The World on the Move: Current Trends in International Migration
Mark J. Miller
Migration to the West: An Overview
The UNHCR: A Dynamic Agency in a Volatile World
Gerald E. Dirks
Averting Forced Migration
Susan F. Martin
Why Borders Cannot Be Open
David A. Coleman
Land of the ‘Fair Go’? Asylum Policy in Australia
Sangatte: A False Crisis
People-Smuggling in Europe: A Growing Phenomenon
Whither EU Migration Policy?
Afghans in Iran: Asylum Fatigue Overshadows Islamic Brotherhood
Afsaneh Ashrafi and Haideh Moghissi
Refugees and Afghanistan’s Recovery
Arthur C. Helton and Eliana Jacobs
Palestinian Refugees: The Need for a New Approach
Otto Hieronymi and Chiara Jasson
The West and the Rest?
Michael T. Gibbons
The Fleeting Ghost of ‘Serbia’
John B. Allcock
Greece and Turkey: From Enmity to Rapprochement
Volume 4 ● Number 4 ● Autumn 2002—The Era of Mass Migration
Land of the ‘Fair Go’? Asylum Policy in Australia
In focusing on the latter, negative, aspect of the paradox, this article will maintain that a historical continuity connects the enactment of the White Australia policy at the beginning of Australian federation in 1901 to the country’s uncompromising and draconian approach to refugees at the federation’s centenary. These two policies reflect a sense of insecurity that seems to be embedded in the Australian psyche, as well as an underlying strain of racism.
Since August 2001, asylum-seekers have been headline news on a weekly, if not daily, basis in Australia. The incident precipitating this media obsession was the Tampa crisis. On 26 August 2001, a Norwegian container ship, the Tampa, chose to rescue 438 asylum-seekers (most of them Afghans) from a sinking Indonesian vessel just outside Australian territorial waters. Permission to dock at Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island was denied by the government, which demanded that the asylum-seekers be returned to Indonesia. Arguing that his passengers required urgent medical treatment, the captain of the Tampa (who has since been granted the Nansen Human Rights award for rescuing the asylum-seekers) disregarded Australian demands and headed towards Christmas Island. Australia responded by sending elite troops to board the non-Australian ship. The asylum-seekers were transferred from the Tampa to an Australian Navy transport ship and ultimately taken to the Pacific island of Nauru for processing. Australia subsequently introduced a system of interdicting boats and transferring asylum-seekers to islands in the Pacific, a measure that became known as the Pacific Solution. The Tampa affair marked a fundamental turning point in Australia’s refugee policy.
Racist rhetoric and action against Muslims and Middle Easterners were fuelled by the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. At that time, most asylum-seekers arriving in Australia were from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, and were wrongly perceived as being either terrorists or “the enemy”. Ironically, the Afghan asylum-seekers were escaping persecution from the very forces that the West declared war on. Since then, protests by migrants confined in detention centres, particularly the isolated Woomera detention centre in central–south Australia, have continued, with the government retaliating by tightening control. At Woomera, protesting detainees were sprayed with water from fire trucks, the media was distanced from the camp perimeters and the authorities released unsubstantiated reports of child abuse by detainee parents. These reactions by the incumbent government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, highlighted both a crisis in its (mis)management of refugee policy and that policy’s underlying inherent racism.
From White Australia to Tampa
At the beginning of 2001 Australia celebrated the centenary of federation, a milestone in nation- and identity-building, and an event to acknowledge, celebrate and reflect upon. After a series of incidents in which asylum-seekers were refused sanctuary on Australian soil, the post-centenary era now resonates with the rhetoric, fears, insecurity and racism that existed in Australia at the time of federation. The “Asiatic Menace” of the early 1900s has become the “Muslim Menace” of the early 2000s. Once again, the nation-state is exploiting an Australian fear of loss: loss of land and identity. This fear is partly a xenophobic response to globalisation and partly a resurgence of the vision of “hordes from the north” invading the island continent.
The fear that existed at federation was that of invasion by Chinese migrants. This culminated in the “White Australia” policy which, as part of the Immigration Restriction Act, was the first legislation passed by the new Commonwealth government in 1901 and set the tone for national identity and nation-building in Australia. In celebrating the centenary of federation in 2001, Australia also commemorated the notorious and racist White Australia policy.
