by Klaus Neumann,
Professor Klaus Neumann is a Professor of History in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University.
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  • During the 2010 federal election campaign, the Australian Labor Party and the Coalition issued statements on asylum seeker policy that were pandering to the anxieties of a minority of Australians.
  • The statements about asylum seekers that have been issued by the major political parties highlight the need for a comprehensive and informed debate about asylum seeker and refugee policy.
  • An informed debate about refugee and asylum seeker policy has been lacking not least because of a lack of historical awareness of refugee and asylum seeker issues.
  • Refugee and asylum seeker issues have not featured prominently in Australian historiography.
  • Six themes suggest themselves for further historical research: anti-alienism and refugee advocacy; the institution of asylum; engagement with the international refugee regime; the intersections between refugee and immigration policy; the evolvement of the category of the refugee; and the admission and rejection of refugees.
  • Social inclusion ought to be thought of as a two-way process.
  • If social inclusion of resettled refugees were to be successful, Australians would need to pay more attention to the memories and histories refugees bring to Australia.

The recent federal election campaign was frustrating, to say the least. The two major parties offered slogans rather than policies. The parties’ refugee and border protection policies are a case in point. The statements by both the opposition and the government on Australia’s future response to asylum seekers were thinly disguised appeals to voters in a small number of marginal seats, most of them in Western Sydney and Queensland, who are said to be particularly anxious about boat people. Labor and the Coalition tried to soothe the fears of those voters because, according to psephological wisdom, only the party that would win their seats would be in a position to form government.

In deference to a minority of vacillating and ill-informed voters, both the Coalition and Labor promised they would halt the flow of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. This was despite the fact that they comprise a comparatively small number: in 2008-09, the Department of Immigration counted 1043 unauthorised boat arrivals, who accounted for little more than a quarter of all onshore protection visa applications. At the same time, the Department located 11,428 people who had overstayed their visas or had been in breach of their visa conditions.

While the Coalition advocated a return to temporary protection visas (TPVs) and extraterritorial processing on Nauru to deal with asylum seekers arriving by boat, Labor talked in the vaguest of terms about a regional processing centre. Earlier, in a prelude to the election campaign, the Rudd Labor government ostensibly had tried to discourage asylum seekers from making the journey to Australia, first by promoting an Indonesian Solution, and then, when that fell apart during the Oceanic Viking fiasco, by suspending the processing of protection visa applications by Afghani and Sri Lankan asylum seekers. That, too, was a concession to vox populi (or what is being taken for it) rather than sensible policy.

The differences between the two leaders were marginal: while Tony Abbott directly appealed to the anxieties of sections of the electorate, Julia Gillard condoned their fears.

Once more with an eye to the irrational fears of people in Western Sydney and elsewhere, both major parties allowed a debate about population policy to be confused with a debate about refugee policy – as if the paltry number of asylum seekers arriving by boat had been responsible for substantial population increases in outer metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent in Perth and Brisbane. Or, to put it another way, as if stopping the boats were all that was needed to put a cap on net immigration, as if a cap on immigration would curb the expansion of Australia’s big cities, and as if the infrastructure in those cities wouldn’t deteriorate further if only they stopped growing.

For the past five years or so, at least since the failure of the Howard government to get its Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill through Parliament in 2006, it has been clear that most Australians don’t necessarily support harsh measures designed to keep asylum seekers at bay. Shouldn’t we therefore have expected loud protests and a vigorous public debate in which the claims of Liberal and Labor Party politicians were scrutinised and challenged? No such debate eventuated – either when Labor began changing the rules earlier this year, or when the Opposition made the slogan ‘Stop the boats’ a centrepiece of its election campaign. Rather than taking on the fluff put out by the major parties by highlighting the rights of refugees and Australia’s moral and legal obligations, many refugee advocates have resorted to a tired refrain about the contributions refugees have made or could make to Australia.

Why did Gillard and Abbott get away with their campaign platitudes about boat people? Why did their -policies’ not spark a profound debate about refugee and asylum seeker policies?

