A significant increase in the number of "plane people" seeking asylum in Australia has resulted in the country's longest refugee wait list in history, according to new figures from the United Nations' peak refugee agency.
Over 60,000 people had refugee applications before Australian government officials by the end of 2018 in what is a dramatic uptick from the nearly 30,000-long 2016 waitlist.
The new figures from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees add fire to a growing clash between Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Kristina Keneally over the marked increase in so-called "plane people" arriving in Australia.
The last few years have seen a surge in people arriving in Australia by plane on legitimate tourist visas before later claiming asylum - 81,000 have done so in the past four years.
Roughly 90 per cent of these applications are denied. But in the several years it takes to process the claims, "plane people" are granted bridging visas that allow them to work in Australia.
The number of people in Australia on bridging visas increased from 107,000 in 2014 to 230,000 in 2019.
Senator Keneally said the tens of thousands of people arriving by plane to Australia before claiming asylum was a sign the people smuggler trade was evolving.
"The UNHCR report confirms a massive increase in the number of people who are in Australia seeking asylum has occurred under Peter Dutton's watch," she said. "In the face of this surge, Mr Dutton has presided over $300 million in budget cuts to weaken our border security."
"Even though it was Scott Morrison and Kevin Rudd's policies that stopped the boats, Peter Dutton loves to take the credit. But what credit does he take for the massive blowout in asylum seeker applications under his watch?"
Immigration Minister David Coleman said the record refugee application levels would not translate to more refugees.
"The government has capped the refugee intake at the current levels - unlike Labor which is proposing to increase the annual permanent refugee intake by 71 per cent."
"We won't be taking any advice on these issues from Labor, who completely lost control of our borders when they were in government."
The Home Affairs department stressed that only a quarter of a percent of all visitors sought Australia's protection.
"The Department continuously works to detect, disrupt and respond to fraud, pattern claims and other attempts to undermine the integrity of the immigration program," a spokesman said.
Immigration expert Mary Crock said the record wait list was quietly becoming a cause for concern.
"We have a larger number of people coming by plane and applying for asylum in Australia than ever in our history," the University of Sydney professor said.
"The very big backlog is due to the large numbers of people claiming asylum here. The other problem has been that they've cut funding to the department where they need to do the processing."
The UNHCR report also reveals that at 28,800, Australia received the 13th highest number of new asylum claims in 2018, as well as having the 13th highest number of pending asylum claims.
The surge means Australia is home to 1.7 percent of the world's refugee applications, but less than 0.1 percent of the world's refugees.
Most countries with larger refugee wait lists neighbour conflict zones. Turkey, bordering Syria, had 311,000 pending claims. Peru and Brazil, which are managing record immigration from civil unrest within Venezuela, had over 100,000 pending claims each.
At the top of the list was the United States with 719,000 refugee applications.
The figures come as the government revealed it would place higher priority on migrants from South America amid Venezuela's humanitarian crisis that will lead to hundreds more from the struggling socialist country settling in Australia.
In total, 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country and 341,800 Venuzuelans started seeking asylum in 2018.
70.8 million people were displaced worldwide in 2018, a 2.3 million increase compared to 2017.
- SMH/The Age