Understanding Australia’s evolving policy towards asylum-seekers, particularly the dramatic shift of late 2001, requires a brief look at Australia’s history as an immigrant- and refugee-receiving country. Apart from the indigenous peoples, all Australians have a recent immigrant history. Australia was settled and colonised by Britain. British subjects could emigrate to Australia under assisted passage schemes, which between 1831 and 1982 were the most significant sources of immigration to Australia. Only rarely were assisted passages extended to non-Britons; the preference was for Anglo-Saxons and Celts.
The first recorded arrival of refugees is that of Germans who fled religious persecution in their homeland and settled in south Australia in 1838. It was not until 1848 that the first significant arrival of Asians occurred when Chinese labourers, both indentured and free, came to work in the goldfields. By 1861 the Chinese population had grown to fifty-five thousand, residing in separate quarters in the New South Wales, Victorian and Queensland goldfields. The Chinese and European migrants remained apart, and antagonism grew between them, with sporadic riots between 1857 and 1877.
These riots occurred in an atmosphere of intense economic competition and racial hostility. Concern grew about an enormous influx of Chinese. The increasing number of Chinese migrants aroused both cultural and economic insecurity among the British and their Australian-born descendents. The white colonists, wanting to keep Chinese immigration in check, came to believe that the only feasible policy was one of exclusion.
Thus was born the White Australia policy, initially focused on curbing Chinese immigration, but later expanded to include immigrants from “all peoples whose presence was, in the opinion of Australians, injurious to the general welfare”.1 Indian and Japanese immigrants, who had begun to arrive in the Australian colonies at this time, and Melanesians and Kanakas (who were used as cheap labour in Queensland), were also targeted for exclusion.2
The collective national desire to remain British in political principles and institutions, and more importantly to remain white, was the underlying ideology of the White Australia policy. It was a racist policy set specifically to exclude people commonly grouped together as Asian or coloured. It was not finally dismantled until 1973, when Gough Whitlam’s Labor government abandoned it.
The Rise of Multiculturalism
The first cracks in the White Australia policy occurred in the 1950s, when Australia adopted the Colombo Plan to counteract the ill feeling the policy had caused in Asia. The Australian government saw the temporary admission of Asian students allowed under the plan as a means of improving relations with Asia. There was a further easing on Asian immigration during the 1960s and early 1970s. However, it was the Vietnam War that produced a major shift. Until then, refugee policy had been part of immigration policy, but the large refugee exodus produced by the war became the catalyst for Australia’s first separate refugee policy.
The Whitlam Labor government transformed immigration policy, basing it on the commitment to avoid discrimination on grounds of race, skin colour, or nationality. Cultural pluralism became the ideology that underpinned national identity. Ethnic traditions and languages were to be preserved. Multiculturalism was a term employed to describe the ever-increasing diversity of Australian society.
Multiculturalism was seen by many in Australia and overseas as an outstanding success. Others saw it, and especially the increased Asian immigration, as a threat to social cohesion and the “British way of life”. Such criticism of multiculturalism and immigration has been prevalent since the 1980s, but came to the fore in recent years with the rise of Pauline Hanson and the One Nation party.
The One Nation party alerted Australians to the dormant legacy of White Australia and its continuing appeal to those who felt marginalised by the processes of globalisation. No party in recent times has risen so quickly. The arguments it used, especially against Asians, were consistent with those used for over a century. Racism may be part of all societies, but Australian attitudes towards and rhetoric about asylum-seekers since late 2001 resonate uncomfortably with those directed against the Chinese over a hundred years ago. Neither the One Nation party nor the mainstream conservative parties have ever called explicitly for a return to White Australia or used the racist terminology that was rampant at federation in 1901. However, the One Nation party emerged largely from mainstream conservative parties, and when its leader, Pauline Hanson, retired from politics in early 2002 most of its supporters returned to these parties. The Howard government pre-empted and absorbed One Nation’s populism, aided by the fears generated over the asylum-seeker issue and the Tampa incident. The openly racist One Nation party captured ten per cent of the national vote at its peak; now this support has mainly transferred to the Howard government.
Since the Tampa incident, asylum-seekers have become a newsworthy issue, and following the November 2001 federal election, an increasingly politicised one. Unfortunately, they have also been demonised and once again posited as the “other”—to be feared and used as scapegoats for the internal problems produced by processes such as globalisation.
