Identification of strategies to assist refugee young people in transition to independence

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2 Refugee status and experience

In this chapter we explore the question of defining the population of ‘young refugees’ deemed to be in need of targeted settlement assistance. The notion of ‘refugee experience’ is contrasted with official definitions of refugee and humanitarian status embodied in international law and Australian migration policy. The chapter aims to identify the common experiences that define what it means to be a ‘young refugee’ in order to better understand the sorts of barriers likely to confront these young people during resettlement. In the context of an overview of Australia’s immigration program, we explain the different visa classifications under which young people with refugee experiences enter, or are allowed to stay, in Australia.

The target population

In public policy, definitions carry with them important implications for the allocation of resources. The tasks of defining what it means to be a ‘young refugee’ and identifying a target population for government assistance are not one and the same, but they need to be carried out in reference to each other. This would encourage the production of definitions that can usefully be employed for specific policy purposes and enable meaningful and equitable distinctions to be drawn regarding eligibility and ineligibility for services.

The purpose driving this study is to find ways to enable the successful resettlement of young refugees. An initiating premise was the recognition that new arrivals from refugee backgrounds are likely, as a result of their pre-migration and migration experiences, to face common difficulties in their efforts to adjust to a new life in Australia. Further, it was anticipated that young people with refugee experiences would have needs identifiable, if not entirely distinct, from those of older refugees. Therefore, in order to determine the inprinciple target population for strategies aimed at assisting the long-term independence of young refugees, we must identify the sorts of experiences that differentiate refugee young people from other client groups, specifically on the basis of likely impacts on the capacity for successful resettlement.

The first point of reference in defining a ‘refugee’ is generally the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Status of Refugees. The UN definition is often embedded in the legislation of individual nations regarding humanitarian migration. Definitions developed for the purposes of managing the international refugee protection system and national humanitarian commitments, however, are not necessarily suited to the purpose of identifying a target population for settlement support services. It is refugee-like experience rather than official designation as a refugee or possession of a humanitarian-class visa that defines the relevant population. The defining characteristics will of course overlap, but will not coincide exactly.

At the same time, it is important to recognise that the migration category under which a young person with refugee-like experience is admitted and/or allowed to stay in Australia has considerable impact on his or her eligibility for government services and assistance. More broadly, different ‘classes’ of migration carry with them different degrees of public support and understanding that may in turn affect the likelihood of successful settlement in Australia.

The limitations of official definitions

Official definitions and visa classifications remain important guides to definition. The UN 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to Refugees define refugees as people who:

are outside their country of nationality or their usual country of residence; and are unable or unwilling to return or to seek the protection of that country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and among other things, are not war criminals or people who have committed serious non-political crimes.

The Convention is widely recognised as being overly restrictive for the purposes of identifying people deserving of humanitarian consideration and in need of resettlement. Designed just after the Second World War, the definition does not fully capture the circumstances that have forced people since then to leave their home countries in their thousands and seek asylum elsewhere. In addition, many of the specific types of persecution women are subject to are not recognised as amounting to persecution under the Convention.

Australia is a signatory to the Convention, which it ratified in 1954, and the Protocol, ratified in 1973. Australia is consequently bound by these treaties. The Convention definition of refugee was incorporated under Australian law with the enactment of the Commonwealth Migration Act 1958.1 In 1995 the Act was amended so that for a person to be classified as a refugee there must be a link between the allowed reason claimed for anticipation of persecution (whether on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social or political group) and the particular persecution faced by an individual should they return to their former country. Subsequent to this, there have been several revisions to the Australian interpretation of the UN definition. Nevertheless, this definition remains central to Australian policy for humanitarian resettlement. As discussed below, the UN definition of refugee is employed in three different components of Australia’s offshore and onshore Humanitarian Program.

Historically, the Australian government has recognised that the UN definition of refugee is not inclusive of all those people who may require protection and resettlement. Accordingly, Australia allows some people not classified as refugees to enter Australia as permanent residents on humanitarian grounds. A number of humanitarian entrance categories (described later in this chapter) have been established over the years to facilitate this process. Humanitarian entrants are targeted for special settlement assistance by government. However, not all people with experiences commonly associated with being a refugee will enter Australia under the Humanitarian Program (whether as officially designated ‘refugees’ or as humanitarian entrants). It is increasingly likely that people from refugee backgrounds, including young people, will enter as family migrants under Australia’s Migration Program (see below). Here again, likely need does not coincide with distinctions made in policy.

The Convention definition and related national criteria for resettlement selection are also limited with respect to identifying new arrivals most in need of settlement support. While the fear of persecution on return to the country of origin is the key criterion for decisions about selection for resettlement,2 the ramifications of past persecution and trauma are critical considerations in estimating the likely difficulties that a person will face adjusting to life once in Australia. Moreover, experiences commonly associated with fleeing one’s home and being unable to return, regardless of personalised experiences of persecution, are likely to have considerable impact on settlement needs, particularly in the case of young people.

Defining experiences

How should a ‘young refugee’ be defined to meet the purposes of targeting resettlement assistance? In common usage, the term ‘refugee’ refers to people who have escaped a situation of considerable trauma and are unable to return to their place of residence. The following definition sets out basic and additional factors that identify the sorts of experience that we argue should be considered when determining eligibility for government assistance for young people resident in Australia. ‘Refugee experience’ can be defined as including exposure to political, religious or intercultural violence, persecution or oppression, armed conflict or civil discord which incorporates the following basic elements:

  • a state of fearfulness for self and family members;

  • leaving the country of origin at short notice;

  • inability to return to the country of origin; and

  • uncertainty about the possibility of maintaining links with family and home.

In addition to these ‘base level’ criteria, many young refugees have suffered extreme abuse such as torture or rape; they may have witnessed the death or rape of family members and loved ones; their communities may have been subject to unexplained disappearances and other violations of human rights. Such experiences have a profound impact on the wellbeing of individuals, families and whole communities.3

In addition to the sorts of experiences that define being a ‘young refugee’, there is also an age criterion. Conventionally, ‘young people’ are defined as those aged 12 to 25 years. However, young people with refugee experiences who arrived in Australia in their early 20s may require assistance into their late 20s and beyond. The age limits should therefore not be seen as fixed, but they do provide guides for targeting assistance.