The answer to these questions lies partly in the inward-looking nature of current political debate in Australia. It is a telling fact that there was almost no mention in this election campaign of foreign policy and Australia’s place in the world. But even more, the answer has to do with the absence of a pervasive historical narrative about Australian responses to refugees and asylum seekers. Without historical awareness, an informed debate about refugee and asylum seeker policy is not possible. Election campaigns are often characterised by promises made as if there were no tomorrow. The pronouncements on asylum seekers during the 2010 campaign were made as if there had been no yesterday.

That’s not only true for the past campaign. Australia has never had a sustained and informed debate about its response to asylum seekers and refugees. There were promising starts – the last one in 2005-06, when Petro Georgiou, Judy Moylan, Bruce Baird, Judith Troeth and Russell Broadbent effected substantial changes to government policy.

But even those promising beginnings were hampered by myths – myths that have been powerful not least because of the absence of widely disseminated historical knowledge. According to the orthodox myth, Australians are inherently generous, and Australia has taken more than its fair share of refugees over the past sixty-five years. This myth has often been cited by the government of the day, irrespective of its party-political persuasion. Governments tend to promote patriotic histories – narratives about the past in which the nation’s achievements are highlighted and its people are credited with a range of positive attributes. According to the counter myth, Australians have been inherently racist and Australia’s contribution to alleviating the suffering of refugees has been paltry. Neither of these myths stands up to historical scrutiny.

When bemoaning the lack of an informed historical perspective, I am pointing the finger at politicians and journalists, and at historians. Immigration generally and Australian responses to refugees and asylum seekers in particular have been neglected fields in Australian history. Count the number of books written about the history of immigration in the past fifty years and compare it to the number of books written about Australian military history, political history, social history or cultural history. Or count the number of articles about immigration and refugee topics published in the main journal in the field, Australian Historical Studies. Or the space accorded to immigration and refugee issues in general histories of postwar Australia.

* * *

How could histories of previous Australian responses to asylum seekers and refugees throw a critical light on the present ‘debate’ about asylum-seeker arrivals?

A discussion about the Coalition’s recent proposal to reintroduce temporary protection visas and detain asylum seekers on Nauru would have benefited from informed historical analyses of the Howard government’s asylum seeker policies. TPVs were introduced two years before the Pacific Solution. They did not bring about a fall in the number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia; instead they contributed to a change in the demographics: after their introduction, comparatively fewer single men and more women and children undertook the dangerous journey by boat.

The Pacific Solution was a response to a very specific situation: the arrival of the Tampa. It required the cooperation of at least three partners: Australia, a Pacific Island nation dependent on Australia (such as Nauru or Papua New Guinea) and New Zealand. Tony Abbott appears to have conveniently forgotten about New Zealand’s role in resettling a sizeable number of refugees from Nauru. Nearly all of those who were detained on Nauru, recognised as refugees but not resettled by New Zealand were resettled by Australia. An alarmingly large number of those detained on Nauru and not recognised as refugees came to harm after their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.

In 2005, parliament passed the Migration and Ombudsman Legislation Amendment Act , which stipulated that the protection visa applications of asylum seekers be processed within ninety days of their arrival. The legislation had bipartisan support not least because of the overwhelming evidence that long-term detention was the main reason for the high incidence of mental illness among detainees and former detainees. On Christmas Island, it is possible to expedite the processing of protection visa applications. It would be extremely difficult to uphold the ninety-day processing time commitment on Nauru (or in East Timor, for that matter). Under the current regime, detainees are released once they have been recognised as refugees and they have received their ASIO clearance. Past experience suggests that would not be the case on Nauru and in East Timor, and long periods of detention, with all the consequences documented during the Howard years, would again become the norm.

The more distant past could also serve to illuminate the present. It would be instructive to compare Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard’s pandering to irrational fears of boat people in the landlocked electorate of Lindsay with Bob Hawke’s pandering to the whims of voters in the Northern Territory and other sparsely populated parts of Australia who were afraid they would be overrun by Vietnamese boat people ahead of the 1977 federal election. It would be instructive to interrogate former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s claim that he provided leadership in the debate about refugees and was thereby able to put a lid on the outpouring of xenophobic sentiment.