Since its inception in 1901, Australia’s immigration policy has featured a detention clause. However, the clause was not generally acted upon until the arrival of Cambodian asylum-seekers in 1989. “Boat people”, as they were labelled, had been arriving since 1976, when the first wave of Vietnamese asylum-seekers landed on northern Australian shores. They were generally well received, were not detained and were settled. As history has shown, they became valuable citizens.
In 1989, however, the detention provision was invoked in response to concern over asylum-seekers arriving by boat. Under the Migration Act of 1958, non-citizens lacking a valid visa or entry permit can be
detained, and in some circumstances must be detained, while their claims to enter or remain in Australia are determined ... [I]f their claim is unsuccessful ... they must be removed from Australia as soon as practicable.3
This practice is consistent with fundamental legal principles of national sovereignty, accepted in international law, whereby the state designates which non-citizens it will admit and also the circumstances in which they may be removed. This is also consistent with Australia’s universal visa system, which both facilitates and controls the movement of people into the country. However, the mandatory detention provision means that Australia’s immigration policy is one of the most severe in Western liberal democracies. Australian governments are not alone in using harsh rhetoric and punitive measures against asylum-seekers, yet no other country has dared to use mandatory detention.
In Australia, detention for all unauthorised arrivals is mandatory until the determination process is resolved. This process can be prolonged, resulting in detention periods of up to five years for some applicants. Since 1992, detention has effectively been unreviewable by the courts—a highly political and contentious situation. Asylum-seekers represent less than 0.01 per cent of all arrivals in Australia, and yet they have created major headlines and controversy out of all proportion to their actual numbers.
Refugee policy in Australia is subordinate to immigration policy, in that immigration control overrides the obligations and objectives of refugee protection. The governmental administrative system for refugee policy, relying heavily on ministerial discretion, has opened up avenues for discrimination against Australia’s “other”. In the detention of asylum-seekers, the universal aim of refugee protection has become lost in a quagmire of governmental administrative processes, resulting in a targeted group suffering discriminatory policies.
The first wave of Vietnamese asylum-seekers was small and the government of Malcolm Fraser introduced procedures to make the arrival and settlement of the Vietnamese humane. Certainly, there was an ideological bent to these admissions, in that the Vietnamese were escaping a so-called communist regime. But to give Fraser and his immigration minister Ian MacKellar their due, the asylum-seekers were treated compassionately and in keeping with Australia’s human rights obligations.
The second wave of asylum-seekers—the Cambodians—arrived in 1989. They were not treated so humanely, being incarcerated in detention centres, sometimes for up to five years—a major violation of human rights. Federal and high court challenges were mounted in the ensuing years, with a struggle developing between the government and the judiciary. It is a struggle the government has so far won, retaining control over who determines refugee status. Detention centres already existed in Sydney and Melbourne, but two new centres were established in Port Hedland and at the Curtin air force base in western Australia, where asylum-seekers were placed in isolation, away from community support and legal advice—a government strategy to keep the issue from public attention.
In 1994, the third wave of asylum-seekers arrived. Mainly Chinese nationals, they prompted press headlines such as “Boat People Flood Feared”, “Refugee Crisis” and “Invasion”. This third wave saw the introduction of harsh new legislation, a tightening of government restrictions on migrants and a further isolating of detainees by making their access to legal avenues much harder. It also saw renewed claims of human rights violations and highly publicised protests by detainees when they took to the roof of the Port Hedland detention centre.
The Australian public has been conditioned to fear the arrival of asylum-seekers (especially “boat people”), thus perpetuating Australia’s strain of racism. The Port Hedland protests of the 1990s brought to public attention the inhumane treatment of a specific group of people. The validity of the detention policy came into question. The protests and breakouts at Woomera detention centre in 2001 and 2002 and the Tampa incident had the same effect. However, while some may question the detention and refugee policies, a large proportion of the Australian public still sees asylum-seekers as invaders and a threat to national “purity” and security.
The fourth wave of arrivals—from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Pakistan—came in 1999 as a result of people-smuggling. This insidious process highlights the desperate measures that asylum-seekers will take in order to escape persecution, discrimination, trauma and torture. The fourth-wave arrivals are still being detained and, as conditions at Woomera detention centre indicate, in no better manner than previous asylum-seekers. When they began arriving on Australia’s coast without authorisation from mid-1999 onwards, politicians inflamed hostile community sentiment for their own gain. While official reaction partly reflected community attitudes and concerns, the government failed to balance these with a constructive response to ill-founded fears of invasion and the “other”.
