Australia's refugee policy - timeline

22 JANUARY 1954

Australia becomes a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and a founding member of UNHCR’s Executive Committee.

2 APRIL 1954

Vladimir Petrov defects from the Soviet Union and is granted political asylum in Australia, starting the ‘Petrov Affair’.

16 OCTOBER 1956

The Liberal Menzies Government ’approved of the principle that political asylum and refuge should be available in appropriate instances to various categories of aliens namely Olympic Games visitors, members of visiting trade and other delegations, members of diplomatic and consular missions in Australia, certain other defectors and Asian leaders.’ This was in anticipation of the Melbourne Olympic games, during which several Hungarian Olympians claimed asylum.


The Whitlam Government legally abolishes the White Australia Policy.

13 DECEMBER 1973

Australia signs the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. This removes the geographic and time limitations of the original Convention giving capacity to respond to new refugee situations.


Thousands of refugees enter Australia following the Vietnam War.


Australia’s first formal, clear refugee policy is laid out.


The Government implements a procedure for dealing with onshore applications for refugee status in accordance with the Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.

JULY 1978

Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar states that so-called ‘boat people’ are not ‘illegal immigrants’ and that it is not illegal to be a refugee. The Australian (24/4/79) reports MacKellar as saying, ‘Refugees arriving by boat are no longer considered queue jumpers.’


The Community Refugee Settlement Scheme (CRSS), a network of volunteer groups, was established to provide assistance to humanitarian entrants with finding accommodation and employment and social support.


The ‘red bikini girl’, 18-year-old Liliana Gasinskaya, makes headlines in Australia when she dives out of the porthole of a Russian cruise liner, swims ashore and claims asylum.


The Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) is introduced in response to unrest in Iran. This will quickly become a major component of Australia’s humanitarian program and focuses on those who are not strictly Convention refugees.


The first ‘Refugee Week’ is celebrated in Australia.


The Migration Legislation Amendment Act is introduced by the Hawke Government to deter and intimidate ‘illegal entrants’. This harsh legislation was prompted by the influx of asylum seekers arriving in Australia following the Tiananmen Square massacre and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new regulations include mandatory deportation and allow for the recovery of funds from asylum seekers to pay for the costs of their detention and deportation.


The National Integrated Settlement Strategy (NISS) is created to better coordinate the provision of migrant services.


Mandatory detention for non-citizens who arrive in Australia without a visa is introduced. Judicial review permitted and detention limited to 273 days.


Mandatory detention broadened and 273 day limit removed.


Management of immigration detention centres outsourced to private companies.


The Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy (IHSS) is introduced to help improve service delivery, support and settlement outcomes for refugees in Australia. Unlike previous programs, the IHSS operated on a competitive tender system.


The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission report Those who’ve come across the seas: Detention of Unauthorised Arrivals is released.


Pauline Hanson as One Nation leader suggests Temporary Protection Visas. Phillip Ruddock, Minister for Immigration, responds by saying: ‘Can you imagine what temporary entry would mean for them? It would mean that people would never know whether they were able to stay here … I regard the approach as being highly unconscionable in a way that most thinking people would clearly reject.’

13 OCTOBER 1999

Phillip Ruddock announces the introduction of Temporary Protection Visas for refugees who arrive without authorisation.


Protests at Curtin and Woomera detention centres over slow processing and poor conditions, included hunger strikes and lip sewing.


Case of Shayan Badraie, a five-year-old boy who was detained for one year in Woomera and six months in Villawood detention centre resulting in severe psychological trauma. He was detained despite expert psychological advice and was taken eight times to Westmead Hospital. Eventually he was released into foster care without his family, who were granted refugee status a year later. Compensation of $400,000 was paid in 2006.


Protests and violence occur at Port Hedland and Curtin detention centres. Detainees escape from Villawood detention centre.

2 APRIL 2001

Shahraz Kayani, a recognised refugee self-immolates outside Parliament House in Canberra to protest the delay in reuniting with his family. At this point, the process had already taken five years and was unlikely to succeed until Mr Kayani could raise $75,000 to pay for the care of his middle daughter who had cerebral palsy. He died within three months of infection caused by his burns.