In the next section of this chapter and in Chapter 4, we expand on this definition to identify some of the key features of refugee experience likely to impact on resettlement support needs, and specify the particular difficulties faced by young people.

What it means to be a young refugee

In this section, we explore common experiences shared by young refugees on the basis of interviews with 33 young people from refugee backgrounds who have recently arrived in Australia4 and a review of available literature. Our definition of refugee experience does not imply young refugees are a homogenous group. Within a broad commonality of experience shared by people who have fled their home country, there is considerable diversity in the precise nature of the experiences and the likely consequences for settlement support needs. Key variables include age on arrival, gender, ethnicity and cultural background, English language proficiency and education, the degree of familial and community support on arrival, and the network of services available in the area of settlement.
Persecution, oppression and the violation of human rights

When young refugees arrive in Australia, they are likely to have had some harrowing and extremely stressful experiences. Many young refugees have survived life in a war zone and some may themselves have participated in the fighting. Most will have lived with the constant threat of violence and some will have witnessed or even experienced torture.

I was born in the midst of two wars. When I was two years old, there was a war with Iran, and that finished in 1988, and then there was the Gulf War. So all my life, I have known only war. It is nothing exciting (Iraqi refugee, aged 20).

Persecution on the grounds of ethnic identity, religion or race is a common part of the refugee experience. Sometimes persecution is aimed specifically at young people, for example in the form of under-age conscription into government military forces (which may be actively engaged in combat with the ethnic minority with which the young person identifies).

I cannot go back to Iraq, because I have finished Grade 12, and I am now supposed to go to the army. The punishment for escaping army duty in Iraq is to have your ear cut off (Iraqi refugee, aged 20).

We are strong Muslims. But I know that no one has a monopoly on God. Our faith – it is for us. It does not affect other people. But we were persecuted for being Muslim. It was a very bad situation (Afghani refugee, aged 19).

Pittaway (1991) found that 73% of the 204 refugee women she interviewed had experienced a high to medium degree of torture and trauma. Moss (1993, p.200) notes that the torture experience for women most often takes the form of sexual abuse, adding that the lack of public awareness and discussion of this issue may result in an under-estimation of the extent of the problem.

Escape and dislocation

The events surrounding escape can also be traumatic. The lack of choice in leaving and the inability to return put young people under considerable psychological pressure as they attempt to cope with an abrupt dislocation from their previous life. Young people may also become separated from family members during the confusion and desperation of escape.

The fighting erupted around us and I thought that my mother and brothers and sisters had jumped on the lorry at the front of the convoy. So I jumped on the back of another lorry. When the lorries stopped at the refugee camp in Kenya, it was only then that I realised that my mother was not there … that she was still in the city. I was 8 years old then (Somali refugee, female, aged 15).
In transit

Young refugees commonly experience physical deprivation in refugee camps or in transit from their country of origin to Australia. Nutritional, educational or recreational needs are easily overlooked in camp situations and, in some cases, fighting and persecution continue. Women may be particularly at risk in camps.

On the way to the refugee camp in the lorry, I did not have any food, water or money. There was no rain. Some other people tried to help me, but their food was bad and the water was not clear. I was really scared (Somali refugee, female, aged 15).

There was trouble in the camp. There was no food, not enough of everything (Sudanese humanitarian entrant, aged 22).

Lengthy periods in transit give plenty of time to dwell on past pain. Young people often remain in a highly anxious state, fearing for the well-being of other family members left behind and wondering what the future holds.

In the camp in Thailand, life was very hard. We were very worried, because our future was so uncertain. We did not know if or when we would leave the camp, and if so, where we could go (Vietnamese family reunion entrant, female, aged 18).

Schooling may also be disrupted.

I spent seven years in the refugee camp, from when I was eight years old to when I was 15. I did not study in the camp, so I have not been to school since I was eight years old (Somali refugee, female, aged 15).

Considerable amounts of time and personal momentum can be wasted in refugee camps, in transit or in detention centres waiting for an application for protection to be approved.

Temporary asylum

The search for a safe and permanent place to live often entails many journeys, and many dashed hopes. The personal histories of several of the young people interviewed for this study identify the circuitous paths that eventually brought them to Australia. Jasenko’s story exposes the frustration of having to relinquish safety in a seemingly endless wait for migration applications to be processed.

This frustration cannot be overstated. Several interviewees explained how they had reached a place of safety, only to be unable to find accommodation or to run out of money and consequently be unable to wait for a response to their application for a visa. Under these circumstances, refugee applicants may be forced to return to a war zone. Subsequently it becomes difficult for authorities to trace them, or for them to move when an opportunity to migrate arises.

When we went back to Bosnia, the Australian embassy could not make contact with us. That was from 1994 to 1996. They were the worst two years in the world, those last two years (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).

The search for asylum is usually lengthy and always an uncertain process. The escape paths and destination plans people make for themselves are often blocked by events over which they have little control.

Ramifications of trauma

Experiences of persecution, violence, the loss of loved ones, and periods of sustained fearfulness and anxiety undermine the trust and sense of belonging that young people should be able to take for granted. Relationships with significant adults are often disrupted or permanently broken, and new relationships, where these form, may be short-lived.

I have lost contact with my dad now. I don’t know where he is. I have tried to find him (Bosnian family reunion entrant, male, aged 17).

I last saw my mother nine years ago. I have not written to her because I did not have her address. I asked the Red Cross to help me find her address (Eritrean refugee, female, aged 18).

The trauma resulting from these experiences is deeply felt, whether or not it is openly discussed. The ramifications of trauma may be felt for many years. For some young people, a full recovery to a normal life might appear unattainable. Trust in relationships may be affected and belief in friends, family and the general goodwill of people in the community may be seriously undermined.

I was surprised at how friendly Australian people were when I first arrived. They smiled all the time. I think people do not always mean it when they smile. In Sudan, you do not go around smiling all the time. I am a bit suspicious. People are insincere (Sudanese refugee, male, aged 22).