The 2001 Clampdown
The 13,015 applications for asylum lodged in Australia during the 2000–1 financial year represented a 50 per cent increase over previous years. Nevertheless, the total number is small compared to that for other countries, and the scale of the refugee “problem” confronting Australia in no way justifies the alarmist and racist rhetoric employed by politicians and sections of the media. The United Kingdom, for example, received 96,870 asylum claims in 2000, more than Australia received in the whole decade of the 1990s (93,630). Europe is the top destination in the industrialised world for asylum-seekers, receiving three-quarters of the 8.4 million claims made in the last twenty years. The United States received 24 per cent of claims. Australia, Japan and New Zealand combined accounted for just 1 per cent of claims over the last twenty years—hardly an invasion by global standards.
However, the Howard government has continued to clamp down on asylum-seekers. In 2001, it introduced bills to allow strip-searches of refugees, to increase prison terms for those who flee detention and to restrict visitor access to detention centres (which were already much more closed than ordinary prisons).
The Border Protection Bill and the Migration Amendment Bills 1 and 2 were also introduced. These three bills seek to stem the arrival of asylum-seekers by making alterations to Australia’s migration zone. The migration zone is the area of Australia where a non-citizen must hold a visa in order legally to enter and remain in the country. It includes the external territories of Christmas Island, the Ashmore and Cartier Islands in the Timor Sea, Cocos Island (Keeling) in the Indian Ocean, and certain sea and resource installations. All these territories were excised from the migration zone by the new legislation. Any unauthorised persons arriving in an excised territory were barred from applying for an Australian visa, unless at the discretion of the immigration minister. Officials were authorised to detain such arrivals in these offshore places. Asylum-seekers could also be expelled from Australian territory, and removed to a country deemed appropriate by the immigration minister. Thus was born the “Pacific Solution” of interning asylum-seekers on neighbouring Pacific islands—at considerable financial and political cost to Australia.
The Border Protection Bill also allows the Australian Navy to intercept boats before they enter Australian waters, and to expel any that do enter. The Tampa incident showed that asylum-seekers held as a result of such interceptions may suffer lengthy detention in poor conditions while protracted negotiations about their future take place with other states and international institutions. This situation, because of its indeterminacy, may breach Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (Australia was in fact deemed guilty of such a breach well before the Tampa incident. In April 1997, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Australia had violated the rights of a boat person under the covenant by detaining him arbitrarily for more than four years.)
With what it perceives as a mandate for its treatment of asylum-seekers after the November 2001 election, the Howard government has strengthened its resolve to maintain a draconian detention system, regardless of criticisms from the United Nations, Amnesty International and Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. It was predicted that the government would spend over A$200 million on locating, detaining and removing asylum-seekers in 2001.4 However, with the latest system of interdiction by naval boats and the transfer of asylum-seekers to poorer Pacific islands, the current figure might easily be double or treble that amount.
In contrast, Australia will contribute only around A$14 million to the UNHCR refugee fund (not including the money proposed for Afghanistan relief).5 The money spent on detention centres and naval interdiction would be better donated to the UNHCR to alleviate some of the root causes of asylum-seeker displacement. Until those causes are addressed, people will continue to flee life-threatening situations in their homelands.
In February 2002, the attempts of the Howard government to dehumanise asylum-seekers came back to haunt it. A month before the 2001 election, the government had circulated reports of asylum-seekers throwing their children from a boat in protest at being boarded and shipped out of Australian territory. Photos of children in the water were released as confirmation. The photos were disputed at the time as not being of children thrown overboard by their parents, but rather of asylum-seekers escaping from their sinking boat in a different incident.
A Senate inquiry into the “children overboard” incident uncovered disturbing examples of fraudulent use of photographs and videotapes by politicians. Blatant government manipulation of the armed forces, the public service and asylum-seekers was exposed. The Australian public was given an insight into the underhanded tactics used by the Howard government to control the asylum-seeker issue in its own, and not the national, interest. The incident highlighted the government’s willingness to exploit the politics of fear and insecurity.
