The Morrison government has slashed the maximum humanitarian intake by thousands on the basis it is too difficult to bring refugees into Australia in the same numbers as before the coronavirus pandemic.

The humanitarian intake was reduced from 18,750 places to 13,750 over the next four years in Tuesday's budget.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge says the change to the humanitarian intake is needed.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Asylum seeker advocates have slammed the move, which is expected to save almost $1 billion, saying the country should be accepting more refugees at a time when its net overseas migration will drop by hundreds of thousands a year.

But the government insists the number of humanitarian places had to be slashed because of international travel grinding to a halt and refugee services around the world being significantly impacted.

Most of Australia's refugees are taken through the UNHCR's resettlement program – meaning they have to fly here from other countries to get to Australia.

The humanitarian intake will still be reviewed every year, allowing the government to return the cap to pre-pandemic levels if the global situation improves.

The change will keep Australia as accepting the third-highest number of refugees via the United Nations resettlement program, behind the United States and Canada.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said the new cap was in line with last year's outcome of 13,171 and reflected the "global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic".

"The government will continue to focus on settlement and integration support for humanitarian entrants," Mr Tudge said.

"This will include prioritising supporting people in work and improving English language skills."

Opposition immigration spokesman Andrew Giles said the reduction in the humanitarian intake was a "very big change".

Labor MP Andrew Giles said the reduction in the humanitarian intake required “a proper explanation and then a very serious examination”.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

"And while we are in very novel and uncertain circumstances it does require a proper explanation and then a very serious examination," Mr Giles said.

"Who will be the next Frank Lowy, Majak Daw or Anh Do that Australia will miss out on due to the Morrison cuts to our humanitarian program?

"We can recover from COVID-19 and continue to provide a lifeline to people in need – like Frank, Majak and Anh who have contributed so much."

Australia's collapse in overseas migration and a falling fertility rate has forced Treasury to downgrade the nation's population forecasts by about one million over the next two years, which is a long-term blow to economic growth.

Amnesty International campaigner Shankar Kasynathan said the government's decision was "inhumane and makes no sense".

"Throughout COVID-19, refugees across Australia have gone above and beyond to help their communities get through these difficult times," he said.

"Instead of seeing these people as a financial burden, this government should be welcoming them with open arms.

"It's the humane thing to do; it's also, economically and for our communities, the most sensible thing to do. When refugees move to regiona­l communities like Wagga Wagga and Armidale they restart their lives and in doing so support schools, infrastructure and businesses."

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