What can the Australian census tell us about Australia's response to the global refugee crisis?

Check out Devex’s interactive feature highlighting refugee need versus intake to Australia.

CANBERRA — Today’s global refugee crisis has seen more people displaced than any time since World War II, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

A report on 2016 refugee trends from UNHCR revealed a massive 15.9 million refugees globally — with nearly 50 million more people in various stages of processing and support. The top five countries of origin for refugees were Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. But for the same year, just 125,835 refugees were resettled into a third country according to departures statistics.

The United States, Canada, and Australia were the three major resettlement locations for refugee is 2016 with 7,502 refugees departing for Australia in 2016 — less than 6 percent of all UNHCR resettlement departures.

Statistics from Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection on country of origin are limited. The most recent data for the 2015-16 financial year list Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the top five countries of origin for people entering Australia under a humanitarian visa.

For the 2018-19 financial year, Australia’s annual humanitarian intake is anticipated to grow to 18,750 people. But little detail is available on regions they will come from or restrictions that may be placed on applicants.

The 2016 Australian census can help provide information on priority of refugees within immigration programs, as well as settlement patterns and importance of local community support.

Providing a snapshot of Australia’s population in August 2016, census data began releasing in June with initial data including sex, age, marriage, religion, country of birth, and citizenship. While the census does not provide information on the visa status of respondents, we can identify new arrivals since the last census conducted in 2011 by defining them as arriving in Australia between 2012 and 2016, foreign born, and non-Australian citizens.

Data is available for country of birth, and detailed data can show clusters or hotspots of foreign-born residents within Australia.

Devex has developed an interactive feature highlighting refugee need versus intake to Australia. And it is an important way to understand the experience of refugees within a developed country.

Here are a few key insights.

The Syrian experience

With civil war raging in Syria for more than six years, a large segment of the population has been forced to flee. Last year, UNHCR reported that a total of 5.3 million refugees seeking support and asylum originated from Syria. The impact in Europe has been unprecedented — and in September 2015 Australia announced it would be accepting a combined total of 12,000 refugees from conflict in Syria and Iraq, with a focus on women, children, and families of persecuted minorities. This figure was on top of existing annual humanitarian intakes of 13,750.

According to the Australian census, just 5,847 people born in Syria had arrived in Australia between 2012 and 2016. This accounted for slightly more than half a percent of all foreign-born new arrivals to Australia.

Amount of Syrians in Australia’s immigration intake compared to their global refugee numbers.

Despite being the number one ranked country of origin for refugees according to the UNHCR and accounting for almost one-third of this global crisis, Syria ranked 31st for new Australian residents by countries of origin — well behind the 163,621 new residents born in China, 139,395 in India, and 70,637 in New Zealand, the top three countries of origin for immigration, according to the census.

Syrians refugees in Australia are mainly in the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne. But they have also found themselves in regional and remote of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland where support networks may be limited.

Location of new arrivals from Syria since 2011, according to the 2016 census of Australia. See the interactive visualization.

The Afghanistan experience

For decades, Afghanistan has faced conflict — from civil war to international invasion — making it one of the most dangerous places to live. Since 2001, more than 100,000 people have been killed, and almost one-third of them were civilians. With conflict ongoing, Afghanistan now accounts for 2.7 million of the global refugees — ranked second behind Syria.

Australia and its military have played an ongoing role on the ground in Afghanistan since November 2001. While their involvement in Afghanistan still continues, at home only 1.5 percent of all new arrivals to Australia since 2011 were born in Afghanistan.

A total of 15,765 people arrived between 2012 and 2016 — approximately 0.6 percent of all refugees from Afghanistan.

For the Afghans, Melbourne was their main destination, with a group in the thousands clustered west of the city around the suburb of Dandenong.

“Dandenong is a famous place in the Afghan world,” Laurie Nowell, spokesman for AMES Australia, explained to Devex. “It is like what Melbourne is to the Greeks. People talk about Dandenong in the Afghan community because there are so many people that have settled there and there is a thriving subculture — even a Hazara economy where someone will open a business and employ other Hazaras.”

The 2016 census shows a hotspot of Afghanistan-born residents in Melbourne’s west.

But programs to encourage new arrivals to settle in regional areas has resulted in a larger spread of Afghanistan-born arrivals throughout the country — including Kalgoorlie, Swan Hill, and Townsville.

The Somalia and South Sudan experience

Civil war since 1991 has seen a continued flow of refugees from Somalia seeking safety from violence for more than 20 years. Since 2009, violence has escalated, contributing to the 2011 famine and current crisis and near-famine conditions. In 2016, UNHCR reported that 1.1 million refugees globally originated from Somalia.

The nearby region of South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, but civil war and ethnic cleansing have added to the unprecedented global refugee crisis since 2013. In South Sudan, the crisis led to a declaration of famine earlier this year.

