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Refugee and Asylum Seeking Women: Information Page


1) The United Nations Refugee Convention


The United Nations (UN) Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted in 1951 and is often referred to as the Refugee Convention. The Convention was developed after World War II when fleeing Jewish refugees were refused entry into many countries. The Charter came into force in 1954, and was amended in the 1967 Protocol to remove the geographical limitations listed down in 1951. This Convention remains the guiding international legal document, which defines a refugee, their rights, and the legal obligation of countries towards them. Australia is a signatory to this Convention and Protocol. [1], [2]


2) United Nations Definition of Refugee


Article 1A(2) of The Refugee Convention defines a Refugee as:


“Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, political opinion, is outside the country of his or her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country.” [1, pg16]


However, there is also a clause in place, which excludes any person(s) guilty of committing heinous crimes such as crimes against humanity, from being given refugee status. [7]


3) United Nations Definition of Asylum Seekers


The term ‘asylum seeker’ is not found in the Refugee Convention. Nonetheless, the United Nations assists people/individuals who do not meet the legal definition of a refugee, placing them under the “Person of Concern to UNHCR” category, and describing them as “people who are seeking international protection.” [3]


In short, the UN defines an asylum-seeker “as someone whose claim has not yet been decided by UNHCR or authorities of the country, in which he or she has requested refugee status”, with a reminder that “not every asylum-seeker will ultimately be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.” [3]


4) Definition Difference Between a Refugee and an Asylum Seeker


Research reveals ongoing public confusion over the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker, with definitions often overlapping resulting in the terms being used interchangeably. [4] Adding to the confusion is that definitions may vary between countries due to diverse domestic laws. [5]


However, the overall difference between the two terms is in where individuals apply for protection. For example, “whereas an asylum seeker asks for protection after arriving in the host country, a refugee asks for protection outside of the host country.” [5]


5) Are Refugees and Asylum Seekers ‘illegals’?


No. Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, and Article 33 prohibits any member state from non-refoulement (returning/expelling) refugees. In accordance with this principle refugees have a right to enter Australia, without a valid reason if they are seeking asylum or are refugees who fear persecution if they were to return to their homeland. [6], [7]


Furthermore, Australia’s Migration Act 1958, clearly states, “Australia has an obligation not to return a person in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where the person’s life or freedom would be threatened on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This Act also provides “for the grant of a protection visa to a  ‘non-citizen’ in Australia to whom the Minister is satisfied Australia has protection obligations under the Refugee Conventions as amended by the Refugee’s Protocol.” [6] 


As the Refugee Action Coalition explain, displaced people are forced to come by boat because it is often the only way to arrive safely especially during wars where refugees are unable to obtain the required travel documents needed to arrive by plane. [16] Therefore, “it is incorrect to refer to asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation as ‘illegals’ as they have a lawful right under both Australian and international law to do so if they are seeking asylum.” [7]


6) Rights of Refugees


Under the UN Refugee Convention refugees have specific human rights. These rights are outlined in numerous human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. [7] Such rights, which member states are obligated to legally and morally recognise, have been summarised by the Refugee Council of Australia as follows: [7]



  • Same rights as citizens in relation to freedom of religion, intellectual property, access to courts and legal assistance, accessing elementary education, labour rights and social security


  • Treatment which is as favourable as possible and at least as favourable as that accorded to foreign nationals, in relation too the acquisition of property, self-employment, practicing as a professional, housing, accessing secondary and tertiary education


  • Treatment, which is at least as favorable as that accorded to foreign nations with respect to freedom of association, wage-earning employment, freedom of movement. 


7) Particular Challenges Faced by Refugee Women and Girls


Combined national and international studies highlight the following facts/issues relating to refugee women/girls: [1], [8], [9], [10], [11]


  • Almost 80% of the refugee population is made up of women and children. They are mostly displaced because of war, political/racial violence or natural disasters such as famine.


  • Worldwide, they face unparallel discrimination and sexual & gender violence, which only increases during times of displacement and with the loss of a husband or father.


  • Armed conflicts leave them unprotected and vulnerable to physical abuses such as rape, unplanned pregnancies and human trafficking. For example, according to the Human Rights Watch, women in Syria have been arrested, detained, physically abused and tortured. During the Balkans War rape was used as a weapon of war against them, which is being repeated today in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


  • Most at risk during displacement include: 1) unaccompanied women/girls, 2) adolescent girls, 3) pregnant women/girls, and 4) disabled and older women.


