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The origins and incoherence of Australia's asylum seeker policy

  • 20 June 2017


During Refugee Week 2017, I would like to offer a historical perspective on how we got to where we are in the hope that we might be able to convince one or both of our major political parties to reset their policy, which is needlessly destroying lives, including the lives of children who are proven refugees still living in the no man's land of Nauru.

I am resigned to the boats from Indonesia being stopped and staying stopped. But I think it is high time to stop the cruel treatment of the proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island, and to provide a permanent solution for the asylum seekers waiting inordinately in the Australian community. Their treatment is separable from the stopping of future boats setting out from Indonesia. The Commonwealth's $90 million settlement of the claim brought by asylum seekers on Manus Island should be a wake-up call to us all.

We are a nation of only 24 million people. We are an island nation continent. Over half our population was born overseas or had a parent born overseas. Australia is a successful multicultural nation founded on the dispossession of the Aboriginal people. At the end of the Vietnam War, Australia took in more Vietnamese refugees per capita than did the USA and Canada.

At first, when Vietnamese refugees started arriving by boat in Darwin Harbour, Australia's political leaders were terrified. The Australian political leaders on both sides agreed Australia should be generous in accepting those refugees, in part because Australians had fought alongside them in a protracted war. But they were insistent that a regional solution be found and that refugees be held in camps throughout South East Asia while Australian officials chose which refugees to accept for resettlement in Australia.  

Australia has long prided itself on having a large but tightly regulated migration program, admitting people under three streams: family reunion, business and humanitarian. Refugees are included in the humanitarian program which also includes places for other groups such as women at risk. Australians have been most supportive of high levels of migration when government is perceived to be in control of the program. Though only 2000 Vietnamese arrived in Australia by boat, Australia received an additional 56,000 Vietnamese refugees between 1976 and 1981 who were chosen by Australian officials and usually from the camps in South East Asia.

In 1982, the Vietnamese government agreed to an Orderly Departure Program and Vietnamese refugees came