Feelings of mistrust may be directed at government, bureaucracy and officialdom, thereby compromising a young refugee’s capacity to accept official support, to respond appropriately to questioning and, generally, to negotiate the obstacles that face them on arrival in a new country.

The phenomenon of ‘survivor guilt’, or shame and self-blame at being alive when others, perhaps deemed more ‘worthy’, did not make it to safety, is an additional burden often borne by those whose family relationships have been severely disrupted and whose significant family members have been killed or left behind.

Experiences on arrival

When young refugees first arrive in Australia they are usually unfamiliar with Western lifestyles and culture. Refugee-producing countries are predominantly located in the under-developed world. The culture shock experienced on arrival in a country such as Australia is not conducive to an early, effective settlement because there is so much to learn. A priority is to become familiar with the social support system, but many of the assumptions on which the Australian system is founded are alien to young refugees.

Everything was new to me, the language, everything. I found it so difficult (Eritrean refugee, female, 18 years).

I’ll never forget how it was to come to Australia. It was just amazing, everything was so new (Afghani refugee, male, aged 19).

Settlement difficulties are compounded by a lack of English language proficiency. Many young refugees speak very little English when they first arrive in Australia and often become frustrated with their inability to communicate. This problem is all the more difficult to solve if the young person is only partially literate in his or her own language (a common occurrence due to disruptions in schooling).

I knew a little bit of English from school, but it was American English and when I tried to speak in English, people did not understand me, because I had a funny accent. That was very hard (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).

Generally, young refugees tend to experience mixed feelings about arriving in a new country – a simultaneous sense of relief and shock.

When I arrived in Australia, I was feeling both happy and sad. I cried. The war was happening over there, but I missed my friends (Bosnian family reunion entrant, male, aged 17).

The first thing I remember about Australia is that I was really sad to have left my friends. But, on the other hand, I am really lucky, because I can go to school normally and I can finish university (Bosnian refugee, female, aged 18).

Young refugees who arrive in Australia illegally, either alone or with family, are generally subject to periods in detention.5 For these young people, feelings of extreme fearfulness and a sense of a loss of freedom and movement are likely to continue, even beyond detention and into the settlement phase.

I bought a false passport in Bangkok. It already had a visa for Australia in it. When I got to the airport in Australia, I tore my passport up. I was taken to the detention centre and I stayed there for five months. It’s like prison. I was afraid that if I got sent back, I would disappear. I passed five months thinking only this one thought (Algerian refugee, male, aged 24).

Reality takes some time to set in. Commonly, a ‘honeymoon’ period, in which there is a great sense of relief and safety, gradually yields to an increasing awareness of the relative disadvantage or extra difficulty experienced by refugees. At this point, some young people begin to feel disillusioned about the prospects of settling in and making a new life. It is also common for refugees to avoid acknowledging the difficulties they face, perhaps anxious not to seem ungrateful.

There is nothing bad about Australia. Even when I was stranded at the airport and nobody came to meet us, that is not bad now. That was long ago. I passed that (Somali refugee, female, aged 15).

Many young refugees express a strong commitment to Australia. In a pilot survey of young refugees attending English Language Centres in 1995, most emphasised their commitment to Australia. They saw no other future for themselves, and planned to stay in Australia for the rest of their lives.

I would like to visit every place in Australia and see Australia from every corner so I know what it really looks like. That is my wish. I understand that Australia is the best country for me (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 19).
Jasenko's story

Jasenko had wanted to come to Australia for a very long time. Jasenko’s mother left Jasenko’s father shortly after he was born. She went to Australia to join her parents who had migrated there from Bosnia in the 1960s. She wanted to take Jasenko with her but because he was a boy child in a communist country, she could not get permission. Jasenko’s father was unable to care for him and so he grew up with his paternal grandparents. But Jasenko’s grandparents loved him.

When the war erupted in the neighbouring province, Jasenko left his grandparents with their blessing and fled to England. Once in England he applied to join his mother in Australia. He waited in England for six long months for news of his visa application, before he learnt that he had not been accepted. Jasenko was only 17 years old and his father had not signed the visa application form, so he was deemed too young or perhaps too big a risk for Australia to accept. Jasenko had to wait another six months. Living in England was hard because Jasenko did not know enough English and was ineligible to work or study. Reluctantly, Jasenko returned to Bosnia to wait out the final six months. He was only there ten days when war broke out in his home town. The city was blockaded and he lost his freedom of movement. It took another three years before Jasenko could again apply to come to Australia. This time he was more successful. On arrival, Jasenko was reunited with his mother. Settlement was relatively smooth because his mother was delighted to have her son with her.
Farouda's story

Farouda comes from Iraq. She and her family are from the Assyrian Catholic community. In the village, people speak Assyrian (an older language than Arabic), but they also speak Arabic and Arabic is the language of instruction in schools. Farouda was fortunate to flee the war-zone in Iraq with her immediate family, her father and mother as well as her sister and two brothers. They traveled to Jordan where a relative was able to shelter them for a month, then through Yugoslavia and on to Greece. In Yugoslavia, a friend of the family offered to make arrangements for them, but he took almost their entire family life savings of US$20,000 and none of the money produced any benefits for the family. Their hopes of securing a preferred settlement were dashed.

Overview of Australia’s immigration program6

Many young people currently living in Australia share the refugee experiences outlined in the previous section, but not all entered the country as officially recognised refugees or under the government’s humanitarian resettlement program. The remainder of this chapter explains the different programs and visa classifications under which young people with refugee-like experiences may enter or be allowed to remain in Australia. These distinctions have serious implications for entitlement to government assistance. Further detail on the entitlements conferred by different programs and visa categories is provided in Table 8 and the accompanying discussion in Chapter 5.

Australia’s immigration policy is non-discriminatory in the sense that applicants from any country will be considered for permanent residence, ‘regardless of their ethnic origin, gender, colour or religion’ (DIMIA 2001a). All migrants to Australia must satisfy health and character checks before their applications can be approved, in addition to meeting various migration criteria, which vary according to migration category. When an application is approved, a class of visa is allocated reflecting the program and program component under which the application was made.

