Strangers to the world

COMMENTING ON AUSTRALIA’S response to asylum seekers in the online version of Le Monde in July 2013, one reader remarked: Ils sont étranges ces Australiens, étrangers au Monde (‘They are strange those Australians, strangers to the world’). Le Monde had reported on an agreement between then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Papua New Guinean counterpart, Peter O’Neill, whereby asylum seekers intercepted on their way to Australia were to be sent to Papua New Guinea to be processed.[i] Those found to be refugees were to be resettled in Papua New Guinea.

I am completing this essay in mid-October 2015, while sitting at a friend’s kitchen table in Berlin. Over the last few days, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has given a round of interviews in which she has encouraged Germans to be confident that the country will be able to cope with the continuing influx of asylum seekers (more than 270,000 in September alone, according to the Bavarian state government). She has also defended her government’s decision to welcome those seeking Germany’s protection, and firmly rejected the idea to treat them harshly in order to deter others from following in their footsteps.[ii]

Until a few days ago, the homepage of Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) had apologised for massive delays on the line between Salzburg and Munich and explained: ‘Like all of Germany, we at Deutsche Bahn are doing our best to help refugees.’ For many days, the evening news had shown scenes at Munich’s central railway station, where tens of thousands of refugees had arrived from Austria. The challenges faced by Deutsche Bahn were real. They were certainly far more real than those faced in September 2013 by motorists travelling on the M4 in Western Sydney, when a budding Liberal Party politician had claimed that asylum seekers were a ‘hot topic here because our traffic is overcrowded’.[iii]

‘Is it true,’ Germans ask me when they hear where I’m from, ‘that in Australia refugees aren’t allowed to seek asylum, aren’t even allowed to land, and are instead imprisoned on some faraway Pacific island?’ Stories that circulate in Germany about the asylum-seeker and refugee policies of the former penal colony at the end of the world are surprisingly accurate – but the longer I am here, the harder I find it to accept their accuracy. Australia seems to be a weird place indeed.

IN AUSTRALIA, HOWEVER, there is little to suggest that successive governments have done anything out of the ordinary. In fact, European leaders are supposedly studying Australia’s solutions to its own asylum-seeker crisis, and toying with the idea of emulating them. Are they really? From the perspective of my Berlin kitchen table, it appears that those keenly interested in Australian responses to boat people are also strange. ‘It’s time to get Australian,’ London Sun columnist Katie Hopkins had opined in April 2015. ‘Australians are like British people but with balls of steel, can-do brains, tiny hearts and whacking great gunships. Their approach to migrant boats is the sort of approach we need in the Med… Migrant boats have halved in number since Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott got tough… Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.’[iv]

I don’t know to what extent Tony Abbott was embarrassed by the applause from a columnist who also likened migrants to cockroaches. He would have proudly agreed that his government got tough – and emphasised that toughness towards those he termed ‘illegal boat people’[v] was matched by generosity towards ‘genuine’ refugees. Australian political leaders frequently invoke Australia’s traditional generosity and compassion towards the suffering, which is said to distinguish it from other nations. ‘I’m proud that today our country and our people will be true to our history as a place where those in fear for their life – women, children and families – can rebuild and start again,’ Abbott told a press conference in early September.[vi] He had just announced that Australia would resettle an additional twelve thousand people who had fled the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

That decision had been prompted by a photo – or rather, the public outcry that followed the pervasive dissemination of a photo. In the early hours of 2 September 2015, a small inflatable dinghy carrying sixteen irregular migrants from Iraq and Syria left a beach on Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula for the nearby Greek island of Kos. Within minutes of its departure, the boat capsized. Twelve of the passengers, including the wife and two young sons of the man captaining the boat, Kurdish-Syrian Abdullah Kurdi, drowned. Their bodies were found washed up on the shore. Pictures that Turkish press photographer Nilüfer Demir then took of the younger of the two Kurdi children prompted a worldwide outpouring of public sympathy for Syrian refugees.

