Navigate a New Path, Gillard: From Antisemitism to ‘Asian Invasion’, Australian Immigration Policymaking has been and remains inherently Racist


by Emily Palmer


Executive Summary

  • Historically, prospective and incoming refugees have been subject to xenophobic, racial immigration policies established by Australian policymakers, which have adversely impacted on the lives of global citizens seeking asylum, not to mention Australia’s humanitarian reputation.
  • The Garrett Report in the 1930s stereotyped Polish Jews as not suitable refugee applicants, which probably added to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
  • Unrest in South East Asia during the last quarter-century of the twentieth century led to an influx of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees to Australian shores. Even though coming to ‘multicultural’ Australia, the first ‘boat people’ were detained under a new immigration policy based on xenophobic fears that simultaneously shaped and reflected Australian government and society.
  • Present and future governments have a similar situation on their hands with the increase of refugees due to the ‘Global War on Terror’. The amount of refugees arriving on boats from war-stricken countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan are increasing. The situation, again, is underpinned by fear and the inherent racism many Australians hold toward Muslims.
  • This article acknowledges that the refugee issues is complex, but warns against Australia developing further racist policies restricting Muslim and other refugees based on religion and other stereotypes. Also, the complexity and ambiguity of refugee policy today is in itself acting against certain ethnic groups seeking asylum, and taking away from the need to save lives.

The refugee predicament is a messy and complicated affair in general, not only in Australia, and not only in this century. In the past, racism shrouded in the veil of patriotism has been allowed to infiltrate government policy. The outcomes of xenophobic immigration policy range from death at the hands of Hitler’s Third Reich, to being incarcerated in detention for up to five years upon arrival in the so-called ‘lucky country’. Such results have originated all because of personal declarations of one’s life being in grave danger in their own country and resorting to seek asylum elsewhere. Current and future leaders of Australia must be cautious when dealing with racial issues today that have arisen with the influx of refugees fleeing from conflict in the Middle East due to the Global War on Terror. Most alarmingly, in spite of our gradual transformation from a ‘White Australia’ to a multicultural Australia, we have been portrayed as a racist nation.

This article examines international events of the twentieth century that produced a need for Australia to create refugee policy and consolidate the immigration process. Emphasis is placed on two key issues: first, the racist nature of one particular document, titled Report and Proposals by Mr T H Garrett: Refugees from Europe, in relation to Polish Jews seeking asylum before the outbreak of World War II; and, second, the changing nature of immigration policies made in response to the arrival of refugees from South East Asia in the latter half of the twentieth century. Existing parallels are made with Australia’s current xenophobic attitude having been transferred to Middle Eastern immigrants, particularly Muslim refugees. Current leaders must be aware that racial profiling and xenophobia continues to infiltrate the development of refugee policies, like it has in the past. Future policies must be free from racial stigma towards any group or individual who are fleeing their home in fear of their lives, for it is their fear not ours that deserves attention.

In the late 1930s the refugee immigration issue began to loom on Australia’s horizon owing to the policies of the Third Reich. Large numbers of Europeans were desperately seeking new and safer places to call home, and with good reason. With war seemingly imminent, the admission of refugees into Australia was high on the political agenda mostly due to international and domestic pressure concerned with the news coming from Europe of the treatment of the Jewish community in Germany. The National Archives of Australia hold government department records relating to the immigration of Jewish refugees to Australia before the war. Almost every series of archives describe the general fear among various groups in Australian society over accepting refugees. A protest from an Engineering Union in December 1938, for instance, expressed concerns that Jews would displace Australians in industry.

It is the official report by Mr Thomas Hugh Garrett, however, that was most alarmingly prejudiced towards people who wanted to call Australia home. The correspondence file, titled Report and proposals by Mr T H Garrett: Refugees from Europe – Selection of etc (1939), is located in Canberra. Garrett was the Assistant Secretary to the Department of the Interior (established in April 1932, during its seven-year existence this Department’s responsibilities included citizenship, migration, and passports matters). Garrett was appointed to conduct an interim report that eventually was titled White Alien Immigration into Australia from Europe. An increase in immigration applications to Australia, especially after Kristallnacht (a nationwide pogrom conducted against Jews across Nazi Germany in November 1938) forced the government to consider changes surrounding the selection and efficiency of processing refugee applications. These developments culminated in Garrett being dispatched on a ministerial tour of Europe from July to August 1939 in order to make informed recommendations in the above-mentioned report.

