Refugee policies in Australia: have they always been the same?

Refugee policies in Australia: have they always been the same?

On 1 September 2015, La Trobe hosted a Conversation about Refugee Protection. At this public forum lawyers from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka pondered questions surrounding the treatment of refugees in the Asia-Pacific region.

It was an important discussion, not only because the issue has rarely been out of the collective public’s thoughts for over a decade now, but because of the complex ethical questions it raises.

Let’s look at how Australia has responded to refugee arrivals over the years and provide an introduction to La Trobe’s thought leadership on the issue.

Do we have it right?

If our only concern is to stop the boats, one obvious option is to ensure that the treatment [of] those who arrive on boats experience in Australia is far worse than the treatment they will receive in any other country in the region. That may work.

Of course, we would have to sink so low we would not be able to keep up even the pretense of caring about human rights and the rule of law. Perhaps some will think that is a small price to pay. I do not, and nor should the government.

Dr Savitri Taylor, Associate Professor in La Trobe’s Law School

The burning question in Australia is: are we dealing with the arrival of refugees in the best way we can?

According to the Refugee Action Coalition, it would take 20 years to fill the MCG with the number of refugees who come to Australia. However, a 2014 poll showed that many Australians believe asylum seekers need to be dealt with even more harshly. Who really has the answers when it comes to this issue?

Dr. Taylor questions the legal treatment of asylum seekers in Australia in her research. She has written extensively on the treatment of refugees, fact checking the Rudd government’s assertions on refugee policy and analysing Australian Border Force.

According to Dr. Taylor’s recent article on The Conversation ‘How civil society can improve refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific,’ we are only hosting 1 per cent of the refugees in the Asia-Pacific region.

Taylor analyses current policies and concludes that:

If the Australian government redirected the money it is prepared to spend on deterrence to the UNHCR and the civil society organisations promoting refugee rights in the region, it might be able not only to save refugee lives – its stated objective – but also ensure that refugees had lives worth living.

Her suggestion to redistribute how funds are spent in dealing with refugees is a practical and humanitarian strategy, however it doesn’t necessarily align with popular Australian opinion. In the current climate, it’s hard to see a way to help that will be popularly supported.

How did we get here?

Refugee arrival in Australia is not a contemporary phenomenon. According to the Refugee Council, since Federation approximately 740,000 refugees and humanitarian entrants have settled in Australia.

Australia has been a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees since the 1950s. However, as this timeline (and this slightly more detailed version) shows, the way Australian courts and parliament have dealt with refugees has fluctuated.

While it would be overly simplistic to suggest there were fewer difficulties for refugees in Australia in the past, the doors have not always been firmly closed. Around 35,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution sought asylum here between 1933 and in 1955, and the Menzies government accepted claims of asylum from Hungarian Olympians during the Melbourne Olympics.

The White Australia Policy was abolished during Whitlam’s 1973–1975 government and Vietnamese refugees arrived in large numbers around this time. In 1986, the first Refugee Week was celebrated and Bob Hawke made a tearful declaration about accepting Chinese refugees after Tiananmen Square.

When did things change?

During the 1980s, more legislation to deal with refugee arrival was implemented. Despite the sentimentality of the PM, the Hawke government passed the Migration Amendment Act. This was intended to deter refugee arrivals through the introduction of harsher policies.

Later, Keating’s government introduced mandatory detention. Then, the Howard government implemented the Migration Legislation Amendment Act (No.1) 1999, which made it an offence to bring non-citizens to Australia without legal documentation.

In 2000, Temporary Protection Visas were introduced, followed by the Border Protection Bill in 2001, which sought to:

Put beyond doubt the domestic legal basis for actions taken in relation to foreign ships within the territorial sea of Australia.

Practically speaking, the bill gave the power to remove any ship in Australian waters with force and assured that no asylum applications were accepted from anyone on that vessel.

August 2001 saw the unfolding of the Tampa Crisis, the response to which, arguably, won Howard the federal election that year.

What’s going on now?

Fast forward to contemporary policies. The Abbott government has promised to ‘stop the boats’ and the government has been accused of paying people smugglers to turn boats back.

The issue is not getting simpler as the years pass by.

Which, of course, is why discussions like the public forum are so important.


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Image: The Boats Have Eyes by Tine Steiss (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)