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Australia's 'alien' relations then and now



In 1940, Prime Minister Robert Menzies received a letter from a woman in Western Australia: 'I have heard on the wireless the news that Australia would be willing to receive internees from England. I beg to protest; we have enough of the scum here already, too many in fact.

Internees arrive from Britain aboard the Dunera'I am not a vindictive woman,' she continued, 'these aliens are God's creatures just the same as we are. All the same I sincerely trust that a U-boat gets every one of them.'

The 'scum' she rejected so emphatically were the German and Austrian refugees, predominantly Jewish, soon to travel to Australia as 'enemy alien' prisoners on the Dunera. That they were European, white and, with few exceptions, anti-fascist made no difference: for this woman, and many others, non-British foreigners were aliens in more than just the legal sense.

There is an oft-quoted line from L. P. Hartley's memorable novel, The Go-Between: 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.' Australian society in the 1930s and early 1940s was markedly less heterogeneous than it is now.

The population when WWII began in September 1939 was 7 million. For at least a decade before the war the country suffered what is still called the Great Depression, with a peak of 29 per cent of the working population unemployed in 1932. The people were predominantly of Anglo-Celtic origin, few had travelled overseas, and when they did, they mostly visited 'Home' — the British Isles or Ireland.

Information about the world was available chiefly from local newspapers and radio stations. This was a relatively isolated community, not highly educated, generally unaccustomed to foreigners and uneasy with unfamiliar languages and traditions. The official term 'alien', which applied to those who were not British subjects, carried emotional as well as legal weight.

In the same period, Fascism in Italy, and its even more pernicious variant, Nazism in Germany, moved from brutalising and murdering its internal 'enemies' — parties and people on the left, unionists, religious opponents, Jews, gypsies and homosexuals — to invading neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands of Europeans sought refuge in Australia.

In Asia, Japan's assault on China, begun in 1937, was followed by the bombing of the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and a subsequent powerful military attack on a series of South East Asian countries. Thousands of Chinese — many of them seamen, their ships stranded near Australia by the Pacific war — were granted humanitarian entry to this country.


"This was a relatively isolated community, not highly educated, generally unaccustomed to foreigners and uneasy with unfamiliar languages and traditions."


The White Australia policy was overridden in their interests. The same was true for the hundreds of Javanese (Indonesians) brought here by the Netherland East Indies Government-in-Exile.

From March of 1942, 'alien' refugees from Europe and Asia served with diligence and honour in the Australian Army, principally in a number of the Army's Employment Companies. General Blamey, the Australian Commander-in-Chief, said in his Christmas greeting to troops in 1943: 'I draw no line between [our fighting troops in New Guinea] and those of you whose duties have, up until now, kept you in Australia. To me, as your Commander, you are all an integral and vital part of the Australian Military Forces.'

When the war ended, most of the overseas Asians were sent home — the White Australia policy triumphed. But the great majority of the European refugees stayed, and their substantial contribution to Australian life in its rich variety is well documented.

Which leaves us with a paradox and a puzzle. Why did the Australian government of a nation of just 7 million people — isolated, poor, rather uniform in background, deeply suspicious of 'foreigners', and plunged into a major world war — treat refugees more sensibly and humanely than the Australian government in 2016, with 24 million people who are vastly multicultural, well-educated, widely travelled, and with access to information world-wide?


June FactorJune Factor is a writer, editor, folklorist, an honorary senior fellow at the University of Melbourne, and the convenor of the Befriend a Child in Detention Project.

Topic tags: June Factor, refugees, World War II, Robert Menzies



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Existing comments

I think the simple answer to your not-quite-rhetorical question, June, is that the current national feeling, which is mirrored by most politicians, is that the majority of those seeking refuge are Muslim and thus alien to the sort of free democratic culture we have here. This is not a simple 'white racist' reaction: there are many Asian migrants - usually not Muslim - who share this view and who were quite open at the last federal election. Man Monis, the Lebanese and Afghan criminal bikie gangs of Western Sydney and the Australian jihadists in Syria and Iraq are not shining examples of migrant success stories. Yes, offshore and onshore detention are bad. But I do not think this country is ready for a mass influx of Muslim asylum seekers.

Edward Fido | 03 August 2016  

I think that this comment is rather too sanguine about the way in which non-British Europeans were "welcomed" into Australia. Like the correspondent whom June Factor quotes, there were many Australians (including people in government, the military, the police and the security service) who were hostile to Jewish refugees, in particular. It is noteworthy that (as the author acknowledges) the "overseas Asians" were (mostly) sent home. In our reflection on parallels (or not) with the contemporary policy on refugees, we might usefully keep that treatment of the Asians in mind. Now (as then) skin colour seems a crucial determining factor.

