that the remaining 600,000 in Shen’s figure were temporary visas”. You can read her full response here.

Depending on how you look at it, all the panellists are broadly correct. Whether or not the figure is 200,000 or 800,000 depends on what categories you include.

Let’s break it down.

Permanent migration

The entry and presence of non-citizens in Australia is regulated by the Migration Act and Regulations, and administered by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection under the Migration Programme.

Broadly speaking, permanent migration is capped each year but temporary migration is not.

Each year, the Australian government determines how many permanent visas can be handed out across categories such as skilled, family and humanitarian (which includes refugees onshore and offshore). The bureaucrats planning this take into account research, community views, economic and labour forecasting.

The umbrella Migration Programme can be broken into two parts: a migration program and a refugee and humanitarian program.

Under the migration program, for the year 2015-2016, the bureaucrats planned for 190,000 permanent visas, comprising up to:

  • 128,550 skilled places,
  • 57,400 family stream places, and
  • 565 special eligibility stream places

Under the Refugee and Humanitarian program, there were 13,750 places allocated in 2015-2016, consisting of:

  • 11,000 places available for the resettlement of refugees offshore, and
  • 2,750 places available for onshore applicants who did not arrive in Australia by boat

(These numbers exclude the one-off 12,000 places made available to resettle Syrian and Iraqi refugees.)

The actual numbers of permanent visas granted each year may not exactly match the planned levels.

The tables below show the Department’s publicly available historical data on the planning levels and the outcomes of both the migration and humanitarian and refugee programs for the last decade.

Table 1: Australia’s planned permanent migration intake for 2005-2015

Table 2: Migration Programme outcome by stream 2005-2015

Table 3: Humanitarian and Refugee visas granted 2005-2015

Refugee and humanitarian visas have been steady at around 6-10% of Australia’s overall permanent migration intake for the last decade. Most of Australia’s migrants are not refugees. This is despite a growing need for international protection both within the region and abroad.

Only 33 countries have formal resettlement programs with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Australia ranks highly within this group of countries.

But only a small fraction of the world’s refugees are settled through the UNHCR program. If we look at the the broader picture, based on 2015 figures, Australia does not rank highly for overall refugee intake or refugee intake per capita.

Temporary migration

In contrast to permanent migration, temporary migration in Australia is not planned in detail. The number of visas granted each year fluctuates.

As temporary migrants come and go, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many temporary visa holders are in Australia at any given time.

On my calculations, the Department’s latest available statistics show there are around 1 million people in Australia on visas held by visitors, students, 457 workers and asylum seekers on bridging visa E visas (a category for people making arrangements to leave, finalise their immigration matters or who are waiting for an immigration decision).

But this is by no means a complete picture as there are other categories not accounted for in that calculation.

Net overseas migration

Looking at the numbers of visas granted or held does not give us the full picture in terms of the net number of arrivals for a given year. We need to also take into account temporary visa holders who leave the country, and those who are already in Australia.

For example, a person may transition from a temporary to permanent visa in Australia. Such a visa grant would not constitute a person entering Australia.

For this reason, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) measures net overseas migration by calculating those visa holders (or “travellers”, to use the ABS’ term) who have been in Australia for 12 of the last 16 months. The measurement is intended to exclude short-term visitors.

According to the ABS figures for 2014-2015, net overseas migration to Australia was estimated at 168,200.


Depending on how you look at it, all participants are correct.

It is true that roughly 200,000 permanent visas are granted each year.

For any given year, the total of permanent and temporary visa holders in Australia at any given time may be higher or lower than 800,000.

Further, if we are looking at net overseas migration, the numbers are different still.

In the context of the refugee debate – which was the main focus of the Q&A discussion – it is important to emphasise that the numbers of permanent visas available to refugees (both onshore and offshore) accounts for a relatively small proportion of Australia’s overall permanent migration intake.

This has been consistent for much of the past decade. – Khanh Hoang.


This is a sound analysis of the debate that took place on Q&A. The author is right to note in their conclusion that all participants were technically correct. I agree with Jim Molan that the figure of 200,000 – which represents the number of permanent migrants moving to Australia – is most relevant to discussion about refugee policy.

What is especially important to remember is that Australia’s annual humanitarian intake scheme remains a very small, static percentage of Australia’s overall migration scheme. – Sara Davies.

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