20 JUNE 2001

The first World Refugee Day is celebrated, having been decided upon by the UN General Assembly the previous December.


The Tampa Crisis. The Norwegian ship MV Tampa rescues 439 Afghan asylum seekers from international waters near Australia. Captain Arne Rinnan attempts to dock at Christmas Island but the government refuses entry to Australian waters, insisting the passengers disembark elsewhere and sends SAS to board the vessel. This results in a diplomatic dispute between Australia, Norway, and Indonesia and global media coverage. The asylum seekers are eventually loaded onto a Royal Australian Navy vessel. Most are transported to Nauru and held in two detention camps as part of what became known as the ‘Pacific Solution’.

29 AUGUST 2001

Border Protection Bill introduced. This provided the power to: remove any ship in the territorial waters of Australia; use reasonable force to do so; provide that any person who was on the ship may be forcibly returned to the ship; guarantee that no asylum applications may be made by people on board the ship.


The Migration Amendment (Excision from Migration Zone) Act 2001 amends the Migration Act to excise certain territories (among them Christmas Island) from the Australian migration zone. The amendments mean that a non-citizen who first enters Australia at an excised offshore place without legal authorisation has fewer rights than a person who reaches Australian mainland to seek asylum. This formalises the ‘Pacific Solution’ where people arriving without documentation are sent to Australian-funded detention camps in Nauru and Manus Island.


The Australian Defence Force commences ‘Operation Relex’ to interdict vessels carrying asylum seekers. Interdiction prevents boats from reaching Australia’s territorial waters. In 2001, between September and December, 13 asylum seeker boats tried and failed to reach Australia’s migration zone.


9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA.


The Children Overboard Affair. In early October 2001, senior Government officials allege that asylum seekers on SIEV 4 threw their children overboard in a ploy to secure rescue and passage to Australian territory. The Government releases photos as evidence of this event. It is later revealed that the photos were actually taken during the rescue of passengers as the SIEV 4 was sinking.

7 OCTOBER 2001

Australia joins the War on Terror sending troops into Afghanistan.

19 OCTOBER 2001

SIEV X sinks between Indonesia and Christmas Island. An estimated 146 children, 142 women and 65 men drown. Nearly 24 hours later 44 survivors are rescued by Indonesian fishing boats and taken back to Indonesia. Many of the women and children who died were attempting to reunite with husbands and fathers in Australia who were on TPVs, and therefore unable to sponsor the resettlement of their families. The Senate was concerned over any potential link between this tragedy and Australia’s intensive anti people-smuggling program at the time. Three Senate resolutions were passed calling for an independent judicial inquiry. This never occurred.

28 OCTOBER 2001

In his campaign for re-election John Howard makes the statement; ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’

EARLY 2002

The Government ‘freezes’ asylum seeker applications from about 2000 Afghans, sparking riots and protests including hunger strikes and lip sewing.


The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, expresses concerns about the vilification of asylum seekers in Australia and urges the government to provide Australians with accurate information.

19 MARCH 2002

Captain Arne Rinnan, along with the crew and owners of the MV Tampa, are awarded the Nansen Refugee Award ‘for demonstrating courage and a unique degree of commitment to refugee protection.’

27 JUNE 2002

Alamdar and Muntazar Bakhtiari are part of a mass breakout from Woomera detention centre. The boys, aged 12 and 14, walk into the British consulate in Melbourne on 18 July but their claim for asylum is rejected. Subsequent legal battles with the Australian and British governments fail.

JULY 2002

UN Report on Mandatory Detention is released. Former Indian Supreme Chief Justice, Rajendra Bhagwati visited Australia’s immigration detention facilities as part of a personal envoy of UN Human Rights Commissioner. The report argues that Australia’s policy contravened the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which outlaws arbitrary detention and the denial of access to legal review of incarceration; and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits detention of children except as a last resort. Bhagwati reports that children are suffering mentally and physically, and that many are ‘traumatised and led to harm themselves in utter despair.’

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, Attorney-General Daryl Williams and Immigration Minister Ruddock issued a joint statement attacking this report as ‘emotive’, ‘fundamentally flawed’ and lacking objectivity.