Dr John Carmody | 03 August 2016  

There were quotas on Jews, pre and post war, because they 'wouldn't assimilate, including me! Sounds familiar to comments on Muslims Mr Fido? June's point is still worth noting, why in a much richer more diverse country, do we treat asylum seekers so badly and show prejudice against Muslims per se? We need to become a much more civil society, so we can like who we are again! Creating outgroups damages us all and creates the lack of cohesion and collective goodwill we badly need. ...

eva cox | 03 August 2016  

I wonder, Dr Carmody, was the White Australia policy primarily driven by colour or more so by culture and the obsessions of quarantine of those days?

john frawley | 03 August 2016  

Of course it was Colour look how the aboriginal boys Spare treated at that hell hole in the news just recently. And how white anglo saxons always treated them they were not even acknowledged as human. But part of the flora and fauna. Makes me sick

Irena | 03 August 2016  

The fear of being invaded inspired the Populate or perish policies and whether A. Curtin meant it or not it was the impetus for large scale migration. I also would say that as long as we conduct discourse on colour ground, we must accept we are racist. It is time, we change the rhetoric, if we think of people, and not of colour, we will have more of a chance to be more inclusive and more compassionate. We may be more educated, but we are still very fearful of 'difference' and we are too ready to seize on a scape goat, not very different form the 1930s. The access to global news events in real time is causing an infection of fear, a true pestilence. Why is bad news the only news we hear? There are important current affairs on other more inspiring events, true, but they are often not given pre-eminence and most people seem not to watch abc, and NITV for good stories. Thank you June Factor for your excellent questions.

antonina bivona | 03 August 2016  

It's not just colour or a difference on religion: these are convenient hooks to hand our paranoia on. Duriing WW1 remember, upwards of 6 thousand Australians of German origin were locked up, dispossessed and in some cases deported without due process. It seems, in times of political, economic or climatological uncertainty, we must identify some innocent "other"on whom to vent our terrors. It seems the times could hardly be more uncertain than at present: those of us who aren't in the grip of such paranoia must stand up for the persecuted, whatever their colour or religion.

Joan Dugdale | 03 August 2016  

Despite elaborate apologies by some Australians, the White Australia Policy (WAP) was a very shameful part of our history. As June has said, that is behind us now and we are much more ethnically diverse than we were at the end of WW2. There is no excuse for the dreadful way asylum seekers have been treated by Australian governments in the 21st century. At least after WW2 refugees were able to stay in migrant hostels. Admittedly, these did not have 5* rating, but people were free to come and go and they were not treated as though they were criminals. All the correctional services corporations employed by Australian governments to administer our detention centres have histories of abusing human rights. The other thing to say is that many of the refugees who come here are escaping wars started by the US Military Industrial Complex or repressive regimes supported by it. These are shameful policies that ALP and LNP governments have supported for many years. Australia can and should do a lot better. We should be an independent and non-aligned nation that show much greater respect to people who have suffered so much.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 04 August 2016  

Good Question!

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 04 August 2016  

Why do those in authority feel so threatened, from without by asylum seekers, and from within by Indigenous people, that they feel the need to employ contractors to keep them incarcerated in appalling conditions that they have wilfully attempted to conceal from scrutiny, and this avoid any moral or legal accountability for the abhorrent practices they have condoned? What exactly are the threats, and why is the response to them so ominously similar?

Jena Woodhouse | 06 August 2016  

While race, language, religion, colour of skin all help cloak this picture I am drawn to the most simple of explanations, it is greed, in it's most infant form, sandpit politics where if I share what I do have then I will only have less. It's a natural base instinct when we are afraid of the future we want to preserve what we have now. Can we grow beyond and see what wonderful opportunities we will all enjoy if we can open our arms and share the future.

Matthew Campbell | 09 August 2016  

My father, a descendent of the Irish, disliked the English - his grandfather had been a convict, he disliked Jews because apparently they crucified Christ! My mother, a mix of Scot/English/Irish didn't care about Anglo's, and loved Jews - her best friend at school had been Jewish - Mum lit their gas on Sat. morning's for them! So I was brought up sort of open minded and racist! I married a man whose dad came from Lebanon, and his Mum's people were German/Irish! We really have to get over race and appreciate people! But all people everywhere are racist and it's not until they accept their grandchildren, and realise that all religious faiths have some value can they accept that people,race and skin colour mean nothing.

Mary Sharah | 15 August 2016  

Absolutely delighted to see Eva Cox's comment!

Mary Sharah | 15 August 2016  

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