The immigration program has two main components: the Migration (non-humanitarian) Program for skilled and family migrants, and the Humanitarian Program for refugees and others with humanitarian needs.7 The majority of new entrants to Australia each year arrive under the Migration Program. In the financial year8 2000–01, for example, approximately 80,000 visas were allocated under this program. This compares to a planning level of around 12,000 visas under the Humanitarian Program (DIMIA Fact Sheet, 20 July 2001).

Young refugees and the Humanitarian Program

Australian governments, on a bipartisan basis, have remained committed to providing assistance to refugees and other victims of significant human rights abuses. Over the past 50 years, more than half a million refugees and displaced people have been resettled in Australia (DIMIA Fact Sheet 60, Nov. 2001). Each year, the federal government decides on the size and composition of the Humanitarian Program. These decisions take into account world-wide resettlement needs, as established by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees9 (UNHCR), and follow consultation with a number of relevant peak bodies as well as community organisations and interest groups. Some 12,000 places were allocated to the Humanitarian Program in 2000-01 and the same number in 2001–02 (DIMIA Fact Sheet 60, Nov. 2001).

The Humanitarian Program comprises an offshore resettlement program for applicants overseas and an onshore protection program for people claiming refugee status from within Australia. Since commencing the research for this study, some important changes have been made to the types of visa available to young refugees under the onshore resettlement program.

Offshore humanitarian resettlement program

The offshore resettlement program applies to people living outside Australia who are deemed to be subject to persecution and for whom resettlement in another country is seen as the only option. All entrants under the offshore resettlement program have been given permission to enter Australia prior to arrival. The offshore program currently allocates visas under two main categories: Refugee and Special Humanitarian.

Refugee category

Entrants under the Refugee category are also known as ‘convention refugees’ because they must meet the criteria for refugee status determined by the UN convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees. Government generally sets aside 4,000 places for applicants under the Refugee category. In 2000–01, a total of 3,997 people arrived in Australia for resettlement under this category, of whom 1,163 (or 29%) were aged between 12 and 25 (see Table 2).

There are three subsets of the Refugee category:

  • Women at Risk: the program recognises that refugee women in particularly vulnerable situations are exposed to risk of serious abuse, sexual assault, victimisation or harassment where traditional support and protection have unavoidably broken down. This category was established in 1989 in recognition of the priority given by UNHCR to the protection of refugee women. Approximately 80% of the world’s refugees are women and children (Pittaway 1991).

  • In-country Special Humanitarian: aimed at persons still in their home country who are identified as in need of resettlement by a major human rights organisation because they are being persecuted;

  • Emergency Rescue: people in or outside their home country who experience persecution in their home country and who are in urgent and compelling need to travel and for whom resettlement in Australia is the appropriate solution.

The Australian government pays for the airfares of successful Refugee category applicants and new arrivals are provided with the widest range of settlement support services under the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy (IHSS).

Special Humanitarian Program (SHP)

Special Humanitarian entrants are ‘people outside their home country who are subject to substantial discrimination amounting to gross violation of human rights in their home country’ (DIMIA Fact Sheet 60, Nov. 2001). People applying for permanent residency under the Special Humanitarian component usually need to demonstrate some connection with Australia through family links, or through having previously worked or studied here. A formal proposal from an Australian permanent resident or citizen is required.

It is through the Special Humanitarian Program that many refugee and humanitarian settlers have ‘proposed’ close family members to migrate to Australia. Under the Program, the proposer’s role may include assisting the new arrival with airfares, medical costs and accommodation. Proposers are expected to help entrants gain access to services to support their settlement in Australia. SHP visa holders are eligible for most settlement services under (IHSS) and, like Refugee entrants, are exempted from the two-year waiting period for income support.

The number of places government makes available for the SHP is linked to the number of places it anticipates will be needed for refugees under the onshore component of the Humanitarian Program. The number of SHP entrants has consequently declined over the last few years following the large increase in unauthorised arrivals that claim refugee status from within Australia. The decline was particularly notable in 1999–2000, with the number of SHP grants allocated dropping 30% from the year before.10 Whereas more grants used to be made under the SHP than under the Refugee category, this has now been reversed. DIMIA anticipates about 3,000 places will be available under the SHP in the 2001–02 program year (pending onshore allocation), slightly less than the year before (DIMIA Fact Sheet 60, Nov. 2001).

This decline has been of particular concern to refugee and humanitarian settlers in Australia since it greatly limits their options for family reunion. Like other migrants with permanent resident status, offshore humanitarian visa holders can sponsor close family members through the Family Stream of the Migration Program but this method does not make the same allowance for the needs of either sponsoring or sponsored parties (see below). The SHP acknowledges the importance to refugee settlers of close family members left behind during their flight from persecution or oppression, and as such is a critical part of government’s resettlement program.

In 2000–01, 28% of SHP entrants were aged between 12 and 25 (a total of 886 young people) (see Table 2).

Special Assistance Category (SAC)

Prior to November 2001, the Humanitarian Program included a Special Assistance Category (SAC). The SAC was introduced in 1991–92 for groups with close family or community links with Australia who were in particularly vulnerable situations but did not meet the criteria of other categories. SAC was, therefore, the most flexible stream of the Humanitarian Program. Government decided each year which groups to target, and each group then became a SAC subprogram. As with the Special Humanitarian Program, a formal proposal from an Australian permanent resident or citizen was required. Travel assistance was not provided by government, but SAC entrants had access to services under the IHSS.

SAC visa subclasses were discontinued with effect from November 2001, though some of the refugee young people currently resident in Australia would have entered Australia under the terms and conditions of this category, including 216 young SAC entrants in 2000–01.

Special Assistance Category Visa holders remain on these visas although the category itself has now closed. They have the same entitlements as permanent residents, identical to other humanitarian program entitlements.

