Australia's mistreatment of refugees: a history

Wednesday, November 17, 1993

Refuge Australia: Australia's humanitarian record
By Klaus Neumann
UNSW Press
128 pages, $16.95 pb


Refuge Australia has an explosive opening. It relates three stories of refugees, which could have been set in the present: the deportation of "illegal" immigrants whose claims for asylum were rejected, the forced removal of refugees before they could lodge a claim for asylum, and the deportation of people whose temporary protection visas have not been renewed.

What comes as a surprise is that the stories actually date from 1943, 1962 and 1971. It's an interesting way to point out to people how little they know about the earlier history of Australia's treatment of refugees.

Refuge Australia is based on original archival research. Many of the documents Neumann examined had never before been sighted by a historian. The book draws on anecdotes and stories that give the book a wonderful depth. It is more than just a fascinating read. For those interested in the historical context of Australia's treatment of refugees, this is essential information.

Neumann sees it as a weakness that "almost all attempts to make sense of the historical origins of the current asylum seeker and refugee policies have focused on the 1990s". He adds that there has been some exploration of the treatment of Indochinese refugees, but it doesn't go back any further. Refuge Australia focuses on the decades between the 1930s and the 1970s.

Neumann introduces the book by posing some of the myths peddled by the government and assumptions made by refugee supporters, which he sets out to debunk.

"Traditionally Australia has accepted more than its fair share of refugees from around the world." Neumann's research makes a mockery of this claim, exploring the limits imposed on the immigration of Jewish refugees and the barring of non-European refugees under the White Australia policy. Neumann also challenges the assumption that Australia's post-war resettlement of European refugees was driven by humanitarian concern.

The resettlement of 200,000 displaced persons in the 10 years after WWII was undeniably significant, but it was done for economic rather than humanitarian reasons. As far as Canberra was concerned, the shipping of post-war refugees by the International Refugee Organisation to resettlement countries was a golden opportunity to populate Australia with Europeans at a very low cost.

Neumann also explodes the myth that "Australia has always supported international legal instruments for the protection of refugees and worked closely with the UNHCR [UN High Commission for Refugees] to alleviate the suffering of refugees across the globe." I found the chapter which dealt with this myth the most fascinating, precisely because there is such a persistent assumption that the Coalition government was the first to flout international refugee law and tarnish Australia's humanitarian reputation.

Australia was not among the nine member states that signed the 1933 convention on refugees, which obliged signatories not to return refugees to their country of origin. Australia was vehemently opposed to many aspects of the 1951 UN refugee convention, and sought to have it watered down. Australia and the US set up the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, a rival body to the UNHCR.

It wasn't until 1973 that Australia signed the refugee convention's optional protocol, which acknowledged that the convention should relate to all refugees, not just those from Europe at the end of WWII.

From Green Left Weekly, August 4, 2004.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.