Curtin detention centre is closed.

23 OCTOBER 2002

Report handed down by the Senate Select Committee of their inquiry into a Certain Maritime Incident, which investigated the ‘children overboard’ affair, the Tampa affair, SIEV X and the ‘Pacific Solution’. The Committee states that, along with ‘genuine miscommunication or misunderstanding’, ‘deliberate deception motivated by political expedience’ was a factor in ‘the making and sustaining of the report that children had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4’.

24 OCTOBER 2002

The UN working group on Arbitrary Detention releases its report on Australia’s detention centres stating ‘one could reasonably assume that if public opinion were fully and specifically informed about the conditions to which human beings are being subjected in Australia and the negative consequences for the image of a democratic country, public opinion would change.’ (See the UNHCR report.)

20 MARCH 2003

The United States and its allies enter Iraq. Between 2003 and 2010, over four million Iraqis will become refugees or internally displaced persons.

APRIL 2003

Woomera detention centre is closed. At its peak, the centre housed more than 1400 asylum seekers, some detained for over three years.

MAY 2004

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now the Australian Human Rights Commission) releases the report of its Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. The inquiry found that children in Australian immigration detention centres had suffered numerous and repeated breaches of their human rights and that children detained for long periods of time were at a high risk of suffering mental illness. The inquiry found that the policy failed to protect the mental health of children, provide adequate health care and education and protect unaccompanied children and those with disabilities.

JUNE 2004

Port Hedland detention centre is closed.

JUNE 2004

Last detainee released from Manus Island; 25-year-old Kuwait-born Palestinian Aladdin Sisalem spent 15 months as the facility’s sole occupant.

6 AUGUST 2004

The High Court rules that harsh detention conditions are not unlawful (Case of Behrooz ). Also rules that asylum seekers can be detained indefinitely (Al-Kateb v Godwin).

30 DECEMBER 2004

The Bakhtiari family is deported to Pakistan, after four years of detention, separation of children and parents, appeals and legal battles.


It is revealed that a mentally-ill German citizen, Cornelia Rau, who held Australian permanent residency, had been wrongly detained as an unauthorised immigrant for 10 months. Asylum seekers raised her case with officials.

11 MAY 2005

The Australian Government introduces the Removal Pending Bridging Visa (RPBV), to be granted at the discretion of the Minister for Immigration to people who have been in long-term detention and whose removal from Australia is pending but delayed. RPBV recipients are required to do everything possible to facilitate their removal from Australia. In the interim, they have work rights and access to Medicare, Centrelink benefits and trauma counselling services. They are not eligible for family reunion or to return to Australia if they leave.

JUNE 2005

The Refugee Council of Australia becomes the national coordinator of Refugee Week.

JUNE 2005

Release of long term detainees. Government MPs Petro Georgiou and Judith Moylan cross the floor against their own party resulting in the release of long term detainees and review of future cases by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

JUNE 2005

The longest serving detainee, Peter Qasim, is released. The stateless Mr Qasim spent nearly seven years in Australian detention and was released on a temporary visa with limited rights.

29 JUNE 2005

The Migration Act is amended to allow for the detention of children only as a last resort. In reality, families continue to be placed in ‘community detention’ (rather than a ‘detention centre’) where they are still denied freedom of movement and face strict conditions. See amendments to the Act.


The Commonwealth Ombudsman reveals that of those wrongfully detained, more than half of cases were held for a week or less, 23 were held for more than a year and two were detained for more than five years.

20 OCTOBER 2005

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that conditions in detention centres be brought up to international standards and that children should be assessed within 48 hours as to whether they need to be detained.

1 JANUARY 2006

UNHCR officially assumes the lead responsibility for protection and camp coordination for internally displaced persons. UNHCR’s mandate specifically only covers refugees (who by definition are outside of their home country) but it has assisted IDPs since 1972.

11 MAY 2006

The Government attempts to expand the ‘Pacific Solution’. In response to anger from the Indonesian Government over the granting of refugee status to 42 West Papuan refugees, the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 is introduced. The Bill states that all asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation by boat are to be processed ‘offshore’ in places like Nauru or Christmas Island. The amendments would result in asylum seekers undergoing an inferior assessment process and those found to be refugees ideally settled in another country, not necessarily Australia. See amendments to the Act.