Onshore humanitarian program

The onshore program applies to people who make an application for refugee status once in Australia. Prior to 1989, there were fewer than 500 such applications in any single year. This changed dramatically following events in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Onshore refugee applications peaked at more than 16,000 in 1990–91, with three-quarters of applications coming from citizens of the People’s Republic of China, many of whom were studying in Australia at the time. Every year since has seen several thousand people make applications for refugee status from within Australia.11

Onshore applicants for refugee status include both authorised and unauthorised arrivals. Authorised arrivals are asylum seekers who first come to Australia under a valid temporary visa and then apply for refugee status, for example following the eruption of a war or civil disturbance in their country of origin. This group of onshore applicants is resident in the Australian community when they make their application.

An ‘unauthorised arrival’ is someone found to have entered Australia either by air or by sea without valid migration documents. When discovered by Australian authorities, unauthorised arrivals are compulsorily detained in Australian Immigration Reception and Processing Centres. In recent years there has been a decrease in the numbers of people arriving in Australia’s airports without valid travel documents,12 but a large increase in the number of unauthorised arrivals by boat. In 1998–99 some 921 people arrived by boat without authorisation, this number rose to 4,175 in 1999–2000 and declined slightly to 4,137 in 2000–01.13 The majority of unauthorised boat arrivals in 2000–01 came from Afghanistan (55%) and one-quarter from Iraq. A notable feature of unauthorised boat arrivals is that the individuals on board characteristically declare themselves upon arrival to the Australia authorities in order to seek protection as refugees under the onshore program.14 Nevertheless, these individuals are subject to mandatory detention.

In 2000–01, a total of 1,366 young people arrived in Australia without authorisation, this being 31% of all unauthorised arrivals. The vast majority (97%) arrived by boat. One-fifth of unauthorised young arrivals were minors (aged 12 to 17) with most (57%) aged 21 to 25 years.15

Refugee or repatriation

In order to qualify for protection visas and remain in Australia, onshore applicants must meet the strict definition of ‘refugee’ set out in the United Nations Refugees Convention; unlike offshore applicants, asylum seekers are not eligible for protection under the Special Humanitarian Program. Asylum seekers who do not meet UN criteria are, where possible, returned to their country of origin at the earliest opportunity.

Asylum seekers who come to Australia by sea without authorisation have experienced a marked drop in success rates over the last decade. In 1989, 78% of unauthorised boat arrivals were granted permanent residence in Australia. Over the period 1989 to 1997, only 19% of such applicants were granted approval to remain in Australia (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1998).

Since the introduction of the temporary protection visa, larger numbers of unauthorised arrivals have been granted protection, but not permanent residency. In 2000–01, about 80% of all detained asylum seekers were recognised as refugees.16 The figure is slightly higher (83%) for young asylum seekers.17

Temporary and permanent protection visas

Until October 1999, all asylum seekers found to be refugees under the terms of the UN Convention, including those who arrived without authorisation, were given immediate access to a permanent protection visa (DIMIA Fact Sheet 64, Nov. 2001). This visa conferred permanent residency status and eligibility for the full range of support arrangements also offered to refugees settled from overseas. It also enabled visa holders to sponsor family members to Australia.

Since October 1999, asylum seekers found to be refugees, but who entered the Australian mainland illegally or on fraudulent documents, are only eligible to apply for a temporary protection visa (TPV) which gives them residence for an initial period of three years after which time they must reapply for protection. TPV holders have restricted access to government assistance and settlement services. As temporary residents they are not eligible to sponsor their close family members to Australia, and are unable to enter and exit Australia freely (without risking cancellation of their visa).

The introduction of TPVs was particularly designed to discourage the operation of people smuggling networks and to reduce the number of unauthorised boat arrivals to Australia. The restricted entitlements conferred by the TPV were intended by government to act as a deterrent. The Secretary General of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, interprets the legislative change as follows: ‘Because detention in itself has failed to reduce the number of asylum seekers, the Government has sought to deprive those detained of some rights and benefits, even after they have been recognised as refugees’ (Khan 2002, p.3).

As noted, the number of places made available for the Special Humanitarian Program (offshore resettlement) is constrained by the number of places required for onshore applicants. Consequently if the allocation of TPVs increases, the number of offshore SHP visas decreases. While in theory there is no reason that these two components of the Humanitarian Program should be directly linked in this way, the fact that they are tends to undermine the standing of the onshore resettlement program. In DIMIA’s view, the problem that arises is one of allowing unauthorised arrivals to ‘tak[e] the places in the Humanitarian Program from refugees and others who are often in greater need of resettlement’ (DIMIA Fact Sheet 64, Nov. 2001). This is colloquially described as ‘queue jumping’, an obviously value-laden expression which, among other things, assumes there is an orderly queue to be jumped.18 Arguably the queue in question is a product not of the global system of refugee protection, but of Australian government policy and policy rhetoric. The linking of onshore and offshore components is likely to exacerbate a vicious circle whereby reduced opportunity for legitimate humanitarian migration encourages risk-taking among people who are desperate to escape their circumstances, which encourages unauthorised arrival, which in turn (in Australia) leads to the reduction of places for humanitarian migration.

The creation of the TPV and related changes to the visa system sets in place what DIMIA refers to as ‘a hierarchy of benefits’ (DIMIA Fact Sheet 65, Jan. 2002). Asylum seekers found to be refugees and who entered the country legally on valid documents, are still granted permanent protection visas (PPV) which gives them permanent residence and access to the full range of resettlement programs and government assistance. Importantly for our purposes, the principles underlying this hierarchy relate primarily neither to the definition of refugee experience nor to the need for protection or humanitarian consideration, but to the way in which an asylum seeker first arrived in the country. As Amnesty International Australia points out:

Both onshore and offshore refugees have been assessed according to the same criteria and determined to possess a well-founded fear of persecution for a Convention reason. Yet despite the indivisible nature of the definition of a refugee, the Australian government has seen fit to impose such a division – one that discriminates between refugees purely on the basis of means of entry. This is in spite of the fact that the Convention recognises irregular entry, and in Article 31 explicitly prohibits the imposition of penalties on refugees on account of their illegal entry into the receiving nation (Amnesty International Australia 2001).