Essentially, Garrett’s task was to determine the actual nature and acceptability of anyone applying for refuge in Australia before their arrival, and specifically to learn in person the reality of the position facing European Jews. Furthermore, he was especially concerned with why Jews from countries like Poland wanted to seek asylum in Australia, which perhaps is where Garrett’s racism stems.

The interwar journey took Garrett to many European countries including Germany and Poland. In an informal letter attached to Garrett’s final report, comments are made about encountering Polish Jews. His description of them is nothing short of bigotry – ‘the poorest specimens outside blackfellows I have ever seen…they are undoubtedly as low a class of white people’. Garrett, in his position of power as the Assistant Secretary to the Department of the Interior, strongly advised that is was ‘especially desirable’ that ‘no landing permits should be issued to any of these people… [and] the greatest care should be exercised in the selection of Polish Jews’. From this point it is concerning that Garrett’s antisemitic observations would eventually manifest and form the foundations of future implementation for Australia’s immigration policy. Garrett also took the liberty of making distinctions between different ‘types’ of Jews, of whom those living further east in Europe supposedly were the poorest, and ‘the Polish Jew is the worst type of Jew in Europe… then come the Hungarians’. He considered that German Jews were the best ‘type’ but nonetheless advised that suitability and quality for relocation to Australia would deteriorate over time.

Future Australian policies were influenced by this report that racially profiled Jews in a manner that, it must be said, would not have been out of place in Nazi Germany. The federal government halted any processing of immigrants once Australia was at war, however, during the conflict (and with Garrett’s report likely being referred to with interest) non-Jewish migrants were accepted as asylum seekers.

The Garrett report recommended a series of immigration policies based on racial ranking and quality control, rather than the aim of providing a safehaven to people unmistakably under threat. According to the Polish Jews Heritage website, more than 90 percent of Polish Jewry perished in the Holocaust. We can’t read history backwards and accuse Mr Garrett of choosing to do nothing to help prevent the Holocaust, because no bystanders foresaw what would follow under the cover of war. Even so, if he had stepped past his judgemental and baseless fears about eastern European Jews apparently posing some kind of threat, then surely a considerable number of lives may have been saved through Australian actions. Although the early twentieth century was at the stage where racial stereotypes were commonplace — including at government level — the lesson that history should have provided was not heeded as the years went by and more conflicts erupted.

Political unrest in South East Asia, including war in Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, led to changes and limitations to immigration policies that reflected Australia’s Cold War anxieties. Refugees from both South East Asian countries sought safety from war-torn and politico-ideologically oppressive homelands; to an extent Australia obliged, but not without violating human rights in the process. Australia had come further in terms of human rights — it was, after all, a founding nation and party to both the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees — and so it would seem a country dedicated to upholding and recognising universal human rights.

Government policy on immigration was broadened to include refugees in response to the arrival of ‘boat people’. The first boat carrying Vietnamese refugees arrived in Darwin on 27 April 1976 — almost a year to the day of the Fall of Saigon. The response of the Australian government and the public at the time was not free from racial stereotype, selectively ignoring the legacy of the Holocaust amongst various aspects of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, especially Article 14: ‘everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. What surrounded talks, inquiries, and committees on the issue of Asian refugees was the obvious anxiety gripping much of the western world during the Cold War — in our case the ‘domino theory’ and an apparent vulnerability of Australia being invaded by nations from the north. Fear of an Asian invasion, much like Mr Garrett’s fear of Polish Jews, got in the way of equal and humanitarian treatment of refugees.

Governments of the 1970s were not so unwise as to prevent ‘boat people’ from entering Australia and risk domestic and international uproar; but the option to let them disembark ‘into custody’ was arranged, which were the beginnings of detention centres and offshore processing policies we know today.

Following the Vietnamese, Cambodians fleeing following the murderous Pol Pot régime in the 1980s were subject to new and harsher immigration policy. Decision makers perhaps had figured out a policy that was in Australia’s best interests, and not so much the refugees in fear of their physical wellbeing. Cambodians arrived by boat in 1989 only to be subject to the new detention provision of the Australian immigration policy, with some refugees being incarcerated for up to five years. The policy restructuring during the late 1980s, to include detention centres and offshore processing in response to Asian refugees, only can be described as the government’s desire for strict control. This, of course, is a necessary entitlement at the decision-making level. It was a desire to control vulnerable human lives, however, who only wished to seek refuge and safety. An explanation on offer is that it was fear, based on different ‘race’, which controlled these changes.

