A brief history of refugee policy in Australia
To understand how we have arrived where we are today, it is useful to look briefly at the historical and political aspects of Australia's response to refugees. Australia has been involved in the international response to the refugee situation since 1921. The early response of the government was guarded and strongly influenced by the White Australia Policy which dominated Australia's immigration policy until 1975. Only 3 500 refugees were settled in Australia between 1921 and 1938 (Blakeney, 1985). In the mid 1930s, in response to events in Europe, Australia agreed to accept 15 000 Jewish refugees, but only 7 000 had been admitted before World War ll broke out. When the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) established an International Refugee Organisation (IRO) in 1946, to deal with the European refugee crisis, Australia did not support the motion and refrained from voting in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). It was feared that this could involve accepting refugees from non-Caucasian stock. However, with increasing paranoia in Australia about invasion by 'the yellow hordes' from the north following the war, the catch cry of 'populate or perish' was born. As migrants from the UK and its colonies could not be recruited fast enough to supply the demand, Minister Caldwell 'became increasingly aware of the splendid human material to be found in the refugee camps' (Markus, 1984).
Between 1947 and 1952, 181 700 refugee and displaced persons entered Australia through this scheme and related non-government organisation (NGO) sponsorships. The stringent health requirements set by Australia earned the country the international reputation of using refugees as 'grist for the labour mill'. The intake was seen to satisfy Australia's labour requirement rather than for humanitarian reasons and avoided responsibility for 'hard to place' refugees. This set the tone for Australia's future refugee policy. However, while the Australian Government gained a reputation for being intransigent in its attitude towards refugees, in contrast, Australian NGOs were recognised for a high level of involvement in the issues both at home and on the international stage. This included lobbying and advocacy on behalf of refugees and the establishment of overseas aid programs and resettlement programs in Australia (National Population Council, 1991, p. 67).
The Australian Government's attitude changed with the success of the settlement policy in assisting to fill the immigration needs of the country. Australia was actively involved in the establishment of UNHCR in 1950 and was one of the first nations to ratify the 1951 Convention on Refugees. When the Intergovernmental Commission for European Migration (ICEM) was formed in 1952, Australia became a major player and accepted 199 000 refugees through this program between 1953 and 1973. During this period, waves of refugees were generated from successive wars and conflicts. These people, however, were not protected by the 1951 Convention, which only applied to those who became refugees due to events prior to that date (UN, 1984). In 1967, a protocol was drawn up which removed the early geographic limitations from the 1951 Convention. Australia did not sign this protocol until 1973 (National Population Council, 1991).
By far the largest intake of refugees to Australia since 1975 has been from Vietnam, with smaller intakes from Cambodia and Laos. The fall of Saigon in 1975 promoted the outflow of over one million Vietnamese, who fled in small boats to whichever neighbouring country would accept them. They were dubbed "the boat people"
In May 1977, a new refugee policy was announced, covering procedures for designating refugee situations, assessment of Australia's capacity to accept refugees, encouragement of voluntary agencies to participate in refugee resettlement, and the strengthening of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs' (DIEA) Refugee Unit (Bailey, 1977). As refugee numbers grew, increasing unease about the process resulted in an international conference being hosted by the UN in 1979 to seek a solution. An agreement, usually referred to as the Moratorium, was reached between the USA, UNHCR and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, whereby guarantees of resettlement were given in return for commitments to contain the outflow of refugees and provide aid to countries of first asylum (Viviani, 1984).
The outflow of refugees from Indo-China led to an effort by UNHCR to establish a coordinated resettlement program for people living in the camps. A system of refugee selection was instigated and overseas posts were responsible for identifying those refugees considered to be most suitable for resettlement. 1979 also saw the negotiation of an Orderly Departure Program (ODP) between UNHCR and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to promote the departure of migrants from Vietnam to countries of resettlement without the necessity of fleeing by boat. Australia expected that, if it received refugees from camps in Thailand and Malaysia, then those countries would not send refugees on to Australia in boats.
Australia, along with other resettlement countries, introduced a system of refugee selection in 1979. This was the beginning of the 'off shore" refugee policy. Australian officials visited refugee camps and centres, and along with officials from UNHCR, selected people to come to Australia. Government officials were urged to select those refugees most likely to resettle successfully in Australia. These were the young, the healthy, the well educated, and people with a family support system already established. An active policy prevented selection of those with an obvious disability or those likely to require substantial social support. The many refugees who did not fit the stringent requirements of developed countries remained in the camps, often for years. The problems which had led to them not being accepted in the first place were usually exacerbated by the physically and mentally debilitating conditions of camp life (National Population Council, 1991). This is the genesis of the so-called "queue" which on shore asylum seekers are accused of jumping by the Minister for Immigration.
Subsequent and recent developments in the ways in which Australia interprets its obligations under the United Nations convention and protocol, and how we have responded to the latest wave of "boat people" are discussed in detail below. The papers in the first section of the journal pose major questions about the generation and plight of refugees in the 21st century. The second section examines some of the experiences of refugees and the response to these by service providers. The third section focuses specifically on the current stance taken by Australia. It is particularly appropriate to focus on these in an international context as the rest of the world is closely watching the actions taken by Australia. In some cases they are being used as an excuse by countries with poor human rights records to justify their actions on the grounds that they are following the lead set by Australia. In other cases, while Australia claims that the rest of the developed world is following our example (Ruddock, 2002), in fact there is strong evidence to suggest that international opinion is in fact dismayed at he action taken by Australia, a country formally regarded as one of the human rights leaders in the world.
Director, Centre for Refugee Research
University of New South Wales, Sydney
Bailey, P. H. (chairman), (1977), Proposals for Change in the Administration and Delivery of Programs and Services, first report of the Task Force on Coordination in Welfare and Health, Canberra: AGPS.
Blakeney, M. (1985) Australia and the Jewish Refugees, 1933-1948, Croom: Helm.
Markus (1984) cited in National Population Council (NPC), (1988), A Proposed Settlement Strategy, Canberra: AGPS.
National Population Council (1991) The National Population Council's Refugee Review July 1991, Canberra: AGPS.
Ruddock, P. 2002, ABC Radio Interview, London 20th April.
UN (1984) Report of the International Conference on Population, New York: UN.
Vivani, N. (1984), The Long Journey: Vietnamese Migration and Settlement in Australia, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.