The public response in Australia was no different from that in other Western countries, such as the United States, Britain and Canada (where the response to Syrian refugees became a key issue in the national election campaign). Political leaders, including Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, demanded an increase of Australia’s intake of Syrian refugees. ‘Who thinks watching a child drown is a good outcome?’ Joyce asked, demanding that Australia resettle more Syrians, provided this was done through ‘proper and legitimate channels’ – ‘otherwise you can see what happens when there are no controls on the border’.[vii]

In a Facebook message posted a couple of days after the publication of Demir’s photographs, Baird wrote:

I don’t know how you felt when you saw the image of three-year-old Aylan [sic] Kurdi lying lifeless, face down in the sands of a Turkish beach. I felt sick with overwhelming sorrow. And despair. And anger… I found that as the feeling of anger dulled, my next response was…surely we can do more… And we should do it now.[viii]

The Federal Government initially offered to accommodate more refugees from Syria and Iraq, without, however, increasing Australia’s overall humanitarian intake of 13,750 people per financial year.[ix] One week after Alan Kurdi’s death, Abbott caved in to mounting pressure from within his own ranks and declared that Australia would resettle an additional twelve thousand refugees.

Although Alan Kurdi’s image had triggered outpourings of sympathy for Syrian refugees, he would not have been offered resettlement by Australia had he survived the capsizing of the dinghy and landed on Kos. That’s because his family would have left a place of temporary refuge in Turkey and tried to reach Europe with the help of people smugglers. In September 2015, Australia’s generosity was extended only to Syrians and Iraqis who had fled their country but not gone any further than neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. The incongruity of Australia’s response to refugees from Syria and Iraq was hardly noticed. On the one hand, there were those who were eligible for resettlement. On the other, there were those who had fled first to neighbouring countries and then journeyed to countries that could offer them permanent protection, such as Sweden, Germany – or Australia. According to the ABC’s 7.30, at the same time as Australia offered to resettle an additional twelve thousand refugees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, it kept seventeen asylum seekers from Syria who had arrived by boat since 2012 in detention. They included two children on Nauru.[x]

The situation of asylum-seeker children in an Australian-funded regional processing centre was highlighted when the Senate established a select committee to investigate allegations of abuse in that centre. In the course of their inquiry, the senators learned of ‘an unacceptable lack of privacy and poor hygiene’, and that ‘the overall living conditions and environment…were analogous to those of a prison’.[xi] Of even more concern to the senators was evidence that girls and women were being sexually harassed, and that the centre was unsafe for children.[xii] The report also noted that the Department of Immigration had withheld information from the committee, and ‘that the government in particular has sought to avoid the full accountability to which the Senate is entitled’.[xiii]

The senators published their findings only two days before news of Alan Kurdi’s death broke. The release of the report attracted a moderate amount of critical attention, but failed to generate a response that would have troubled the government. True, refugee advocates demanded that the processing centres in Nauru and on Manus be closed, and these demands became louder after Malcolm Turnbull had ousted Tony Abbott as prime minister. But the majority of Australians did not feel strongly about the human rights violations associated with the offshore detention regime.

PERHAPS THE LACK of public outrage over the committee’s report should not have come as a surprise, because its findings were not new. The previous nine months had seen the publication of three other reports into Australian-run detention centres overseas. In November 2014, a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission highlighted the damaging effects of prolonged detention on children – offshore or in Australia – and strongly urged the government to release all asylum-seeker children.[xiv] In December 2014, a Senate committee into the circumstances surrounding the killing of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati at the Australian-run regional processing centre on Manus Island had concluded that ‘the Australian government failed in its duty to protect asylum seekers including Mr Barati from harm.’[xv] In March 2015, the immigration department released a report into allegations relating to the conditions for asylum seekers on Nauru. While the report was not particularly critical of the government or the companies contracted to guard and care for the asylum seekers, it drew attention to evidence of widespread sexual harassment suffered by asylum seekers, including children.[xvi] Commenting on that report, even a senior member of the Coalition government, finance minister Mathias Cormann, admitted that some of the report’s content was ‘very concerning’.[xvii]