1 JULY 2006

The Government implements the Settlement Grants Program under which community organisations can apply for funding for projects to assist new migrants and refugees to settle in Australia.

14 AUGUST 2006

Right before a vote was due, the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 is withdrawn after fierce dissent from community groups and some politicians, including some Government MPs.


The Christmas Island detention facility becomes operational. Christmas Island is 2400 kms from Perth, 360km from Jakarta and nearly 2000km from Darwin. It was excised from the Australian migration zone in 2001. Despite earlier commitments to detain children as a last resort, the purpose built facility included family units, a babies compound, childcare centre and classrooms.


Release of a report commissioned by Oxfam and A Just Australia, A Price Too High: the cost of Australia’s approach to asylum seekers.


Baxter detention centre is closed.


The ALP Government abolishes the Pacific Solution. Final end is February 2008 when last detainee leaves Nauru and the centre is closed.

13 MAY 2008

The Government abolishes TPVs. Immigration Minister Chris Evans states ‘the Temporary Protection visa was one of the worst aspects of the Howard government’s punitive treatment of refugees, many of whom had suffered enormously before fleeing to Australia. There is clear evidence that the TPV arrangements did nothing to prevent unauthorised boat arrivals.’

28 MAY 2008

The UN Committee against Torture releases its report on Australia praising the end of the ‘Pacific Solution’ but also calling for an end to mandatory detention.

16 APRIL 2009

An explosion on SIEV 36 near Ashmore Reef results in the death of up to five asylum seekers and injures 44 people.


With the vote of some Opposition MPs, the Government ends Australia’s practice of charging refugees for their time spent in detention. Previously, detainees were expected to pay back around $100 a day after being granted protection. For some people this meant tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.


Australian Customs vessel the Oceanic Viking rescues 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone and attempts to take them to an Indonesian detention centre. The asylum seekers refuse to disembark and do so one month later with the Australian promise of speedy processing and settlement. Over one year on 25 were still detained in Romania.

9 APRIL 2010

The Government suspends the processing of asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, for three and six months respectively. The individuals affected are left in detention and a back log of applications is created. UNHCR and other assert the treatment is punitive and discriminatory.

18 APRIL 2010

Government announces the reopening of Curtin detention centre despite it being criticised as one of the country’s most isolated and punitive facilities.

6 JULY 2010

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announces an intention to work towards building a regional protection framework in the Asia-Pacific, including the establishment of a regional processing centre in Timor-Leste “for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region”.

11 OCTOBER 2010

The Government announces that it will begin moving children and family groups out of immigration detention facilities and into community-based accommodation.

11 NOVEMBER 2010

The High Court rules that two Sri Lankan asylum seekers were denied procedural fairness in the review of their claims under the processing arrangements which apply to asylum seekers who enter Australia through excised offshore territory. The Court declares that any review of a refugee status assessment must be bound by the provisions of the Migration Act and the decisions of Australian courts.


Australia settles its 750,000th refugee.

15 DECEMBER 2010

SIEV 221 crashes into rocks on Christmas Island. 42 people are rescued but up to 50 asylum seekers are believed to have drowned.

7 JANUARY 2011

In response to the M61/M69 case (see page 14) the Government announces changes for processing of asylum seekers in excised territories. There is access to judicial review in situations where an error in legal reasoning has occurred or where procedural fairness has been denied, an Independent Merits Review is now available but still no access to the same determination process used on the mainland or to the Refugee Review Tribunal.

17 JANUARY 2011

The Australian Government signs a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Afghanistan, permitting the involuntary repatriation of failed Afghan asylum-seekers back to Afghanistan, including unaccompanied minors.


Senate Estimates told that there are 900 people currently in detention who have been found to be refugees but are awaiting ASIO checks, for which there is no time limit.

MARCH 2011

Government announces expansion of Darwin Airport lodge to house an extra 400 people. Presently the Lodge holds unaccompanied minors, men with mental health concerns and other vulnerable detainees moved from Christmas Island. In addition a 1500 person facility is announced for Wickham Point, in an industrial area 35km from Darwin.

