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From White Australia to stopping the boats: attitudes to asylum seekers

From White Australia onwards, have the attitudes of Australian society and the government on migration and asylum really changed over time? EPA/Stringer

For a nation largely comprised of “boat people”, asylum has generated the most debate, and at times hysteria, of all immigration matters in Australia.

Is this due to what multiculturalism academic Ghassan Hage calls the “sensitivity of thieves”, linking the invasion and theft of Australian land from its traditional owners by white settlers 200 years ago with current attitudes to asylum?

Or do attitudes to asylum reflect a genuine concern for Australia as a sovereign nation?

The setting of tight restrictions on immigration policy has been Australian politics since federation. One of the first acts of federal parliament in 1901 was the Immigration Restriction Act that established a dictation or language test for potential migrants in any European language.

At the same time, the Pacific Islander Labourers Act placed restrictions on the arrival of Pacific Island workers. These and other measures that limited the immigrant population to white, English-speaking people would come to be known as the “White Australia” policy – a policy that would remain in place for the next six decades.

In addition to controlling the entry of certain groups or types of people deemed unsuitable, the White Australia policy supported an image of the “ideal” future citizen who would fit with Australia’s national character.

The policy of assimilation, first imposed on Aboriginal Australians, was subsequently applied to migrants. In essence, assimilationist policies meant that irrespective of heritage, language or culture, all differences would be erased and people would come under the rubric of “Australian”. It was assimilationist policies that resulted in Aboriginal Australians being denied their heritage and official citizenship.

Even as the White Australia policy was being informally relaxed, migrants were also expected to avoid displaying cultural and linguistic differences. These federally-imposed policies actively encouraged a homogenising force of White Australia. Fears of countless numbers of Asians “invading” Australia, commonly referred to as the “yellow peril”, were invoked by proponents of the White Australia policy as a justification for this “you’re either with us or against us” approach to a vision of a white Australia.

After the mass migration programs from the 1950s onwards, the White Australia policy was finally relaxed in the 1960s. Some of these programs brought groups of people displaced by World War Two to Australia. Like they are today, displaced people only formed a small proportion of much larger migration programs.

Migrants and displaced people were accommodated in government-run hostels where they were provided with training and other support. But in these early days, migrants and displaced people had no limits imposed on their movement and while they did face hostility as newcomers, they soon settled and found work.

With the arrival of Vietnamese asylum seekers in the 1970s, the phrase “boat people” entered the national lexicon and a spotlight was shone on people fleeing their homes due to persecution. Up until now migration, including the humanitarian (refugee) component, had largely been controlled centrally by the Department of Immigration. Who was arriving, when and how, was clearly set under quotas and a visa system. But between 1976 and 1982, 2,059 Indo-Chinese refugees arrived directly in Australia by boat.

They were met with mixed reactions – racism, public alarm, concern over their cultural differences and also, importantly, genuine concern about their welfare and plight. At the highest level, prime minister Malcolm Fraser permitted the admission of Indo-Chinese refugees arriving by boat and supported the resettlement of over 200,000 more refugees whose claims were processed in camps in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand.

While some have cautioned against characterising this as a “golden age” of asylum, Fraser’s decision to offer permanent protection to these boat arrivals and then resettle countless thousands more demonstrated unparalleled humanity. Arguably the closest any other Australian prime minister has come to such a courageous act of flexibility within the immigration program was Bob Hawke, who allowed 42,000 Chinese students to remain permanently in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Since the 1990s, asylum policy could be characterised as a race to the bottom on both sides of politics. In 1992, Paul Keating’s Labor government introduced mandatory detention for all people arriving without a valid visa. People who entered Australia on a valid visa and then claimed asylum were, and still are, not subject to mandatory detention. They remain in the community for the duration of their asylum claim.

One of the lower points of asylum policy was the 2001 Tampa Affair. Having already introduced temporary protection visas (TPVs) for onshore asylum seekers in 1999 and with an election on the horizon, prime minister John Howard used the arrival of a boatload of asylum seekers seeking entry to Australia as a moment to initiate some of the harshest policy responses to asylum seekers.

These measures included refusing the boat in question to enter Australia’s territorial waters and excising Christmas Island from the migration zone. There was widespread public support for these measures, and attitudes to asylum harshened in the aftermath of Howard’s election victory and the arrival of more boats.

Under Kevin Rudd there were promising signs of a shift in attitudes to asylum. The TPV system was dismantled and some detained asylum seekers were released into the community. The number of boats carrying asylum seekers into Australian waters kept increasing, however. This served the Coalition opposition well as a convenient reminder of the government’s failure in tackling an issue deemed to be out of control.

Australia has a long history of boat arrivals - so why is a hard line being taken on asylum seekers today? Commonwealth of Australia

In 2011, the proposed “Malaysian solution” by prime minister Julia Gillard signalled a major setback. However, the suggested exchange of 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia for 4000 refugees and the building of detention centres in Malaysia was prevented by the High Court’s ruling on insufficient human rights protection under Malaysian law and the invalidity of the ministerially-agreed bargain.

Lacking options for legal amendments due to its minority in the Senate, the Gillard government’s next step was the appointment of the Houston Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. The panel’s recommendation to re-introduce offshore processing on Nauru and re-establish a regional processing centre on Manus Island was met with disbelief by many. The strategically named “no advantage” rule, aimed at denying boat arrivals any advantage in the processing of their claims, revealed the government’s desperate attempt to signal they were still in charge of Australia’s borders.

The language of rules and order in combination with insinuations of foul play through “queue jumping” has long dominated public discourse on asylum seekers, not only in Australia. The “bogus asylum seeker” has become a widely used term that neatly separates undeserving and deserving refugees.

The most recent low point in the sad affair of Australian asylum policy is the excision of the Australian mainland and Christmas Island from the migration zone. This allows the removal of those deemed as unlawful arrivals for detention and processing offshore. Former immigration minister Chris Bowen had referred to this legislation as a “stain on our national character” when it was put to parliament under the Howard government.

Does anyone really believe that these changes will stop people’s desperate attempts to reach a safer place via a potentially deadly journey? The number of deaths keep increasing while Australia keeps watching on the current stalemate in Canberra.

With a federal election looming neither major party is proposing a shift away from demonising asylum seekers. It is somewhat striking that the same country that has gained international reputation for its system of humanitarian settlement services demonstrates so little political will for a humane response to treating asylum seekers.

While immigration matters have long been exploited at the political level, concern for asylum seekers has waxed and waned at a community level. There have been genuine demonstrations of concern for people on TPVs and over deaths at sea. But what is numerically one of the smaller migration programs - when compared to both temporary and permanent skilled migration - does garner overwhelming public attention, which is more than often negative.

What is clear is that when strong political leadership and genuine concern at the community level coalesce - as they did during Malcolm Fraser’s time - compassion for asylum seekers is possible.

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