Or, to give yet another example, it would be instructive to think back to the late 1940s and the quite different intersections of debates about Australia’s population policy and Australia’s refugee policy. Then, of course, refugees were needed to boost the population. In 1949-50, some 100,000 refugees were resettled in one year. To put that figure into perspective: that’s as if today Australia resettled not 13,500 refugees per annum but twenty-three times as many: more than 300,000. At such a rate, Australia could resettle everybody from two of the most notorious refugee camps in Africa, Kakuma and Dadaab, in a bit over a year.

The late 1940s are interesting for another reason: then, as now, politicians distinguished between good (-genuine’) and bad refugees. The bad refugees, Asians who had sought refuge in Australia during the second world war, were targeted by the Labor government’s Wartime Refugees Removal Act 1949. The good refugees, blonde and blue-eyed displaced persons, or DPs, from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, were welcomed with open arms. Then, as now, some of the displaced who would now be classified as refugees – the Jewish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps – jumped the queue, as it were, and came to Australia in privately chartered ships rather than courtesy of the International Refugee Organization. Then, as now, agitation against those boat people was informed by racist sentiment. Then, the government eventually caved in to the demand to curtail the immigration of Jews.

* * *

The snippets referred to above could form part of a historical narrative. The content of the historical narrative I have in mind, however, would not be determined by the vagaries of today’s political debate. That is, it shouldn’t be simply a response to the need for specific historical analogies – not least because a historical narrative driven by the exigencies of current political debate and policy making would be in danger of privileging a Whiggish perspective: one that views the past only through the lens of the present. I’m all in favour of histories that pay close attention to historical dead ends. I’ll therefore be more systematic: I suggest that the stories historians need to tell and disseminate about Australia’s response to refugees would usefully focus on six aspects:

1. We need to know more about the response to different refugee-producing situations. We already know a lot about Australia’s responses to the refugee crisis triggered by Nazi Germany’s measures against Jews, to the displacement of millions of people during and in the aftermath of the second world war, to the Indochinese exodus in the late 1970s and to the more recent refugee crises in the Middle East and Central Asia. What is intriguing about the narrative commonly told now is the attention given to some events and some refugee groups, and the lack of attention to others. Official decisions not to admit refugees tend to rate hardly a mention: for example, the non-admission of Spanish refugees in the late 1930s, or the non-admission of so-called hard core cases until the late 1950s, or the Whitlam government’s refusal to admit Vietnamese refugees in 1975. Little attention has been given to those who were not officially counted as refugees but were admitted partly because of the discrimination they feared or experienced, such as Anglo-Burmese after the military coup in 1961.

2. We need to know more about the changing definition of the term ‘refugee,’ and, more generally, about how Australia’s criteria for distinguishing refugees from other prospective immigrants evolved over time. Many of the displaced persons invited to Australia in the late 1940s and early 1950s would not have been admitted under the current regime.

3. We need to know more about the overlap between refugee policy and immigration policy (and that often also means population policy). Hardly anybody resettled in Australia before the late 1950s was considered foremost as a refugee. Rather, they were immigrants much like assisted-passage migrants from Britain, Italy, Germany or Holland.

4. We need to know more about Australia’s involvement with the international organisations dealing with refugee and asylum seeker issues (including, most importantly, the International Refugee Organization; the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration and its successor, the International Organization for Migration; and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Far too little is known about Australia’s contribution to the drafting of relevant legal instruments, such as the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Declaration on Territorial Asylum .

5. I would be surprised if many Australians, other than refugee law specialists, had ever heard of the 1967 Declaration on Territorial Asylum. We need to know more about Australia and the institution of asylum, about so-called unauthorised arrivals both in Australia and in its colonies and territories, and about how, over time, Australia developed procedures for the recognition of asylum seekers as refugees.

6. Finally, we need to know much more about the history of popular opposition to refugee arrivals as well as the history of refugee advocacy. We also need to have a better understanding of the interplay between concerted lobbying for or against the admission of refugees, public opinion and policy making.

