BACKGROUND: Dental health needs of newly arrived refugees are much greater than for the wider Australian community. This paper identifies the disparities and highlights major dental health issues for Australia's growing and constantly changing refugee population. METHODS: Using available data and the decayed, missing and filled teeth (DMFT) index as a measure of oral health, the reported oral health status of refugee groups in Australia was compared with that of the general population, Indigenous Australians, recipients of public dental services, special needs groups in Australia and other refugee groups outside Australia. RESULTS: The reported oral health status of Australian refugees compared poorly with the comparison groups. Of particular concern was the number of reported untreated decayed teeth (D). This ranged from a mean of 2.0 to 5.2 compared with 0.6 to 1.4 for the general Australian population. Refugee groups also reported fewer filled teeth (1.0 to 5.8) compared with the general population (4.1 to 9.3). Similar results were found when reported D, M and F teeth for refugees were compared to Indigenous Australians, public dental service recipients, immigrants and special needs groups in Australia. CONCLUSIONS: Dental health of refugees, particularly untreated decay, compared poorly to that of Indigenous Australians, and special needs populations in Australia who all have known worse dental health than the general population. There is an urgent need for the inclusion of this at risk population among targeted dental services. In addition, sources of health related data must clearly identify refugees to enable appropriate comparisons with other population groups. Recommendations for refugees are made regarding on-arrival dental assessment and treatment, and community based oral health programmes.