HOW COULD WE make sense of Australia’s seemingly generous approach to some refugees, and its harsh treatment of others? More importantly, how is it possible neither to accept Australia’s response as normal nor to marvel at it as an instance of weirdness, and therefore be able to conceive of the possibility of alternative futures? I would like to suggest that history could allow us to disentangle ourselves from the present, while never losing sight of its genealogy. This is not to claim that history always has that effect. In fact, the histories Australians tell themselves – or are told by their leaders – about their and their government’s response to refugees and asylum seekers tend to normalise the present.

The human rights abuses on Nauru and Manus have been depicted as the unfortunate by-products of a much needed and successful border protection policy that was implemented in 2013 by the newly elected Coalition government. According to a narrative told both by the Labor Party and the Coalition, the policy became necessary because the Rudd government’s abolition of the Pacific Solution in 2008 had led to a resurgence of attempts by asylum seekers to reach Australia by boat. In turn this had resulted in a high number of deaths at sea (including, in one case, forty-eight people who drowned on 15 December 2010 within sight of Christmas Island), because many of the boats setting out for Australian territorial waters were ill equipped for the journey and overcrowded. The number of ‘boat people’, this history suggests, was so large that it overwhelmed Australia’s capacity to accommodate asylum seekers and compromised its migration program. The boats could only be stopped by a dual strategy of deterrence – the detention of irregular boat arrivals and the processing of their protection claims offshore, and the resettlement of successful applicants outside Australia – and the turning around of boats carrying asylum seekers.

The number of ‘boat people’ did peak in 2013, when some twenty thousand arrived in Australia. But that figure needs to be seen not only in comparison to the number of boat arrivals in previous years, but also to the number of refugees and asylum seekers accommodated by other countries, and to Australia’s population, its economic capacity and the size of its migration program. Thus, as soon as Australia’s boat arrivals are considered within the context of the global movement of asylum seekers, the figure of twenty thousand no longer appears particularly large. For example, for 2015 the Swedish immigration authorities expect up to 190,000 asylum seekers – in a country with a population less than half of the size of Australia’s.[xviii]

And while the current offshore processing, detention and resettlement regime was prompted by panic over the number of ‘unauthorised arrivals’ in 2012–13, Australia has long responded to people arriving by boat and seeking its protection by detaining them in harsh conditions. With one notable exception – reforms in the wake of Immigration Minister Chris Evans’ announcement of seven ‘immigration values’ in 2008,[xix] which were endorsed by a Joint Standing Committee on Migration[xx] but soon thereafter abandoned by the Rudd and Gillard governments – for more than twenty years Australia’s response to asylum seekers has been deliberately cruel.

It is worth remembering that today’s immigration detention regime has its origins not in 2008, nor in 2013, but in legislative changes enacted in the early 1990s. These changes, including the introduction in 1992 of mandatory detention for unauthorised boat arrivals, made detention as deterrence possible. From the very beginning of the modern detention regime, inquiries conducted by government, by Parliament, by the Human Rights Commission, by the Commonwealth Ombudsman and by NGOs, have identified a range of serious problems, including the detrimental effects of prolonged detention on the mental health of detainees. These inquiries have suggested that some of the issues that were raised in, for example, the 2014 Human Rights Commission report or the 2015 Senate report, have been intrinsic to Australia’s detention regime, irrespective of where the detention facility is located.

