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Australia’s resettlement of Syrian refugees is tinged with déjà vu

Many features of Australians’ and their government’s current response to the Syrian refugee crisis are familiar. Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

Australia’s resettlement of Syrian refugees is tinged with déjà vu

A government that seemingly privileges particular refugees on account of their religion? A prime minister who agrees to a resettlement program after coming under pressure from state premiers? An immigration department instructed to select only refugees who aren’t likely to cause problems when resettled in Australia? A public moved by the image of a boy?

Australia has been here before.

Many features of Australians’ and their government’s current response to the Syrian refugee crisis are familiar. Drawing largely on my recent book, Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees, here are three examples.

Jewish refugees

On several past occasions, the government’s announcement of a resettlement quota was informed – if not determined – by a public outpouring of sympathy for people compelled to flee their homes. The first time this happened in Australia was in November 1938.

Until then, the Australian public had not been in favour of admitting a significant number of European refugees, particularly if they were Jewish. The Lyons government had also been reluctant to open Australia’s doors to refugees. At the Évian conference, convened by US President Franklin Roosevelt to discuss the refugee crisis in Europe, Australia’s delegate (and then-trade minister) Thomas Walter White famously said:

It will no doubt be appreciated also that, as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.

After the Reichskristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria, public opinion shifted. Even the New South Wales Trades and Labour Council – an organisation that was traditionally opposed to immigration – passed a resolution asking the government to accept Jewish refugees and, if necessary, to support them financially.

In December 1938, the interior minister, John McEwen, announced in parliament that Australia would admit 15,000 European refugees over a three-year period. McEwen did not tell parliament that cabinet had also agreed to limit the number of Jewish immigrants accepted under the quota to 4000 per year, and that it had been decided that the quota “may be exceeded in admitting approved Aryans”.

Because war broke out nine months after the government’s decision, the quota was never filled. No more than 10,000 European refugees reached Australia at the time.

Australia’s stance was generous in comparison to that of other countries, such as Canada and New Zealand, which admitted fewer refugees on a per capita basis. Yet, in relation to the overall number of people desperate to get out of Europe, Australia’s response was miserly.

Vietnamese refugees

In March 1975, with the defeat of South Vietnam imminent, the prime minister, Gough Whitlam, came under pressure from the federal opposition and sections of the media to agree to the admission of Vietnamese refugees. Several state premiers – Tom Lewis (NSW), Joh Bjelke-Petersen (Queensland) and Rupert Hamer (Victoria) – lambasted Whitlam’s supposedly callous approach.

In April, Whitlam caved in to public pressure and authorised the evacuation of 283 children from Vietnamese orphanages and their resettlement in Australia in an operation that became known as the “babylift”.

The babylift was designed to satisfy the public’s craving for a compassionate Australian response – and the demands of prospective adoptive parents. The needs and rights of the Vietnamese children mattered comparatively little.

Whitlam was not able to win over his critics, either because they had expected him to do much more – Lewis wanted 2000 Vietnamese children for NSW alone – or because they considered the babylift a cynical move to divert attention from the plight of other Vietnamese trying to escape.

Arguably, though, the babylift took some of the heat off the government at the time – at least until Saigon’s fall redefined the Vietnamese refugee issue in the public imagination.

The ‘babylift’ helped ease the pressure on the Whitlam government to help Vietnamese refugees. Australian War Memorial/Geoffrey Young

Refugees in detention

A third example concerns the story of a refugee child whose image was broadcast on television and whose suffering moved many Australians at the time.

The ABC Four Corners program The Inside Story, first broadcast in August 2001, included video footage which an Iraqi detainee had taken three months earlier inside the Villawood immigration detention centre. The footage showed a six-year-old Iranian boy, Shayan Badraie, who by then had been in Villawood for 11 months together with his father, stepmother and sister and who had stopped speaking, eating and drinking.

The program prompted widespread condemnation of the Howard government’s harsh detention policy. It appeared able to shift public opinion. This was because the campaign of asylum seeker advocates had previously been hamstrung by the invisibility of people in detention.

In defence of the decision to broadcast the footage, Four Corners executive producer Bruce Belsham wrote:

These are voices the Australian public have not heard. Asylum seekers have mostly been faceless, voiceless problems. Seeing them as human beings, perhaps for the first time, led many viewers to respond.

An ABC Four Corners program in 2001 put faces to what was going on inside immigration detention centres. ABC/Four Corners

The lessons from history

There is nothing new about an Australian government wanting to determine which refugees get to be resettled in Australia. In earlier times, Jews weren’t welcome. Now, it seems, Muslims – particularly if they are single and male – aren’t wanted.

Decisions about refugee quotas and contingents of people to be resettled in Australia have also, on earlier occasions, been influenced by public opinion.

And public opinion, when informed largely by an emotional response to human suffering, can change quickly. Compassion is fickle. The Tampa’s arrival in late August 2001 and the “Children Overboard” affair quickly made Australians forget about Shayan Badraie.

The Vietnamese children’s plight soon faded into the background too. By the time the second of two planes with Vietnamese children arrived on April 18, 1975 – less than two weeks after the first – the issue had ceased to preoccupy the public.

And soon few will remember Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

This could be simply because the 24-hour news cycle has moved on. It could also be because Aylan’s innocence becomes tainted by association with his father, who has variously been accused of being a people smuggler or of leaving Syria only to receive dental treatment.

Similarly, in 2001, the immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, tried to lay the blame for Shayan’s illness at his parents’ feet. Then, Ruddock’s argument had little traction. Thus far, Liberal senator Cory Bernardi’s claim that Abdullah Kurdi risked the lives of his family only to have his teeth fixed has not swayed public opinion. But the more recent accusation of people smuggling may eventually bite.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, we need to see Australia’s response in perspective – in relation to what’s been done elsewhere and to what Australia has done on similar occasions in the past. This is not an argument against the resettlement of 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. Rather, it serves to highlight the risk that might be involved in basing a long-term policy response on a spontaneous emotional public reaction.

There is a distinctiveness to the Australian discussion about refugees. In a country that does not have a bill of rights, these discussions tend to draw on fickle emotions rather than on ideas about the needs and rights of those escaping war or persecution and, in some cases, seeking our protection when trying to get to Australia by boat.