By 2016 more than 850,000 refugees globally originated from Somalia, according to the UNHCR. Financially, Australia has been criticized locally for reducing aid funding to Africa and instead focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. In the most recent Australian aid budget, Papua New Guinea received the highest level of aid, expected to total 546.3 million Australian dollars ($434 million) of its 3.9 billion budget ($3.1 billion) for the 2017-18 financial year. Indonesia followed with 356.9 million Australian dollars ($283.5 million) and Solomon Islands with 142.2 million ($112.9 million). In comparison sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is expected to receive 108.2 million Australian dollars ($86 million), while the combined and broadly defined geographic region of the Middle East and North Africa is expected to receive 101.6 million Australian dollars ($80.7 million) in 2017-18.

The growing military and food crises have seen Australia provide 160 million Australian dollars ($129 million) in financial support for Somalia and South Sudan since 2014, including 20 million Australian dollars ($16 million) announced by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on September 16.

But despite this, just 1,423 Somalis have been given the opportunity to seek a new life in Australia. Their numbers rarely make a blip on the charts, accounting for 0.1 percent of all new arrivals since 2011 and ranked 60th as country of origin.

The number from South Sudan is less — just 605 in total, accounting for 0.06 percent of new arrivals and ranking 84th by country of origin.

Intake versus need: the numbers of refugees from South Sudan compared to the intake through Australia’s immigration policy.

Settlement into Australian life

For many refugees, the time between displacement and resettlement can be decades. “Some families are born and raised in refugee camps before Australia gets involved in the cycle,” Nick Tebbey, CEO of the Settlement Council of Australia, told Devex.

“What we hear time and time again through our members and the people they work with is that coming to Australia as a refugee is a lifeline,” Tebbey said. “It represents so much in terms of opportunity and a second chance at building a stable life.”

Refugee resettlement involves programs of support Tebbey describes as “state of the art” — including torture and trauma support, health care, and broader services around housing and education. “It’s very dynamic and responsive. You have about 120 settlement agencies across the country that have developed, over time, a flexible and responsive approach to the needs of people coming into their community.”

As the census data shows, major cities are a point of focus for refugees. But government programs ensure there is settlement support in all locations throughout Australia — although the programs and support provided may differ.

“Regional areas will have fewer services than metro areas,” Nowell said. “And that is true for anyone, not just refugees. But often the reason why refugees settle in these areas is because there is work and/or affordable accommodation. And you will often find people have established networks in those places already — they will be joining family or extended family.”

Determining what works best to support refugee communities, including services and support,  is still an evolving process.

“Absolutely nothing beats having your own community or own family and friends around you to support navigating through a brand new country,” Tebbey said. “We see that where it works really well is not necessarily where you would put all 10,000 people in one suburb, but at least where the settlement location has been chosen, efforts have been taken to make sure there is more than just one family ... of a particular ethnic group in that location. And that enables them to build a local community with support from local organizations and community groups. It’s equally as important as ensuring that people are healthy and going to school or getting a job.”

Simplifying the ability to reunite families is a process refugee groups believe is important in order to enable populations in need to become a larger statistic in the overall immigration numbers.

“There’s a big push at the moment to increase that with the Community Support Programme, where community groups can sponsor a person to come to Australia and fast track their refugee application,” Tebbey said. “That is a great step forward, but it is expensive.”

Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, told Devex that the cost to bring a family to Australia can be between 50,000 Australian dollars (approximately $39,783) and 100,000 Australian dollars ($79,565). But refugees are willing to put themselves through financial hardship to help family still living in dangerous conditions make a new life in Australia.

“Most refugee families in Australia who still have relatives overseas go without, in order to provide whatever help they can to relatives who are still in difficult refugee situations,” Power said. “It makes the adjustment to life in Australia very, very difficult if you have very close relatives who are suffering and appealing for help — financially and practically.”

But he said currently the system disadvantages those most in need of resettlement, who are less likely to have the financial backing to support large numbers of their community to immigrate to Australia.

Seven members of Khaleda's family are interviewed for possible resettlement to Australia because of her father's disability in 2008. Photo by: S.Kritsanavarin / UNHCR

Analyzing Australia’s immigration program

Tebbey said that in the visualization developed by Devex, what jumped out was the numbers in comparing different countries and seeing where people have been coming from. “It really highlights the differences between the humanitarian program and the migration program,” he said. “On the face of it, it appears Australia is making a big contribution and when you look at the settlement side of things, Australia without a doubt is a world leader in terms of services. But there is a bigger crisis going on globally than our numbers reflect.”

Compared to countries in Europe directly dealing with asylum-seekers on their borders in the millions, Tebbey said Australia’s resettlement program naturally is able to provide more focused services. But there are questions as to whether Australia, a country expected to win a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, could be doing more. After World War II, for instance, Australia allowed 170,000 refugees in over a five year period — although it did adhere to a White Australia Policy while doing so.

The figures from the 2016 census, combined with Australia’s treatment of refugees arriving by boat, paint a picture of an Australian government and population with an attitude very different from that of the late 1940s. The global crisis is not considered an Australian issue, even as Australia actively engages on the ground in some of these conflict zones.

“When you think of numbers as big as they are, and you think of the capacity Australia and the Australian community has to welcome and settle people here, the simple answer is we could be doing more,” Tebbey said.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.