When claiming that in resettling an additional twelve thousand refugees from the Middle East, Australia was true to its history, Abbott was also drawing on a very particular narrative. He and other members of his government portrayed the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq as a seamless continuation of Australia’s exemplary response to refugee crises. They claimed that Australia has always done more than its fair share in providing a refuge to displaced people from around the world, and implied that Australia’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis was therefore unexceptional. They were echoing a view that has been put forward by the Australian government for more than half a century. This view was neatly summarised by former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. Evaluating Australia’s record of resettling refugees, she wrote in August 2015: ‘It turns out we are the most generous nation in the world. Yes, that’s right, we are number one.’[xxi]
This claim is as dubious as the suggestion that Australia received an exceptionally large number of asylum seekers in 2012 and 2013. Australia has indeed contributed generously to the refugee resettlement program administered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But this program is miniscule in relation to the overall number of displaced people worldwide – 59.5 million at the end of 2014 – and entirely inadequate. And once the number of humanitarian visas offered by Australia is also considered in relation to the number of displaced people who are being afforded protection elsewhere, and to the overall size of Australia’s migration program, Australia’s record is no longer exemplary.

DURING THE 2001 election campaign, Prime Minister John Howard famously said: ‘We decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.’ He did not invent this mantra – Australian governments had invoked it since at least the late 1930s. In 2001, Howard emphasised the government’s right to select those admitted to Australia in order to argue that the asylum seekers arriving on the Tampa should not be allowed to land. They had not already been vetted by Australian immigration officials. The fact that health and security checks would have been done after their arrival, and that the decision about whether they were allowed to remain in Australia depended on the outcome of a rigorous refugee status determination procedure, was irrelevant to Howard’s argument. Whether asylum seekers met the criteria of Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention – that is, whether they were entitled to Australia’s protection – had no bearing on Australia’s decision.

In September 2015, the government emphasised that the additional Syrian and Iraqi refugees would be carefully screened before their arrival. ‘Everyone who is resettled in Australia will be subject to the usual security, health and character checks,’ Tony Abbott said. ‘These checks are absolutely necessary. We must play our part in this humanitarian crisis but as Prime Minister I must always act in our national interest to promote community safety.’ He provided further reasons why a careful vetting of applicants for resettlement was crucial: ‘It is important that we bring in people who are going to be contributors to the Australian community. It is important that we don’t bring in anyone from this troubled region who might ultimately be a problem for the Australian community as far as we humanly can.’[xxii]

The concern to select the right refugees – and to resettle only refugees who had passed the relevant character, security and health tests – was also central to the official beginning of Australia’s refugee resettlement program, when 843 so-called DPs, or displaced persons, arrived in Fremantle on 23 November 1947 aboard the converted troop carrier Heintzelman. Then, Australian immigration officers had selected only DPs who were young and single. They had to pass stringent medical tests. Only non-Jewish applicants from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were considered. Four migrants arriving on the Heintzelman were immediately returned to Europe: one because of security concerns, and three others because they suffered from a chronic illness.

After the arrival of the first batch of DPs, Australia relaxed its selection criteria. Soon, it accepted also families with children, nationals of other Eastern European countries and Jewish applicants. But there remained categories that were excluded from resettlement: refugees from the Spanish Civil War, for example, and families who included somebody with a disability.

In 1947, as in 2015, the selection of migrants, including refugee migrants, was guided by ideas about the contribution they could make (their usefulness to Australia), by their presumed ability to adapt to life in Australia, and by perceptions of Australians’ willingness and ability to accommodate migrants.

In other respects, Australia’s response to refugee resettlement in late 1947 was very different from its response in September 2015. The Immigration Department favoured the resettlement of European DPs because they were expected to make suitable ‘New Australians’ and because they were available and could be brought to Australia cheaply. Their plight in German and Austrian refugee camps did not elicit an emotional response in Australia.

Politicians making decisions about the admission of refugees in the late 1940s were not swayed by compassion, neither their own nor that of the electorate at large, whereas in 2015 the Abbott government’s decision to accept an extra twelve thousand refugees would have been unthinkable if it had not been for the public outpouring of emotions.