  • Almost 50% of survivors of sexual assaults are girls under 18 years old.


  • Displaced women are forced to travel long distances to collect water/wood/food etc and therefore face a greater risk of sexual violence and injury or death from landmines.


  • They are left alone to shoulder all the responsibility for the family and also play a vital medical/healthcare role when it is not available such as helping to deliver babies.


  • At refugee camps, many cannot obtain refugee status because they find it difficult to meet the definition of a refugee. For instance the Refugee Convention asks refugees to document their fear of prosecutions in order to gain refugee status, which is impossible for many women due to language barriers and issues with illiteracy.


  • Proving persecution is also hard because many women are reluctant to talk to the mostly male workers at camps, about sexual assaults due to shame or because it is forbidden by their religion/culture.


  • It is difficult for women/girls to prove/show sexual discrimination, gender and sexual violence even though many have been frequently raped, mutilated, assaulted and exploited


  • Most camps are male dominated with all work going to males, therefore employment opportunities are not available to women further discriminating against them


  • This forces many of them into prostitution, slavery or forced domestic labor to support their families.


  • Most refugee women will also have no idea on how to go about obtaining the necessary documentation in their own names so that they are not dependent on male relatives


  • Many also present at camps with dependent babies/children who they need to feed and shelter, but as the UN Guidelines on Refugee admit, women and children receive unequal access to provisions such as food, shelter and healthcare. 


8) Displaced Women and International Women’s Day


In recognition of the above hardships faced by women during conflicts, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is using International Women’s Day, commemorated annually on March 8, to give displaced women a ‘voice’ in raising global awareness of their plight. As ICRC point out, displaced women are at greater risk than displaced men and therefore it is important that the world hear from women themselves about their specific needs and vulnerabilities during times of conflict. […]


This initiative is also an attempt to combat the media’s ongoing portrayal of women as victims. ICRC argue that by wholly focusing on their ‘victimhood’, the world’s media is ignoring the courage and resilience that this population displays on a daily basis in doing whatever is necessary to ensure the survival of their children and families. […]


9) Political Climate of Contemporary Australia towards Refugees and Asylum Seekers


The Australian political landscape has shifted towards the political Right, which can be linked to the following domestic and international events occurring: [12], [13], [14], [15] 



  • The 1990’s saw the rise/popularity of Pauline Hanson leader of the One Nation Party, whose policies argued against multiculturalism and immigration ie: new arrivals ‘don’t assimilate’


  • In 1996, The Liberal and Coalition Party (representing the political Right) win the Federal election and John Howard become Prime Minister. He cuts immigration intake, tightens migrant entrance requirements and abolishes the Office of Multicultural Affairs.


  • In 1998, Pauline Hanson proposes a Temporary Visa Protection policy for asylum seekers who arrive without the necessary authorisation thereby denying them permanent protection and residency.


  • In 1999, John Howard introduces Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), restricting refugee access to welfare support, the right to seek family reunions and to deter the phenomenon of ‘people smuggling’.


  • After pressure from the UN, Australia introduces a ‘safe haven’ visa offering humanitarian stay to refugees from war torn Yugoslavia. However, asylum seekers arriving by boat, and who are mostly from Muslim countries, remain on TPVs,


  • This visa system creates two classes of refugees with those on TPVs portrayed as ‘undesirable’.


  • Due to a continuing increase in boat arrivals, John Howard introduces mandatory ‘off-shore’ detention ie: ‘The Pacific Solution’.


  • Theses detentions are located outside of Australia law and there is no time limit on detention. 


  • Between 2000-2001, a series of rapes by Muslim males cause outrage in Australia ie: Skaf Brothers case


  • In August 2001, The Tampa Crisis - Australia refuses permission for a Norwegian ship to enter Australian waters to load off rescued Afghani and Iraqi asylum seekers.


  • September 11, 2001, the bombing of New York’s Twin Towers by Islamic extremists adds terrorism fears about refugees and asylum seekers coming to Australia.


  • The word terrorist becomes synonymous with Muslims/Arabs


  • In 2001, the ‘children overboard’ incident further demonises boat people.


  • In 2002, Bali bombings, Australians are killed by Muslim terrorists.


  • In 2005, the Cronulla riots involving mob violence highlights the issue of racism against Muslims.


  • In 2005, the Migration Amendment (Detention Arrangements) Act ensures that children are only detained in detention centres as a last resort.