A narrative that includes those six elements would, I hope, be one that foregrounds the complexity of the past. It would also be one that emphasises continuities as well as ruptures. Current developments are not always variations of past developments. When discussing refugee policy it is particularly important to keep in mind dramatic changes in the global context: the refugee regime at the beginning of the twenty-first century is radically different from that which prevailed before the formation of the UNHCR and the drafting of the 1951 Convention, or in fact before the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

While advocating that historians work towards an informed and widely told historical narrative about Australia’s response to refugees, I would like to caution against overly simplistic expectations, according to which histories are meant to save us from memories. The history that ought to inform public debate and policy making is necessarily itself shaped by memories. It is always partial. Historians do not have unmediated access to the past, however rigorous their research methods may be. An appreciation of the making of memories and histories can therefore be as important as a thorough understanding of the past.

Tony Kushner, in his excellent book Remembering Refugees, claims that in the United Kingdom historians actively forgot refugees. His explanations go some way towards making sense of that forgetfulness in Australia. He writes that ‘the lack of attention given to refugees by historians … reflects the emphasis placed by many in the historical profession on continuity of presence rather than temporariness, flux and statelessness – the conditions that in many ways typify the experiences of refugees.’ And: ‘Refugees or asylum seekers, lacking the fundamental requirements of home and homeland, have to be defined into shape. Those best suited to controlling their messiness and, more than anything, their inherent instability, it is deemed, are not historians but lawyers.’

I can think of three more possible explanations in the Australian context. They are probably more controversial than Kushner’s. First, most Australian historians are still wary of topics that require a truly interdisciplinary approach. It would be very difficult to write about the history of Australia’s response to refugees without dabbling in law, political science and sociology. Second, all the talk about the need for transnational histories notwithstanding, most Australian historians are still wedded to the national framework, which is unsuited to analysing most refugee issues. And finally, for all its critical engagement with the past, Australian history has a nationalist flavour.

In summary, I call upon historians to write about anti-alienism and refugee advocacy, the institution of asylum, engagement with the international refugee regime, the intersections between refugee and immigration policy, the evolvement of the category of the refugee, and the admission and rejection of refugees. At the same time as shedding light on the past, historians may wish to reflect on the memory and history making in relation to refugee issues.

* * *

Not only have historians neglected to engage critically and comprehensively with Australia’s past record of responding to refugees and asylum seekers, they have also paid little attention to the histories of refugees. Assisted by a couple of my students, I recently compiled a comprehensive bibliography of books, articles and reports dealing with refugee resettlement in Australia. Our list has more than 600 items. Again, very few of those texts are written by historians. But that’s not my main complaint here. The thrust of the majority of those text is that refugees resettled in Australia tend to be disadvantaged in comparison to the rest of the population: for example, on account of their education or skill levels, on account of having been traumatised before their arrival in Australia, or on account of their exposure to diseases that are not common in Australia. Sociologists, medical researchers, human geographers and social policy analysts argue that in order to be successfully assimilated, integrated or socially included, refugees require special attention from doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and teachers. Or, to put it simply: as a group, refugees are a problem that needs to be treated in order to function in society.

I suggest that the current focus in Australian refugee studies on disadvantage and adaptability fails to take into account three issues: First, while the emphasis is on the problems of refugees, the assumption is that these problems can and indeed will be overcome. There is little attention given to those refugees whose lives do not recover from the experiences of persecution and flight and exile, and whose cases could never be cited in uplifting media reports about the contribution refugees have made to their new country. Second, refugees bring to Australia memories and histories other than those that potentially make them a liability. More often than not, these are not being told in public; in fact, the lives of refugees feature mainly in accounts that highlight their successful adaption to Australia. When such accounts refer to the pre-arrival lives of refugees, they often do so as part of narratives of redemption that refer to persecution and flight in order to highlight the benefits of resettlement. Third and finally, the discourses on refugee resettlement and assimilation, integration or social inclusion are usually predicated on the idea that only refugees need to adapt, that only they constitute a problem that needs to be fixed.

The second and third blind spots may be connected. Social inclusion, I would like to believe, ought to be a process involving new arrivals and long-time residents. If social inclusion were more than making immigrants fit for the Australian way of life, then there needs to be a place for the histories and memories of resettled refugees.