Although there are many instances where the first wave of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ were able to successfully seek asylum and integrate into Australian society relatively easily, this was only a small number in comparison to the constant stream of refugees attempting to come to Australia today. Yes, Australia had come a long way from racially profiling refugees like Mr Garrett and eastern European Jews; instead, however, the policies have become unnecessarily ambiguous and complex to refuse or make difficult for refugees to enter. Perhaps, then, it is the policymakers’ tactic of ambiguity to mask the xenophobia that shapes and reflects our nation. The development of immigration and refugee policies following the arrivals from South East Asia was based on racial fear.

Today the immigration and refugee policy is much the same, if not even more ambiguous, than it was for the first ‘boat people’. The difference rests in the demographic of refugees. The Global War on Terror has seen an increase in refugees from the Middle East, many being Muslim who now incite the xenophobia still evident in Australian society. This fear has manifested itself into events such as the Cronulla Riots in 2006, and misinformed but nonetheless popular opposition to the Muslim community. A similar situation to the Asian refugees is presenting itself to the government of today, with sadly much the same results.

The documentary series Dumb, Drunk and Racist (ABC, July 2012) reported that a recent survey found that 50 percent of Australians believed that a Muslim cannot be trusted. The documentary confers to the argument that quite a lot of the Australian population are racist towards other cultures, especially the Muslim community. The same mistrust was thrust upon the new Vietnamese citizens in the 1970s. Members of the Australian public express fears of letting too many Muslim refugees into Australia, the worst expressions even coming from public figures such as Alan Jones who referred to them as ‘scum’ (Episode 2: Dumb, Drunk and Racist) This is similar to when Mr Garrett expressed fears in government reports about letting Polish refugees into Australia in the 1930s. The fear of today has some basis — terrorist attacks on the United States and closer to home with the Bali Bombings — were horrific and remain ingrained. Unfortunately, the fear of Islamic extremists (who are a minority) has somehow taken precedent over the constant and real fear of millions of refugees. The racist coupling of Islamic extremism with all Muslims as expressed by many facets of Australian society has undoubtedly infiltrated into the professional minds of policymakers. Perhaps this best explains why the refugees fleeing from daily suicide bombings and insurgent attacks are either detained upon arrival to Australia or sent out of sight and out of mind to offshore processing centres, in order to control and contain fear.

It is important to point out that time is a factor here; many Australians ‘at the moment’ are not sympathetic towards Muslim refugees due to today’s fear of terrorism, just like they were ‘at that moment’ fearful of an Asian invasion in the 1970s. In another 50 years, aspects of Australian society could have found another race to form prejudice against, and the Muslim family living next door may be accepted as ‘normal’. It would be hopeful to think that the policymakers of the future would use the pattern of refugee history, including the treatment of refuges in 2012, and make it a priority to flush out any racially-based and xenophobic decisions in order to save lives the lives and humanity of refugees.

Selected further reading:

Description of Garrett Report and assorted other immigration documents available from the National Archives of Australia website: http://www.naa.gov.au/naaresources/Publications/research_guides/guides/immig/pages/chapter09.htm

Bartrop, Paul, ‘Almost indescribable and unbelievable: The Garrett Report and the future of Jewish refugee immigration to Australia in 1939,’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. 46, 2011, pp. 549-556, retrieved 1 October 2012

United Nations Refugee Convention and Protocol available from UNHCR website: http://unhcr.org.au/unhcr/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=48&Itemid=58

Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 14 available from the United Nations website: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

Dumb, Drunk and Racist, DVD recording, Cordell Jigsaw Productions, Australia, 2012

Neumann, Klaus, ‘Oblivious to the obvious? Australian asylum-seeker policies and the use of the past’ in K Neumann & G Tavan (eds.), Does History Matter? Making and debating citizenship, immigration and refugee policy in Australia and New Zealand, ANU E Press, Canberra, 2009, pp. 47-64

McMaster, D, ‘Asylum-seekers and the insecurity of a nation,’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 56, 2002, pp. 279-290

Detailed information on the Holocaust and Kristallnacht found at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website: http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005201

Information on Polish Jews from the Polish Jews Heritage site: http://www.polishjews.org/

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Emily Palmer, Navigate a New Path, Gillard: From Antisemitism to ‘Asian Invasion’, Australian Immigration Policymaking has been and remains inherently Racist. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/navigate-a-new-path

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/navigate-a-new-path