Whether or not the TPV proves effective as a deterrent, the price is likely to have been a heavy one for the refugees concerned. In 2000–01 some 4,455 TPVs were granted to refugees arriving in Australia without authorisation. A large proportion (43%) of the applications for TPV grants were from young people aged 12 to 25 years. These young people and their families escaped persecution or oppression and reached Australia’s shores, generally after hazardous voyages in unseaworthy vessels. On arrival, they underwent sometimes lengthy periods in detention centres while their claims for refugee status were being processed. When their claims for refugee status were proved legitimate, they were released into the Australian community but without the full range of refugee settlement support services available to offshore refugees, and with assurance of only three years of residency.

Defining young refugee ‘settlers’

By definition TPVs give holders ‘temporary’ status as residents; it is not intended that people under the terms and conditions of these visas settle and make Australia their home. It may be argued on this basis that young people on temporary protection visas should not be considered as part of a target population for strategies to assist the settlement and long-term independence of young refugees. However, even if TPV holders only stay in Australia for the initial three-year period allowed by their visa, this is a significant length of time, particularly for young people who are generally expected to gain the skills and experience during this time to support themselves as adults later on. Since TPV holders are allowed to renew their visas,19 the total length of time spent in Australia could cover the large part of a person’s adolescence. We argue therefore that these young people should be included in the category of young refugees for the purposes of targeting government settlement assistance, even though their ‘final’ destination may be a country other than Australia. (This is discussed at greater length in Chapter 5.)
Unaccompanied Humanitarian Minors Scheme

In the past, young people under the age of 18 without parents or close relatives usually entered Australia under the Humanitarian Program. These young people were mostly from Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos, and they had typically lived for a period in refugee camps in Thailand, Hong Kong or other nearby countries. Australia no longer targets unaccompanied minors as humanitarian entrants, but maintains an Unaccompanied Humanitarian Minors Scheme.20 Small numbers of young people still enter Australia without parents or close relatives, either under the offshore Humanitarian Program or as unauthorised arrivals (usually arriving by boat in the company of other asylum seekers).

As of May 2001, there were a total of 218 young people in the Scheme. Almost half this number (48%) were resident in Australia under temporary protection visas. As for other age groups, the numbers of unauthorised arrivals aged under 18 years have increased since the late 1990s. Unauthorised arrivals in this age group are, like all other unauthorised arrivals, subject to mandatory detention. In line with Australia’s international obligations towards refugees, unaccompanied humanitarian minors who are TPV holders have access to the same basic package of services available to adult TPV holders (see Table 8).

Under the Unaccompanied Humanitarian Minors Scheme, young people are described either as ‘wards’ (previously referred to as ‘unattached’), ‘non wards’ (formerly called ‘detached’), and ‘isolated non wards’ (formerly called ‘isolated detached’). A ‘ward’ is defined as a non-citizen minor who falls within the provisions of the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act 1946, that is, a young person under the age of 18 who is not in the care of either parent, or a close relative over 21 years of age. These young people become wards of the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. The Minister delegates most of his21 powers and functions under the Act to various officers of the state or territory child welfare departments who assume responsibility when wards are released from immigration detention or when they arrive in Australia under the offshore humanitarian program. DIMIA pays a maintenance allowance either to foster parents or directly to the young person if they are living independently. Support is provided to caregivers to ‘maximise the successful settlement of the minor’ (DIMA Annual Report 1999–2000). In 1999–2000 some 170 minors were eligible for this assistance, compared with 183 in 1998–99. Very few young people are considered to be living independently; the maintenance allowance was paid directly to a total of nine unaccompanied minors in 1999–2000. The maintenance allowance is paid (in line with the Minister’s duties, obligations and liabilities under the Act) until the ward turns 16 years of age at which point he or she becomes eligible for Centrelink Special Benefit.

A ‘non-ward’ is a minor who does not fall within the provisions of the Act, that is, a young person (under 18 years) who in the care of a relative (over the age of 21) other than the parent. It is assumed that sponsoring relatives will accept guardianship responsibility for the young person, although they are not the legal guardians of the young person. The third category of ‘isolated non-ward’ is of more recent origin and refers to a non-ward whose care arrangements with a relative over the age of 21 have broken down irretrievably after arrival in Australia.

The Commonwealth/state cost share program was established in 1985 with five state child welfare departments in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia, for the welfare supervision and support of unaccompanied humanitarian minors. The program is aimed at ensuring effective settlement support is provided to all these young people while they reside in Australia. The Federal Government is currently negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the states regarding the future arrangements for the care and welfare supervision of unaccompanied humanitarian minors. DIMIA advises that ‘The future MOU will consist of a series of care packages, and the amount of funding provided under by the Commonwealth will be a significantly higher level of funding for the care of unaccompanied humanitarian minors compared to the funding provided under the current cost share agreement’.

Young refugees and the Migration Program

The Migration Program has two main categories or ‘streams’ under which migrants can enter Australia as permanent residents: the Skilled Stream and the Family Stream. A slightly larger proportion of visas granted under the program each year is allocated to skilled stream migrants (DIMIA Fact Sheet 20, July 2001). In line with the economic rationale for this component, skilled stream migrants have to satisfy a points test based on employment related factors, and they must be nominated by an employer or have other links to Australia. Alternatively, they must have successful business skills or significant capital to bring to Australia to establish a business.

The family migration component reflects government’s recognition of the family as the institution that provides vital support in the lives of most people. Under this component, migrants are selected on the basis of their family relationship with a sponsor or nominator in Australia. They do not have to meet the skills or language ability criteria applied to Skilled Stream migrants. Visas allocated under the Family Stream are categorised under four types of family relationship: partner, child, parent or other family member.22 Certain classes of family stream visa may be ‘capped’ meaning once a specified number has been allocated under that category in a given program year, no more visas can be granted under that category until the following program year. Applications involving dependent children are currently accorded highest priority in the processing of applications under the Family Stream (DIMIA Fact Sheet 37, Dec. 2001).