Since Tampa, there has been a public groundswell against the government’s harsh interdiction and detention policies. Mandatory detention is expensive, costing A$104 per head daily, and many groups are urging an appropriate and humane method of managing asylum-seekers, such as community-based programmes. A community parole system has been costed by a select committee of the New South Wales parliament as coming to an average of A$5.39 per head, per day. This would accommodate asylum-seekers in community houses and give them freedom to move within the community, but oblige them to report to the authorities at designated times. Clearly, this system would be more economically efficient and much more humane than the present arrangements. It has also proven effective in countries such as New Zealand and Sweden.
Australia’s management of asylum-seekers is abysmal, and has been criticised internationally. The Border Protection Bill and the Migration Amendment Bills 1 and 2, together with post–11 September anti-terrorism legislation, constitute serious moves to restrict civil liberties and human rights. These are major concerns for all Australians, as they erode citizens’ democratic rights while giving the government licence to exclude targeted groups and individuals and perpetuate traditional racism.
Howard and the cultural right in his coalition government have shown not only general indifference to multiculturalism but overt cruelty and racism in their treatment of Muslim asylum-seekers—treatment that would be inconceivable if the latter were European. International condemnation continues, with the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (Mary Robinson) and the secretary-general of Amnesty International (Irene Khan) both publicly denouncing the Howard government’s treatment of asylum-seekers and the continued use of mandatory detention.
Racism and discrimination against Muslims are more overt in Australia since the Bali bombings of 12 October 2002. Widely regarded by Australians as an island paradise, Bali has now become Australia’s “ground zero”, propelling the continent very firmly into the world of terrorism. It has also heightened Australia’s fear of its “other”: the Asian and now the Muslim. Although Muslim leaders and community groups have denounced the Bali atrocity and distanced themselves from such barbaric acts, many Australians now see Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin as a threat. The “Muslim Menace” has replaced the “Asiatic Menace”.
The hunt for terrorists in Australia has increased dramatically since the Bali bombings. Following the post-Bali recognition by Canberra of Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah as a terrorist group, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has raided houses of suspected Jemaah Islamiyah members and sympathisers throughout Australia. So far these raids appear to be fruitless, uncovering no subversive agents or direct contacts with terrorist groups. In some raids, excessive force has been used to enter the homes of suspects, terrifying families with small children. The public and concerned civil liberty groups are questioning the propriety of such heavy-handed invasions of the homes of apparently law-abiding citizens who happen to be Muslim or Indonesian.
No one would deny the need to monitor and apprehend any genuine terrorist suspect, but the raids appear to be an overreaction to the terrorist threat. The response from Australia’s Muslim and Middle Eastern communities is one of horror that they can be treated with such suspicion. The security service sweeps do not placate the bearers of racism; in fact, they fuel the fear that drives racism, and one can only hope that Australia does not witness the attacks on Muslims and mosques that occurred in the United States after September 2001.
There is a need to let asylum-seekers know that only certified refugees will remain in Australia, just as there is a need for orderly quota programmes and for people-smuggling to be stopped. However, Australia is also required to uphold the human rights treaties it has ratified, to provide asylum for those in need and to counter racism. Dialogue and co-operation with the UNHCR and countries that Australia-bound asylum-seekers traverse (such as Indonesia and Malaysia) are essential, yet Australia has precluded itself from these avenues. The root causes of people movement are major and complex issues that will not be resolved quickly. But leadership is needed to move from Australia from its present stubborn, obstructionist and militarist policies to more proactive bilateral and multilateral responses that address these issues.
Australia needs a humane and sustainable approach to refugee and asylum policy. This requires an end to mandatory detention and the closing of hell-holes such as the Woomera detention centre. Humane treatment of asylum-seekers is the mark of a civilised society, and for Australia one that will help counteract racism.
Australia is failing those it detains and itself as a nation. In forty to fifty years’ time, historians will look back on this as a dark period in Australia’s past. Unless present policies are changed, those historians will liken it to other dark periods, such as that of the exclusion of Australia’s indigenous peoples and the enforcement of the White Australia policy. It is not too late to change: Australia needs action and leadership to draw on the tolerance and “fair go” approach that are so important a part of its national self-image. Until the fear of the “other” manifested in Australia’s policy on refugees and asylum-seekers is overcome, the last remnants of White Australia will prove difficult to uproot.
2. See A. T. Yarwood and M. J. Knowling, Race Relations in Australia: A History (North Ryde, N.S.W.: Methuen Australia, 1982), pp. 165–255.
3. See sections 88, 89 and division 4B of the Migration Act, 1958.
4. Refugee Council of Australia, press release, 20 June 2001.