MARCH 2011

Peaceful protests at North West Point detention centre on Christmas Island turn into widespread unrest, the Australian Federal Police take control of the centre using tear gas and rubber bullets on the asylum seekers. Immigration Minister sets up an independent inquiry into the protests and Commonwealth Ombudsman later announces use of his own powers to also investigate the incident and its causes.

28 MARCH 2011

Fifth death in detention in just over six months.

APRIL 2011

Protests, hunger strikes and unrest in many detention centres across Australia. Immigration Minister proposes changes to the Migration Act that would see a detainee convicted of any crime (such as damage to commonwealth property at a detention centre) be denied permanent protection on character grounds. Presently the conviction must involve a sentence of over 12 months for such a finding to be made.


The Migration Amendment (Complementary Protection) Bill 2011 is introduced to the Australian Parliament. The Bill aims to establish a formal administrative process for assessing the claims of persons who do not fit the Refugee Convention’s formal definition of a refugee but who would still be at grave risk of persecution, torture or death if returned to their country of origin.

30 MARCH 2011

The Bali Process develops the first regional agreement on irregular movement. The non-binding agreement includes a provision noting that ‘asylum seekers should have access to consistent assessment processes, whether through a set of harmonised arrangements or through the possible establishment of regional assessment arrangements’.

APRIL 2011

Protests, hunger strikes and unrest in many detention centres across Australia. In response, the Immigration Minister announces changes to the Migration Act that would see a person convicted of any offence committed while in immigration detention (such as damage to Commonwealth property at a detention centre) fail the character test. The Minister also indicates that that he will use the full extent of his powers to prevent individuals who have been involved in criminal, violent or destructive behaviour from being allowed to apply for a permanent protection visa. Instead, these individuals may be granted temporary visas which do not permit family reunion.

8 MAY 2011

The Australian Government announces that a transfer deal with Malaysia which will see 800 asylum seekers who enter Australia by boat sent to Malaysia in return for Australia resettling 4000 additional refugees from Malaysia over the next four years. The deal is formally signed on 25 July.

8 AUGUST 2011

The High Court orders a temporary injunction preventing the removal to Malaysia of the first group of asylum seekers processed under the transfer deal, pending a full court hearing.

Hot issue

On 25 July, the Malaysian and Australian Governments signed a deal which will see 4000 already recognised refugees moved from Malaysia and resettled in Australia over the next four years. In return, Australia will send 800 asylum seekers who have travelled here by boat, to Malaysia where their refugee claims will be assessed. If they are found to be refugees, they will await resettlement in another country.

This deal is presently ‘in limbo’ pending a High Court challenge. Transfers to Malaysia were due to commence on 8 August however a High Court injunction has been issued prohibiting removals until 22 August. The full bench of the High Court will be addressing (among other legal factors), section 198A of the Migration Act. While the section allows for removal from Australia to another country, the other country must ‘meet relevant human rights standards in providing that protection’.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and has no domestic law to prevent refoulement. State sanctioned human rights abuses against asylum seekers and even refugees are common place. Practicalities of the 800 asylum seekers accessing education, health care, housing and permission to work are all factors still in doubt despite the deal being signed. There are approximately 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in Malaysia currently without these rights upheld and who are subject to detention, caning and exploitation.

The deal could see families permanently separated (if relatives are already settled here in Australia) and unaccompanied minors sent to Malaysia on their own. The deal’s lack of consistency with Australia’s international obligations (Refugee Convention and CROC in particular) has been widely noted and now its domestic legality is in question. Now, the asylum seekers affected (approx 100 at the time of writing) are caught in legal ‘limbo’ and may remain detained on Christmas Island indefinitely.

Hot Topics 77: Refugees. Hot Topics is intended as an introductory guide only and should not be interpreted as legal advice. Whilst every effort is made to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information, the Legal Information Access Centre does not assume responsibility for any errors or omissions. 

© Library Council of New South Wales 2011. Copyright in Hot Topics is owned by the Library Council of New South Wales. Material contained herein may be copied for the non-commercial purpose of study or research, subject to the provisions of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth).

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