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An analysis of UNHCR’s 2018 Global Refugee Statistics: How generous is Australia’s Refugee Program compared to other countries?

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Australian political leaders regularly claim that Australia has one of the most generous refugee responses in the world. But what do UNHCR’s official statistics for 2018 tell us?

In its 2018 Global Trends report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the world’s refugee population had reached 25.9 million by the end of December 2018 and that another 3.5 million were seeking asylum. Of these, 5.5 million refugees are Palestinians recognised under the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and 20.4 million are refugees under UNHCR’s mandate.

Source countries for refugees

The largest numbers of refugees are from Syria (6.65 million), Afghanistan (2.68 million), South Sudan (2.29 million), Myanmar (1.15 million) and Somalia (950,000). In 2018, the largest increases in refugee populations were from Syria (343,850), Democratic Republic of Congo (99,500), Afghanistan (57,230), Central African Republic (45,350) and Nigeria (37,850). The number of people seeking asylum globally grew by 412,400, with much of this increase resulting from the crisis in Venezuela. In just 12 months, the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum grew by 316,250 to 464,230.

Official refugee population

The five countries hosting the largest number of refugees as at 31 December 2018, according to UNHCR, were Turkey (3.68 million), Pakistan (1.40 million), Uganda (1.17 million), Sudan (1.08 million) and Germany (1.07 million). By comparison, Australia’s official refugee population was 56,933 – 45th overall, 50th per capita and 88th relative to national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). These refugee population figures tell only part of the story. They exclude refugees who have been resettled but, in Australia’s case, they include those who have been given permanent protection onshore over the past 10 years and refugees on temporary protection visas. As UNHCR statistics focus on identifying people for whom the agency has a particular responsibility under its mandate, these refugee population figures favour nations in which large numbers of refugees remain in unresolved and protracted situations and give less weight to the contribution of nations offering permanent protection and resettlement.

Refugee resettlement

Many of the outlandish political claims within Australia focus solely on refugee resettlement, despite the fact that so few refugees get access to resettlement. In 2018, just 92,424 refugees were resettled from one country to another, less than 0.4% of the total refugee population. Australia’s resettlement of 12,706 refugees during the 2018 calendar year saw the country ranked third overall for resettlement (behind Canada and USA) – second per capita and relative to national GDP (behind Canada).

Recognition of refugees through asylum processes

During 2018, 1.56 million people who sought asylum were recognised as refugees, through group recognition of refugees arriving in larger numbers, individual assessment of asylum claims or through granting temporary protection. The nations in which the largest numbers of refugees were newly recognised in 2018 were Turkey (402,550), Sudan (190,290), Uganda (180,660), Germany (105,540) and Cameroon (55,320). Australia recognised 10,300 refugees in 2018, most of them given temporary protection visas. In global terms, Australia was ranked 29th for recognition of refugees in 2018 – 30th per capita and 60th relative to GDP.

Australia’s contribution through asylum and resettlement processes

The most accurate reflection of Australia’s contribution can be found by combining the numbers of given protection for the first time through an asylum or recognition process or given further protection through resettlement. In 2018, 1.65 million people had their refugee status recognised or were resettled. By this measure, Australia recognised or resettled 23,002 refugees in 2018 (1.39% of the global total), being ranked 14th overall, 20th per capita and 60th relative to national GDP.

As numbers vary considerably across different countries from year to year, it is more useful to look at these statistics over a 10-year period. Between January 2009 and December 2018, Australia recognised or resettled 180,790 refugees. This represented 0.89% of the 20.3 million refugees recognised globally over that period. Australia’s total contribution for the decade is ranked 25th overall, 29th per capita and 54th relative to national GDP.