Family migrants must be sponsored or nominated by a close family member, partner or fiancé(e) living in Australia. Where applications are made outside Australia, the main applicant and any dependents included in the application must be sponsored (rather than nominated) and usually the sponsor would be an Australian permanent resident aged 18 years or older (see DIMIA Fact Sheet 29, Dec. 2001). Family Stream applicants are subject to an Assurance of Support. This is a legal commitment by the assurer to repay the Commonwealth of Australia any benefits paid to those covered by the assurance in the first two years after their migration from overseas or grant of permanent residence in Australia (ibid).

Family Stream migrants and young refugees

Refugee and humanitarian settlers with permanent residency status are eligible to sponsor close family members to Australia. Parents/guardians, dependent children and partners may be sponsored to Australia under what is commonly referred to as ‘family reunion’ migration.

One consequence of the increasing pressure on the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) is that people who are close family members of refugees settled in Australia are encouraged to apply for entry under the Family Stream of the Migration Program rather than risk missing out under the SHP. This method of family reunion has always been open to refugee and humanitarian settlers but, as noted, is less satisfactory than reunion under the SHP because it does not take into account the specific needs of refugee sponsoring and sponsored parties. When they arrive in Australia, migrants sponsored by refugees in Australia are treated the same as other Family Stream migrants in that they are expected to rely on their Australian sponsor for financial and material support during the first two years of their settlement. This is problematic for a number of reasons relating to the capacity of refugee sponsors to meet their sponsorship obligations (see Chapter 5).

What this suggests is that an increasing number of young people from refugee backgrounds are arriving in Australia as Family Stream migrants. This study sought to find out how likely it was that young people sponsored to Australia under the Family Stream had refugee experiences themselves, since where sponsorship arrangements break down, these young people would be left without the full range of supports generally available to refugee and humanitarian settlers.

A survey was conducted to investigate the past experiences and current circumstances of some 200 young people studying at English Language Centres and Adult Migrant English Programs in New South Wales and Queensland. The sample included people who had entered Australia under the Humanitarian Program and those who entered under the Family Stream of the Migration Program.23 Students were asked to complete the questionnaire in a classroom situation under the guidance of their teacher.24 Respondents were presented with a series of statements about life and events in their former country and were asked to agree or disagree with each. Four of these statements are presented in Table 1. The results of this survey were combined with those from a similar survey conducted in 1994 with some 200 students in Victoria.

The large majority (71%) of family reunion entrants originated from countries undergoing considerable violence at the time of their departure, just under onethird reported that their family was subject to persecution, and 22% stated that they had been afraid for their lives. The results of the survey show that although family reunion entrants are less likely to report the direct experiences of persecution typical of entrants under the Humanitarian Program, a significant proportion had refugee-like experiences of a nature that could be anticipated to impact on settlement needs. This is illustrated in the experiences recounted by a young Bosnian who came to Australia as a family reunion migrant:

We caught the last bus out of Croatia. For one and a half years after that, no more buses got through. We had to go through areas of war on the bus. It was so horrible because people were fighting all around us. We were convinced that the next stop would be the one where we would have to get off, or that they would kill us. The bus had to go through so many barricades. The army came on board to check our passports. And if they felt like it, the soldiers could have turned the bus around and sent us back. I didn’t believe I was going to make it. The guy next to me on the bus was killed. All the people on the bus saw. We were all crying. Everyone was screaming and yelling. The soldiers shot him and there was blood. The soldiers threatened to blow our tyres, too. I was very frightened and I feel so lucky that we escaped (Bosnian family reunion entrant, male, aged 17).

These findings confirm the expectation that some young people with refugee-like experiences arrive in Australia under the Migration Program, rather than the Humanitarian Program and are consequently subject to different conditions and entitlements reflecting the types of visa allocated (see Chapter 5).

Table 1: Refugee experience by category of entrant

Refugee and humanitarian entrants

Family Stream entrants

There was a lot of violence in my country”



In my country people were put in prison for no good reason”



My family was persecuted in my country”



My family was scared for their lives in my country”



Note: The percentages in each cell indicate affirmative answers.
Special Eligibility Stream

From 1 July 2001, a small number of places were allocated to migrants under a third stream in the Migration Program, the Special Eligibility Stream.25 One subclass under this stream is for applicants living in Australia unlawfully but claiming ‘close ties’ to the country. This class of visa is specifically intended for young people who spent their formative years in Australia and who either entered or remained in Australia unlawfully as a consequence of their families’ activities and ‘through no fault of their own’. This provision has implications for young people with refugee-like experiences that arrived in Australia some years ago with their families and is also suggestive with respect to the treatment of unauthorised arrivals at the current time. These implications are discussed in Chapter 5.

Overview of categories of arrival in Australia

Young people with refugee experiences may enter and settle in Australia, alone or with their families, under several different categories of the immigration program. Entrance categories within the Humanitarian Program are listed in Table 2. As offshore applicants, young people may enter under the Refugee category (having met UN convention criteria) or under the Special Humanitarian category. Until recently, young refugees could also enter Australia under a range of Special Assistance Categories.

In the most recent program year for which data are available (2000–01), slightly more than half of the offshore arrivals of young people entered under the Refugee component with most of the remainder arriving under the Special Humanitarian Program. Together, numbers entering under the offshore component accounted for just less than 60% of the overall humanitarian intake of young people. In 2000–01, entrants under SHP and SAC represented 29% of humanitarian entrants. Unless the demand for onshore places reduces, or unless government changes its policy of linking planning levels for the onshore and offshore components, the number of places available under the SHP is likely to diminish. Temporary protection visa holders accounted for 38% of total humanitarian intake in 2000–01 and, given the likely reduction in the size of the SHP and the discontinuation of the SACs, this proportion can be anticipated to increase.

The Department of Immigration does not routinely report the number of young people with refugee experiences arriving under the Family Stream of the Migration Program each year.26 However, as noted earlier in this chapter, this number is likely to be increasing as a result of the diminishing opportunity for family reunion under the SHP. In summary, Family Stream migrants and TPV holders can be anticipated to be increasingly common in the young refugee population living in Australia. As a result, the population of young refugees will be comprised of greater numbers of young people with restricted access to settlement and mainstream support services.