ACCORDING TO THE government and to NGOs involved in the reception of refugees, Australia’s response to refugees has been exemplary also because of the level of care offered to people admitted as part of Australia’s humanitarian program. ‘We are the best in the world at refugee and humanitarian resettlement,’ the then Social Services Minister Scott Morrison offered at a press conference in September 2015 when discussing the decision to increase the humanitarian intake. His words were echoed by Paris Aristotle, the CEO of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture and chair of the government’s Refugee Resettlement Advisory Council. ‘We do this very well,’ he told ABC presenter Fran Kelly. ‘We are probably the best in the world at doing it.’[xxiii] Aristotle and Morrison can cite UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in support of their claim. He said that Australia ‘has the most successful resettlement program I can imagine’.[xxiv]

There was no such program in 1947. Its beginnings can be traced back to the second half of the 1970s. In 1975, a Senate hostile to the Whitlam government established an inquiry into the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees. Soon after the committee began its work, the government changed. So did the focus of the committee. While it had initially been largely concerned with the government’s failure to facilitate the evacuation of Vietnamese who had worked with the Australians in Vietnam or who had family in Australia, it soon began to focus on the availability of government services that could facilitate the successful settlement of refugees in Australia.

The committee found that refugees from Vietnam required special assistance, which was not provided by the government. In a question directed at a senior official of the Immigration Department, the committee chair, Western Australian Liberal Senator Peter Sim, summed up one of the key insights the committee had gained: ‘Is it a fact,’ he asked, ‘that the intake criteria are varied for refugees, but that the settlement criteria are rarely varied at all?’[xxv]

The reason the lack of such services became so apparent in the case of Vietnamese refugees was not least the result of a dramatic shift in the way Australia selected refugees offshore. For good reason, Whitlam has been criticised for his reluctance in April and May 1975, immediately before and after the fall of Saigon, to open Australia’s doors to Vietnamese refugees in addition to the 283 orphans who had been brought to Australia in two so-called baby lifts in April. What is usually not remembered is that during the last months of his government he authorised the admission of Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

Their selection was carried out by two senior government officers – the private secretary to the minister for labour, Wayne Gibbons, and Whitlam’s private secretary, Michael Delaney – who were accompanied by two immigration officials. Gibbons told the Senate inquiry in October 1975 that previously Australia had applied its normal immigration criteria when selecting refugees put forward by the UNHCR but that this had ‘not been very helpful, because the sort of people displaced in a situation similar to that after the fall of Vietnam are not necessarily people who are able to meet our immigration selection criteria’. According to Gibbons, he and Delaney selected ‘people who would not receive a settlement opportunity, or were not likely to receive a resettlement opportunity, from another country, and who were most in need of the humanitarian assistance that resettlement in Australia would provide’. He told the Senate committee that 95 per cent of those selected did not meet Australia’s standard criteria.[xxvi]

That did not mean that the Australian selection missions were only guided by refugees’ needs. Reporting on the first selection mission in Hong Kong, Peter Wilenski, the head of the Department of Labor and Immigration, told Whitlam that Delaney and Gibbons had selected from those most in need of resettlement 121 persons ‘who meet our criteria, who have no obvious medical problem and who would present no problems, either on arrival or in the longer term, which departments could not cope with’.[xxvii]

Unlike the decision to resettle more than 170,000 DPs in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Whitlam’s decision to resettle Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia was not informed by ideas about Australia’s economic needs. But that does not mean it was only guided by humanitarian concerns. Wilenski, in recommending that the selection of refugees in Hong Kong be followed by selection missions to Singapore and Malaysia, argued that the entry of another three to four hundred refugees would put Australia on a par with Canada ‘and ahead on a per capita basis of most other countries’, that the selection of refugees would ‘assist Australia’s international image’ and that it would refute the criticism of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that Australia was shirking its responsibility.[xxviii]

Since 1975, Australia’s refugee resettlement policy has been informed by the same three – often conflicting – sets of considerations: that resettlement should respond to refugees’ needs, that refugee settlers ought not to cause problems (for example, on account of their political views, or on account of a debilitating illness), and that Australia’s resettlement program enhance Australia’s image as a good global citizen.