  • In 2007, The Labor Party (representing the political Left) wins the Federal election and Kevin Rudd becomes Prime Minister.


  • In 2008, the Rudd government abolishes TPVs and detention centers for asylum seekers.


  • There is an immediate increase in people arriving in Australia by boat.


  • In 2010, The Australian Government begins releasing children and families from immigration detention facilities. However, children continue to be detained in these centres.


  • In 2011, the government expands the use of ‘bridging visas’ for asylum seeks, allowing them to live in the community while their applications are processed.


  • In 2012, violent Muslim protest/riot in the streets of Sydney occur due to feelings of alienation.


  • In 2013, The Liberal Party wins the Federal election and Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister.


  • Tony Abbott re-introduces TPVs and ‘off-shore’ detentions and processing of asylum seekers.


  • In August 2014, more children are released from Australian detentions.


10) The Australian Media and Political Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers


The following are some of the ways in which popular media, the tabloid press, commercial talkback radio and politicians contribute in dehumanising refugees and asylum seekers: [14], [15], [16]



  • Constant use of incorrect terms such as ‘illegal’ immigrants, ’illegal’ or ‘unauthorised’ boat arrivals, ‘invasion’ of asylum seekers’ and ‘queue jumpers’.


  • In 2009, the Australian Press Council recommended that the media does not use these words to describe refugees and asylum seekers.


  • The media attention/focus on negative Arab/Muslim stereotypes swaying public opinion ie: ‘terrorists’.


  • Media promoting race/religious discrimination ie: Arab/Muslim culture not compatible with Australian culture.


  • Media commentators/politicians criticising multiculturalism ie: it is a failed ideology.


  • Crimes by Arabs/Muslims in Australia linked with issues of immigration.


  • Disproportionate media exaggeration of refugee/asylum seeker as a threat to civil society.


  • Politicians campaigning on a ‘war on terror’ platform in order to be seen as tough on border control protection.


  • Media/politician assertion that asylum seekers who arrive by boat present a security risk to Australia or that they are economic refugees and therefore not genuine refugees.


11) Australian Refugee Intake


According to Sydney’s Refugee Action Coalition, the majority of refugees coming to Australia by boat are people from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka. They choose Australia because other surrounding countries are not signatories to the Refugee Convention. [16] However, repeated statements that “Australia is being swamped by asylum seekers” and “Australia takes more than its fair share of refugees” is misleading and untrue. [17]


As the Refugee Action Coalition point out, in comparison to the rest of the world Australia takes a very small amount of refugees every year. For example, statistically, Australia accepts just 13,750 refugees a year, which is less than 0.14%, whereas other western countries, such as the US accepted around 83,400 applications for refugee status in 2012. [16]


12) What Happens Once Refugees and Asylum Seekers Arrive in Australia?


Refugees that arrive by plane are allowed to live in the community, until the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMA) assess their claims. [12]


Refugees that arrive by boat face mandatory detention, even though this contravenes the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Australia remains the only western country to impose mandatory and indefinite detention of refugees while their claims are being processed. [16]


Australian detentions are located in Darwin and Villawood, while off-shore detention centres are located on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s, Manus Island. [12] [13]


13) The Affects of Prolonged Detention on Refugees/Asylum Seekers


Refugee Council of Australia details the following documented consequences from long-term detention: [16]




  • Suicide


  • Self-harm acts ie: light bulbs being swallowed, mouths sewed up in protest at being locked up


  • Hunger strikes


  • Rioting


  • Poor health


  • Mental issues


As the Refugee Council explain, not only is detention difficult for people who are already traumatised from trying to escape conflicts in their homelands, it also costs the Australian government a significant amount of money to house and treat these people. [16]


14) Refugee Women Settling in Australia


Research reveals that women who settle within Australia face the following challenges: [18], [19]


  • Socially isolated ie: no family/friends


  • Language barriers ie: do not understand the Australian culture or its laws


  • Poverty


  • Suffering from poor physical and mental health


  • Homelessness ie: do not know how to rent, pay a bill


  • Domestic Violence ie: most will stay because they have nowhere to go


  • They do not know how to engage with Australian institutions ie: banks, real estate agencies, etc


  • If waiting for refugee status, they have no rights including the right to work


  • Sudanese women also report relationship and disciplining difficulties with their teenage children as well as the pressure imposed by the expectations of their community




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