Reading the government booklet that prospective Australian citizens are expected to study in preparation for the citizenship test, one could get the impression that first, Australian history and the history of Australians (or, perhaps more accurately: of lives in Australia), are synonymous, and second, that if there were any antecedents of Australian history, they could be located in Australia itself (under the label of what used to be called -prehistory’ and is now more often referred to as -indigenous history’), and in the British Isles. As new Australians, Somalis, Burmese and Iraqis are expected to learn about Australian history (including its antecedents). Why shouldn’t Australians be expected to become acquainted with the histories of Somalia, Burma and Iraq? Shouldn’t Australia’s heritage also comprise the histories of all Australians, irrespective of their date of arrival?

Australians are a long way off from being mindful of the richness of histories and memories that make up their collective heritage. And let’s face it – for the time being the idea raised in the foregoing is one largely designed to unsettle our assumptions of what could constitute Australian history, and to allow us imagining a different, socially inclusive Australia, one in which there is a give and take on all sides, and one that is nourished by an historical awareness that does not pivot around the nation.

This text is based on a paper delivered on 20 August 2010 at the ‘Refugees, History, Human Rights’ symposium at the State Library of Victoria. A shorter version was published on 20 August 2010 in Inside Story.

Selected Further Reading

On the use of historical analogy in the making of refugee policy, see my contributions -Oblivous to the past? Australian asylum seeker policies and the past’ and -Afterword’ in Does History Matter? Making and Debating Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Policy in Australia and New Zealand, edited by Klaus Neumann and Gwenda Tavan, Canberra 2009, and

On the histories told by Australian refugee advocates, see my 2006 paper -Refugee advocacy and the sound of good intentions’ (

For a select history of Australia’s response to refugees, see my Refuge Australia: Australia’s Humanitarian Record, Sydney 2004.

Malcolm Fraser has recently revisited the issue of Australia’s response to asylum seekers and refugees from Indochina in Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoir, Carlton 2010.

For excellent analyses of Australia’s response to Indochinese refugees, see Nancy Viviani’s books The Long Journey: Vietnamese Migration and Settlement in Australia (Carlton 1984) and The Indochinese in Australia 1975-1995: From Burnt Boats to Barbecues (Melbourne 1996).

Savitri Taylor and I have written about the Australian response to asylum seekers in the Australian territory of Papua and New Guinea in -Australia, Indonesia, and West Papuan Refugees, 1962-2009′,  International Relations of the Asia-Pacific10,1 (2010); earlier I discussed Australia’s relationship with the UNHCR over those asylum seekers in -Hush-hushing the whole matter: the UNHCR, Australia, and West Papuan Refugees,’ Refuge 23,1 (2006).

I have explored Australian responses to other groups of refugees and asylum seekers in -‘Our own interests must come first’: Australia’s response to the expulsion of Asians from Uganda’, History Australia 3,1 (2006) [Asians from Uganda in the early 1970s]; -‘Stayputs’ and asylum seekers in Darwin, 1961-1962: or, how three Portuguese sailors helped to undermine the White Australia policy’, Journal of Northern Territory History 16 (2005) [Portuguese asylum seekers in the early 1960s]; and -Guarding the floodgates: the removal of non-Europeans 1945-49′, in The Great Mistakes of Australian History, edited by Martin Crotty and David Roberts, Sydney 2006 [wartime evacuees and the Wartime Refugees Removal Act 1949].

The quotes from Tony Kushner’s book Remembering Refugees: Then and Now (Manchester 2006) are found on pp. 1 and 41. Refugees in an Age of Genocide by Tony Kushner and Katharine Know (London 1999) is perhaps the best in-depth historical account of a nation’s responses to refugees and asylum seekers; it deals with Great Britain. The pre-arrival histories of refugees resettled in Australia feature prominently in Nathalie Nguyen’s book, Memory Is Another Country (Santa Barbara, 2009).

Citation: Klaus Neumann, Historians to the fore, or how to inform a much-needed debate about Australia’s response to refugees.
Australian Policy and History. August 2010.


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