IN 1975, THE Whitlam government also anticipated the arrival of Viet-namese ‘boat people’. In early May, two weeks after Australia had evacuated its embassy in Saigon, Foreign Minister Don Willesee told Whitlam ‘that the question of the Vietnamese refugees in Singapore and the spectre of an armada sailing for Australia will now become the issue which will most attract public opinion and potentially present the greatest problems’.[xxix] If boats had reached Australia at the time, their passengers would have been disembarked ‘into custody’ to allow the authorities to return them to their boat ‘for the purpose of departing them from Australia’.[xxx] Whitlam also gave instructions to ensure that boats were ‘not made deliberately unseaworthy’.[xxxi] The ‘armada’ forecast by journalists and by Willesee’s department did not eventuate. It was only after fears about the impending arrival of ‘boat people’ had subsided that Whitlam authorised the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees from places such as Hong Kong.

The response to refugees who arrived in Australia without being vetted by the immigration authorities, and the response to refugees who could be offered resettlement once they had undergone a thorough selection process and therefore come through ‘proper and legitimate channels’, have long been linked. In recent years, the government has claimed that Australia’s generous resettlement program is only possible because the boats have been stopped. In 2014, before the government was contemplating an increase of its human-i-tarian intake, then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced that the government had reserved 4,400 resettlement places for ‘people affected by the humanitarian crises in Iraq and Syria’. According to him, ‘The commitment to these groups highlights the humanitarian dividend from the government’s successful border protection policies.’[xxxii]

In 1947, immigration minister Arthur Calwell pushed for the resettlement of DPs through the International Refugee Organisation after the seemingly spontaneous arrival of Jewish survivors from Europe and from Shanghai – which had been made possible by a generous family reunion policy – had prompted a largely hostile public response in Australia. The anti-Semitic and xenophobic backlash had led Calwell to terminate the arrangements that had allowed Jewish refugees to enter Australia without having to meet standard immigration criteria with the argument that the government had ‘gone as far as it can reasonably be expected to go for the present in granting landing permits to people of these classes on purely humanitarian grounds’.[xxxiii]

Thirty years later, the Fraser government’s Indochinese refugee resettlement program began in earnest only after the arrival of ‘boat people’ had caused a similar outcry. During the 1977 election campaign, during which several boats with Vietnamese refugees arrived in Darwin, the Labor Party tried to gain electoral capital by focusing attention on Vietnamese refugees supposedly jumping the queue. Bob Hawke, then president of both the ACTU and the Labor Party, suggested that Australia only accept refugees selected offshore, and Labor leader-in-waiting Bill Hayden told the Perth Press Club that sailing from Vietnam to Darwin was as easy as crossing Sydney Harbour on a Manly ferry.[xxxiv] The Fraser government, which had been at least as reluctant as its Labor predecessor to resettle large numbers of Vietnamese refugees, eventually rebutted the ALP’s anti-asylum seeker rhetoric, but also significantly increased Australia’s humanitarian intake from camps in South--East Asia.

IN 1976, ANOTHER parliamentary inquiry echoed the findings of the 1975–76 Senate committee that had investigated Australia’s response to Vietnamese refugees. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, chaired by Labor’s Kim Beazley Snr., investigated the response to the Lebanese refugee crisis. It found that Australia had no coherent refugee policy, and that the lack of such a policy put Australia at a disadvantage: ‘The Committee believes that a world which appears to be increasingly intolerant will continue to create refugee situations for many years to come and that Australia is well placed to be imaginative in policy and generous to refugees,’ Beazley and his co-authors wrote. ‘Indeed, the world has the right to expect that countries like Australia should express ideas and adopt policies which enlightened and humane people would want adopted wherever possible.’[xxxv]