In this study ‘young refugees’ are defined in terms of their age (between 12 and 25 years) and a broad commonality of experience which, despite the considerable diversity in their individual circumstances, means they are likely to face similar barriers to successful settlement once in Australia. The definition we adopt is more encompassing than that governing the UN Refugees Convention or the various categories of the Department of Immigration’s Humanitarian Program because it includes:

  • entrants under the Family Stream of the Migration Program;

  • temporary residents; and, more broadly,

  • young people with refugee-like experiences who would not qualify on humanitarian grounds under existing migration categories or given existing quotas, but who are likely to face difficulties in their settlement as a result of these experiences.

However, the distinctions embodied in official categories impact on the entitlements and settlement experiences of new arrivals. Critical distinctions relate to whether or not the young person entered under the Humanitarian Program or the Migration Program, the offshore or the onshore component of the Humanitarian Program, and whether their arrival was authorised or unauthorised. The respective entitlements conferred by these different categories are discussed in Chapter 5. Possible impact on community response to new arrivals is addressed in Chapter 4. The next chapter provides a brief statistical profile of the young refugee population.

Table 2: Young people 12-25 years, entering or staying under the offshore and onshore components of the Humanitarian Program, FY 2000-01

Humanitarian Program


% of component intake

% of total intake

Offshore Component





Special Humanitarian Program (SHP)




Special Assistance Category (SAC)




Offshore subtotal





Permanent Protection Visas (PPV)
(authorized arrivals)




Temporary Protection Visas (TPV)
(unauthorized arrivals)




Onshore subtotal







Source: Settlement Database (extract at 14 March 2002) for data on Refugee, SHP, SAC, and PPV; DIMIA ICSE (extract at 8 March 2002) for data on TPV holders.

Note: The figure for TPVs represents visa grant allocations made in the year 2000–01 to young people who were aged 12–25 years at the time of the application. This number does not necessarily coincide with the number of unauthorised arrivals in the same year that made successful applications for TPVs. DIMIA was unable to provide the exact number of TPVs allocated but it is possible to estimate this from the ICSE data provided by the department. In 2000–01 some 1,806 young people applied for a TPV or a PPV and 1,506 were successful. All but 44 of the applicants were unauthorised arrivals. Assuming that all lawfully arriving applicants were granted a PPV, this leaves 1,462 grants to unauthorised arrivals.


1 In their fact sheet on Australia’s international obligations towards refugees, Amnesty International Australia emphasises that this legislation is ‘not a specific enactment implementing the obligations of the COR [Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees], but rather confers extensive powers on the minister for immigration and his department’ (July 2001, p.1).

2 It is this criterion that brings to bear on signatories their most important obligation under the convention – not to return or ‘refoule’ a refugee to circumstances under which he or she faces the threat of persecution.

3 War criminals and other serious (non-political) criminals are not considered in this project, despite the fact that they may have refugee experiences.

4 See Component 7 of the research design section of Chapter 1 for a summary of the demographic characteristics of the young refugees interviewed.

5 Detention is mandatory for unauthorised arrivals in Australia.

6 Much of the information provided in this section was obtained from fact sheets produced by the Public Affairs Section of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA). These fact sheets are regularly updated to reflect recent changes to government policy and programs and can be downloaded from the department’s web site at: Information was also obtained directly from the department, particularly courtesy of the Client Access Unit. Information from these sources has been paraphrased, and in some cases directly quoted for use in this report, in order to ensure the technical accuracy of descriptions of sometimes complex program areas. Amnesty International Australia also explains current policy relating to refugees in a series of fact sheet on its web site at:

7 The Humanitarian Program was detached from the Migration Program in January 1993 to provide a ‘better balance between Australia’s international humanitarian objectives and the domestic, social and economic goals primarily guiding the annual Migration Program’ (DIMA 1997, p.13).

8 DIMIA migration programs are run across the financial year from July to June.

9 The UNHCR is the international organisation responsible for working with countries to provide international protection to refugees under the auspices of the United Nations. The system of international protection is activated where a person’s country of nationality is not able or not willing to provide protection. It operates on the basis of ‘burden sharing’ between governments who have agreed, by being signatories to the Convention, to help refugees and people who face serious abuses of their human rights.

10 In 1998–99 some 4,348 SHP grants were allocated compared to 3,051 in 1999–2000 (see DIMIA Fact Sheet 60, Nov. 2001).

11 See DIMIA Fact Sheet 61, Nov. 2001.

12 Some 114 people arrived without authorisation by air in 2000–01, 36 of whom were aged between 12 and 25 years (DIMIA ICSE, extract 8 March 2002).

13 See DIMIA Fact Sheet 73, Nov. 2001 for figures relating to 1998–99 to 1999–2000 and DIMIA ICSE, extract 8 March 2002 for 2000–01 figure.

14 See Amnesty International Australia July 2001, Factsheet 13 – How do refugees arrive in Australia? Viewed 30 August 2002: .

15 DIMIA ICSE, extract 8 March 2002.

16 See Amnesty International Australia July 2001, Factsheet 13 – How do refugees arrive in Australia? Viewed 30 August 2002: .

17 DIMIA ICSE, extract 8 March 2002.

18 For an explanation of why this assumption is unfounded, see the range of information and fact sheets developed by Amnesty International Australia on their web site at:

19 TPV holders are able to apply for a subsequent protection visa that may be granted after 30 months if they demonstrate a need for Australia’s ongoing protection.

20 Much of the information in this section was provided directly by DIMIA (19 March 2002) following a request for clarification of the department’s policy regarding unaccompanied humanitarian minors.

21 Philip Ruddock has been Minister for Immigration since March 1996.

22 ‘Other family members’ include aged dependent relatives, a remaining relative or a family member willing to give care to an Australian relative for at least two years.

23 Not all young people could remember and in some cases never knew what their official visa entry category was, and this reduced the overall sample size for analysis.

24 See Component 5 of the research design section in Chapter 1 for details of this survey and Appendix 8 for a copy of the questionnaire.

25 See DIMIA 2001b.

26 See Chapter 3 for an estimate of the cumulative number of young refugees who entered as Family Stream migrants.

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