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Echoes of Calwell in Sudanese refugee cut


    The Government feels that it has gone as far as it could reasonably go ... in granting … permits to persons of these classes on purely humanitarian grounds … It is intended that in future the approval of applications will depend more on the intending migrants’ ability to contribute to Australia’s economic welfare.

Sudanese refugees One might be tempted to think these words were spoken last week somewhere in Canberra. They were in fact the words of Arthur Calwell, the immigration minister, announcing a change of policy towards Australia’s post-war admittance of Jewish refugees.

There is a stark similarity between these and Kevin Andrews' words spoken last week in explanation of the recent cut in acceptance of refugees from Sudan. Both place national interest criteria at the heart of the decision — in the Africans' case, the ability of refugees to integrate into the community. Unfortunately both have deep historical precedent and point to a question around Australia’s refugee resettlement program: what and who is the program for?

Australia is generally considered to run the third most generous program of humanitarian resettlement anywhere, after the United States and Canada. Our program grew during the post war years as a subset of post war immigration and under the influence of the twin imperatives to accept people displaced by the war and those fleeing the rise of the communist bloc.

The key drivers however were the need to increase the country’s overall population while making it younger and providing workers for the growing manufacturing industry.

Up until 1975 some 3.5 million people made their way here. Of these, just under 10 per cent — or 350,000 people — were refugees. The arrivals were not exactly free: they participated in government directed labour schemes for the first two years of their stay as a condition of their entry. Nor were they randomly selected: preference was given to the young, healthy and European looking. There were also various schemes to ensure the integration of new arrivals.

The first arrival of a boatload of Vietnamese in 1976 ushered in a new era of humanitarian arrivals. No longer were economic and demographic motives the main drivers. Rather Australia’s desire to be a good East Asian citizen, coupled with a sense of pragmatism that recognised the inevitability of new arrivals, combined to push the Fraser government to negotiate the Comprehensive Plan of Action with East Asian governments. This scheme saw the eventual resettlement of 1.3 million refugees from indo-China to the west in a multilateral approach to solve a problem held in common.

Recent years have seen a breakdown of this pragmatism. In response to the rise of the 'jet age asylum seekers', the rapid movement of people across borders, there has been the tendency of all western governments to restrict access to newcomers. But perhaps uniquely, Australia has revisited its tendency to seek immigration outcomes in its humanitarian program.

In one of its first moves in regards to refugees, the Howard government included spontaneous arrivals — cross border asylum seekers — as part of its overall humanitarian quota, which is itself placed within the overall immigration intake. At the same time there persist consistent accusations that the program continues to weed out those who would burden our society, the old and infirm.

Yet each year the government seeks advice from a wide range of NGOs in determining the make up of its humanitarian quota. The assumption on which these negotiations rest, at least from the NGO’s point of view, is that the needs of refugees are genuine and urgent; most continue to languish in developing countries with far less capacity to absorb large numbers of entrants than a relatively wealthy country such as Australia.

Which is why Kevin Andrews' recent comments made such disturbing reading. For many Sudanese Australians it was hurtful and prompted the question: What more can we do? For those charged with advising the Department on humanitarian quotas it represented a grave breach of trust over what was believed to be the shared understanding of the program’s purpose.

Seen in historical context the statements prompt the spectre of a return to the days when only 'suitable' refugees are deemed eligible for entry to these shores. For those left in camps it represents a further retreat from responsibility by the West. For those applying for family reunion in Australia it prompts the disturbing question: Will we ever see our loved ones again?

The remainder of us must ask on what basis — on what set of values — do we wish to build our society? Is it one that seeks advantage over and separation from the weak and the voiceless of our world, or one that builds on compassion and the desire to pull our weight as a nation?

David HoldcroftDavid Holdcroft SJ is director of the Jesuit Refugee Service.




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Existing comments

Thanks for this very timely article. Just as I finished reading it, I heard James Guest on ABC Radio National's 5 minute "Perspective", where he completely assumes that our self interest is the only criterion, and we should therefore discontinue our 'generous' refugee program for Africans (who are barely out of the nomadic period, according to him, and presumably therefore less deserving of being in this country?) and use the money to support the world's refuees wherever they are now.

I found his argument quite disgusting, and therefore support the idea of promoting humanitarian values alone.



Katherine | 18 October 2007  

Yea verily, David. Thank you.

Patricia Rego | 19 October 2007  

Thank you David for the historical review of our refugee program. Imagine our Australian society now without the wonderful contribution of the Jewish refugees and later the Vietnamese. Your final paragraph is particularly significant.

Bernie Burke | 24 October 2007  

I welcome David's article, written as the Australian director of one of the major world organisations compassionately advocating for and hands-on assisting the world's refugees. It is appalling that our Minister, the very person who should be most vocal in decrying racism, is actually promulgating it. The many voluntary organisations, like the one I actively work for, which have brought South Sudanese and others from Africa to Australia, know just how undeserved and biased such comments are. Australia, with all its wealth and supposedly fair-go mentality settles only a handful of refugees annually. Uganda, a country of great poverty, is much more welcoming and compassionate. We should be increasing our intake because it is the compassionate thing to do for people who through no fault of their own are living in the direst of circumstances and because we have the wealth and circumstances to do it.

Robin Jones | 01 November 2007  

Holdcroft's article is very interesting. So is the fact that both the ministers at whom he is aiming are/were devout Catholics.

He should have sourced his Calwell quote, however, so that it can be put into more context.

The difference between the ministers is that Calwell did have good friends in the Jewish community. It is said that some of them were asking him to be careful about the numbers coming so that they did not suffer a backlash. Jewish migration after WWII is so coloured by very anti-Semitic attitudes among the Australian public at large!

The Israelis even named one of their reafforestation projects after Calwell, so there were thanks for what he had done for Jewish migration.

The other difference is that Calwell invented our national migration program singlehandedly, with Chifley's support. Without Calwell's vision, we would never have the diverse multicultural society that exists now.

For what enduring legacy will our nation ever thank Kevin Andrews?

Eleonora O'Connor-Risch | 08 November 2007  

By chance Googling for something else I came across Katherine's misrpresentation of my ABC Radio National Perspective piece of 18 October 2007. As the small amount of feedback I had previously received was wholly favourable, including a volunteered comment from one of Australia's most generous philanthropists (also Catholic or of Catholic upbringing), I think it is worth pointing out that, far from "our self interest" being "the only criterion" it hardly figured at all. My principal point was that the large amount of money we spend on the pathetically small contribution to refugee settlement about which we boast so much would be much more effectively spent in other countries where we would, inter alia, be paying people a fiftieth of what we pay public servants here who, like the rest of us, don't have a great record helping our own "recently tribal and nomadic" people - quoting an Age editorial as I made clear.

I am sorry to see such a perfect example as Katherine affords of moral vanity getting in the way of both honest quotation and cost-effective promotion of humanitarian values.

James Guest | 06 November 2009  

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