In 1977, the government responded to both parliamentary inquiries by announcing a refugee policy. Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar told parliament that Australia’s response to refugees would be guided by four considerations: that Australia acknowledged its responsibility to admit refugees for resettlement; that the government retained the ultimate say over who would be resettled; that some refugee settlers required special post-arrival assistance; and that the needs of some refugees were best met by solutions other than resettlement in Australia.[xxxvi] At the time, MacKellar’s announcement marked a big step forward, as this was the first time the government had formulated a response to refugees in general, rather than to a particular refugee crisis. But in many respects, the policy was deficient – it did not link Australia’s policy to its international legal obligations, and made no reference to the rights of displaced people seeking Australia’s protection.

One aspect of the government’s new policy received very little public attention at the time. Cabinet decided that henceforth the Minister for Immigration, rather than the Foreign Minister, was responsible for Australia’s refugee and asylum-seeker issues. This meant a significant increase of power for the department which over the previous thirty-two years had identified as the agency entrusted with deciding who came to Australia and the circumstances under which they came, and whose culture of control was to become increasingly problematic.

Arguably, the demands put forward by Kim Beazley’s 1976 committee have not yet been met. Australia has never had a coherent imaginative policy that pays close attention to the needs and rights of asylum seekers and refugees. In order to arrive at such a policy, it’s worth revisiting key moments in the past, including, for example, the decisions in 1947 to terminate the generous family reunion policy that allowed Jewish refugees to settle in Australia, and to carefully select DPs in European refugee camps instead; the origins of the Fraser government’s 1977 refugee policy; the origins of the Keating government’s mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers arriving by boat; and Chris Evans’s brave new beginnings in 2008.

In 2015, much was made of the revamping of the Immigration Department (which had become the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in 2013, and has included the former Australian Customs and Border Protection Service since 1 July 2015). But the department which Whitlam dismantled in 1974, and which the Howard government reorganised in 2005 following the inquiry into the wrongful detention of Australian permanent resident Cornelia Rau (which identified ‘serious problems’ that stemmed ‘from a deep-seated culture and attitudes and a failure of executive leadership in the compliance and detention areas’[xxxvii]), has not only survived but flourished. Its infamous culture of control is alive. In Australia, an obsession with the enforcement of ‘proper and legitimate channels’, rather than the arrival of a few thousand irregular migrants, has been the most significant impediment to an imaginative policy that is mindful of the rights and needs of refugees.

In Germany too the government has been anxious to re-establish an orderly process after tens of thousands of irregular migrants entered Germany in September 2015 without having been registered when they crossed the border. But that’s where the similarities end. Notwithstanding the introduction of harsh new measures (which, for example, make it easier for the authorities to speedily remove unsuccessful asylum seekers), the German government maintains that those who arrive in Germany after fleeing persecution and who are therefore by law entitled to Germany’s protection must be afforded that protection. In Australia, asylum seekers have been systematically deprived of their rights, and an additional twelve thousand refugees from Syria and Iraq are welcome mainly because Australians felt sorry for a three-year-old boy, ‘lying lifeless, face down in the sands of a Turkish beach’. In Germany, by contrast, refugees and asylum seekers are accommodated, however reluctantly, because the principle that ‘human dignity shall be inviolable’ (as Article 1(1) of the German Constitution puts it) is extended to citizens and non-citizens alike.

[i] L’Australie ferme ses frontiers aux migrants clandestins’, Le Monde, 19 July 2013.

[i] ‘L’Australie ferme ses frontiers aux migrants clandestins’, Le Monde, 19 July 2013.

