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A history that gives hope

In the last year, public sentiment and government policy regarding our country’s treatment of asylum seekers have undergone perceptible shifts. The public grilling and critical media attention that Amanda Vanstone received from her appearance before the Senate committee on detention policy, the exposure of the wrongful detainment of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon, and John Howard’s capitulation to much of what Petro Giorgiou and his rebellious colleagues fought for, all represent real change since Tampa and the 2001 election.

But the debate about refugee migration in Australia has a much longer history. Placing these recent shifts in a historic context gives cause for optimism. That history shows us that the gains that have been made in the current debate have occurred under extremely difficult circumstances. And, it shows us that with strong political leadership, Australians have in the past shown tremendous compassion to those seeking asylum in our country.

Our story begins at the close of World War II, from which Australia emerged facing two perceived challenges. First, it saw itself as a vulnerable, thinly populated, Western outpost needing to defend itself in a probable World War III. Second, Prime Minister Ben Chifley planned to start a large-scale, post-war building program, but Australia had full employment and a labour shortage. A bigger population provided a resolution to both problems. With birth rates already booming, Chifley—with Arthur Calwell as Australia’s first Minister for Immigration by his side—announced a mass migration program. As Opposition leader, Robert Menzies endorsed the proposal. Within a generation, Australia was a different place.
The mass migration program gave birth to the multicultural Australia of which most are now so proud. This was not, however, what was intended.

Initially, the migrants were to be British. But it became quickly apparent that British migration wasn’t going to fix Australia’s policy problems. For one thing, there just weren’t enough of them.

Further, to resolve its labour shortage, Australia needed particular kinds of migrants. The scale of the projects planned, such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, required a workforce that was mobile and ready to engage in physical labour. Many of the early British arrivals did not meet these criteria. Full employment meant a discerning workforce, and too many Brits settled in cities when labour shortages were most severe in the bush. British migrants often came with families, when Australia needed working men.

So while the British remained a priority, and eligible for special migration assistance until 1973, the government reluctantly turned to another source to fulfil the aims of its program: the Displaced Person (DP) camps of Europe.

And so they arrived: Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Croatians, Russians, Estonians. Between 1947 and 1955, tens of thousands of DPs made new lives in Australia.

While it had humanitarian outcomes in providing refugees with a home in which to rebuild their lives, Australia’s DP migration program was a pragmatic last resort. Individuals were generally selected for migration only if they were a ‘migration gain’. Young, fit men and women were priorities, with only 30 dependents accepted for every 70 workers. Single mothers, the disabled, frail and elderly were generally refused.

The DPs that were accepted arrived in Australia with an undertaking to spend two years working wherever the government chose, on threat of deportation. They were directed to wherever labour was unavailable. Full employment meant DPs usually worked in jobs Australians were unwilling to do, or in areas where Australians were unwilling to live. Many were housed in camps, families were separated and ethnic groups dispersed.

In 1947, 90 per cent of Australia’s population was of British descent and resistant to change. Getting support for such a large migration program was never going to be easy. But it was in the government’s interest to get the public behind a policy of such national importance and it worked hard to do so.

The argument for a bigger population was persuasive. And for those unswayed by logic, fear provided a powerful tool. John Howard may have learnt a few lessons in his youth on the exploitation of electoral anxiety from Calwell, who, in Parliament on 2 August 1945, said the mass migration campaign was ‘urgent and imperative if we are to survive’, and alluded to a third world war in which Australia might not be able to protect itself. ‘We cannot afford to fail,’ he said. ‘There is so much dependent on the success of our population policy that failure will spell national disaster.’

The manner in which the DPs were settled proved important. Assimilation was the goal and the program was promoted on the basis that, in a short time, the New Australians would be the same as everyone else. The Department of Immigration developed services to assist in settlement and citizenship. English classes and welfare support were provided to migrants. Regular newsletters supporting the New Australians were funded, along with ethnic tolerance programs. Good Neighbour Councils were established, which brought together churches and voluntary organisations to assist migrants in understanding Australian life—from essentials such as banking and health care to helping find child care, integration into the local community and friendship.

Despite the common sense of the program and the almost universal view that the population should be much bigger, despite bipartisan support, government programs and a belief that the migrants would assimilate, there was still significant racism against the New Australians.

But could we really have expected more? Until the migration program began in earnest, Australia was one of the least diverse, most monocultural countries in the world. As is well documented, Australia had prided itself and built its national identity on the notion of a White Australia. While most of the DPs were fair-skinned, they were not racially Anglo-Saxon and their migration thus ran counter to that policy.

Despite the incredible change that the immigration program brought, there were no insurrections, no massive protests, no rise of powerful, anti-immigration political parties. On the whole, the fact that the mass migration program was broadly supported is something we can be proud of.

Doubtless, post-WWII refugee migration laid the groundwork for Australia’s acceptance of large numbers of Vietnamese refugees after the unification of Vietnam. The first boatload of Indo-Chinese refugees arrived in 1976 and they continued in a steady flow, reaching a zenith in late 1977 when boats arrived almost daily.
In contrast to the post-WWII campaign, this was a refugee program with genuine humanitarian aims. Australia had no labour shortages, a different defence strategy and a bigger population. It was the nation’s first test after the White Australia years, and it passed.

Many Australians felt trepidation towards these boat people. But with strong leadership and a history of providing a home for refugees, most Vietnamese refugees were allowed to stay and are
now an integral part of the Australian community.

So what can we learn from this history? The post-war migration program, in addition to showing us that dramatic change in public opinion about refugees is possible in a short period of time, also demonstrates the challenges we face in the current debate.

Support of the government was crucial. Contrast the historic campaign to assist refugee settlement with the actions of the Howard Government, which has incited fear by lying about ‘children overboard’, which places proven refugees on temporary visas to prevent full participation in the Australian community, which leaves people in detention indefinitely, which detains babies and small children and runs election campaigns on the theme of ‘we’ll decide who comes into our country and the circumstances in which they come’. While the Government encourages and validates fear and uncertainty towards asylum seekers, any shift in favour of this cause represents the overcoming of a challenge not faced before in the history of refugee migration in Australia.

Political bipartisanship has been a strong feature of the refugee debate. Both the post-WWII and Vietnamese refugee migration programs had broad support from the oppositions of the day. Malcolm Fraser has noted that, had parties tried to ‘make politics’ over Vietnamese refugee migration, it probably would not have been supported by the Australian public.

A further challenge is that the pragmatic arguments for accepting today’s refugees, as for the Vietnamese, are complex. Post-war refugee migration was a tool for bringing much-needed labour to Australia.

Today, we don’t have full employment or labour shortages. The jobs in which new migrants might have traditionally worked are the very jobs that are disappearing. The public is being asked to support a program that is truly humanitarian.

The history is, however, optimistic. In recognising the challenges, we acknowledge that public opinion in support of asylum seekers since Tampa has been gained under difficult circumstances.

Any such gains illustrate the strong potential for openness and compassion under different circumstances. Because under different leadership, in different times, changes in attitudes towards asylum seekers have been profound and swift. This is reason for hope. 

Clare O’Neil is a councillor in the City of Greater Dandenong, which settles more refugees than any other municipality in Victoria. She is also a history student at Monash University.


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