[ii] Klaus Neumann, ‘Merkel’s high-stakes stand’, Inside Story, 19 October 2015,

[iii] James Robertson, ‘Liberal candidate links asylum seekers to traffic jams and hospital queues’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September 2013,

[iv] Katie Hopkins, ‘Hopkins: Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop illegal migrants’, Sun, 17 April 2015,

[v] Peter Alford, ‘Tony Abbott says Australia will beat people-smugglers despite asylum boat backdown’, Australian, 10 November 2013,

[vi] Tony Abbott, joint press conference with Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, 9 September 2015,

[vii] Nick Butterly and Andrew Tillett, ‘Bring in more Syrian refugees: Barnaby Joyce’, West Australian, 4 September 2015,

[viii] Mike Baird, Facebook post, 5 September 2015,

[ix] Tony Abbott, press conference, 6 September 2015,

[x] Jessica Longbottom, ‘Syrians who came to Australia by boat plead for humanitarian intake inclusion’, 7.30, ABC television, 24 September 2015,

[xi] Parliament of Australia – Senate, Select Committee on the recent allegations relating to conditions and circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru, ‘Taking responsibility: conditions and circumstances at Australia’s Regional Processing Centre in Nauru’ (31 August 2015), pp. 62 and 85,

[xii] Ibid., pp. 99 and 103.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 121.

[xiv] Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘The forgotten children: national inquiry into children in immigration detention’ (November 2014),

[xv] Parliament of Australia – Senate, Legal and Constitutional Affairs Reference Committee, ‘Incident at the Manus Island Detention Centre from 16 February to 18 February 2014’ (11 December 2014), p. 146,

[xvi] Philip Moss, ‘Review into recent allegations relating to conditions and circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru: final report’ (6 February 2015),

[xvii] ‘Cormann admits concern over Nauru abuse report’, Australian, 21 March 2015,

[xviii] Anders Bolling, ‘Kraftigt höjd flyktingprognos’, Dagens Nyheter, 22 October 2015,

[xix] Chris Evans, ‘New directions in detention’, speech at the Australian National University, 29 July 2008,

[xx] Joint Standing Committee on Migration, ‘Immigration detention in Australia: a new beginning’ (December 2008),

[xxi] Amanda Vanstone, ‘So you think we're mean-spirited to migrants? Think again’, the Age, 17 August 2015,

[xxii] Tony Abbott, joint press conference with Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, 9 September 2015,

[xxiii] Paris Aristotle, interviewed by Fran Kelly, Breakfast, ABC Radio National, 18 September 2015,

[xxiv] Antonio Guterres, quoted in Fiona Harari, ‘Brave New Life – Refugees in Australia’, Good Weekend, 26-27 September 2015, p. 16,

[xxv] Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, ‘South Vietnamese refugees’ (official Hansard report, 1976), vol. 2, p. 881.

[xxvi] Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 483-484.

[xxvii] Peter Wilenski to Prime Minister, 5 June 1975, National Archives of Australia (hereafter: NAA): A1209, 1975/1333.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Don Willesee to Prime Minister, 6 May 1975, NAA: A1209, 1975/1156.

[xxx] ‘Contingency planning: unauthorised arrival of Vietnamese’, n.d. (20 May 1975), NAA: A1209, 1975/1333.

[xxxi] Quoted in KH Rogers to Feakes, 3 July 1975, NAA: A1838, 1634/70/2 part 3.

[xxxii] Scott Morrison, ‘Stopping the boats to help Iraqis and Syrians’, media release, 17 August 2014,

[xxxiii] Quoted in ‘Fewer landing permits for refugees’, the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 January 1947.

[xxxiv] Klaus Neumann, Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees: A History (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2015), 269-286.

[xxxv] Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, ‘The Lebanon crisis: humanitarian aspects’, Parliamentary Paper No. 331/1976, p. 66.

[xxxvi] Michael MacKellar, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, Representatives, vol. 105, 24 May 1977, p. 1714.

[xxxvii] Mick Palmer, ‘Inquiry into the circumstances of the immigration detention of Cornelia Rau: report’ (July 2005), p. 160,


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