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When ‘Good Refugees’ are admitted


Australia’s first piece of legislation, sign of the times and its lack of assuredness, was the Immigration Restriction Act. From the Commonwealth’s birth, it was clear that some people would be welcome, and others not. Such a divide was made clear with racist bellicosity in the masthead of The Bulletin: ‘Australia for the White Man.’

While Australia has developed into a multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan state based on immigration and humanitarian intakes, the country has never gotten away from the sense that some are simply more welcome than others. Be they migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers, preferential treatment abounds.

Historically, the attitude was exemplified by the infamous position taken by Australia at the Evian Conference in 1938, held to consider the international Jewish refugee crisis caused by the policies of Nazi Germany. Canberra’s delegate, one Thomas W. White showed no willingness to open the doors to persecuted, stateless Jews: ‘as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration’.

Even the advent of the Holocaust did not soften the heart of Australian authorities. Between 1947 and 1950, Australia, took in 170,000 displaced persons (DPs), funded by both Canberra and the United Nations. Strikingly, Jews were largely excluded. Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell, facing a hostile press accusing him of favouring Jews over Anglo-Celts, went out of his way to prohibit the International Refugee Organization (IRO) from supporting the migration to Australia, based on family reunion, of individual Jewish survivors.

An explicit example of preferential treatment in refugee intake — both here and in Europe — is presented by the Ukraine refugee crisis. The Russian attack on Ukraine risks precipitating a refugee crisis even greater than that from the Syrian Civil War. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that up to four million may leave, while the European Union adds a further three million to the figure.

Reports of generosity in Europe are frequent. But even here, instances of selective treatment can be found. Those of African, Indian and Middle Eastern background, many of them students, have faced rather different treatment at the Polish-Ukrainian border — if and when they have gotten there. The number of accounts of obstructions and violence both within Ukraine and at the border, are growing. 


'In Australia, being good to Ukrainians even as Canberra maintains an indefinite detention regime for other refugees, is now fashionable.'


This is hardly surprising given the hostile campaign waged by the Poland’s governing party against arrivals from the Middle East. In 2021, the Minister of the Interior Mariusz Kaminski, and the National Defence Minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, went so far as to suggest that irregular arrivals from the Middle East were immoral types tending towards bestiality. To make their point, a grainy video of dubious provenance was shown to the press.

Countries across Europe have deployed a heavy-handed, policing approach at their borders to asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Batons, tear-gas, stun grenades, and attack dogs have featured. Anti-refugee vigilantes hunt for vulnerable quarry along the borders of Bulgaria and Hungary. Steel and concrete walls have been and are being built.

This contrast was pointed out by migration and asylum specialist Michela Pugliese earlier this month. ‘While European countries welcome Ukrainian refugees and provide them with official and safe transit routes, seven asylum seekers of non-European ethnicity died yesterday as their boat sank in the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece.’

This did not strike the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov as odd. The Ukrainians were ‘intelligent’ and ‘educated people’. They did not constitute the ‘refugee wave we have been used to’, individuals with uncertain identities, ‘unclear pasts [and] who could have been even terrorists.’

In recent years, Australia has proven to be no exception, sorting the appropriate and the approved from the supposedly maladjusted. In 2015, under pressure to receive a larger intake of Syrian refugees and increase that year’s humanitarian intake, the Abbott government made its position clear: Christians would be prioritised. At the time, certain Coalition backbenchers reminded the Prime Minister that there should be, ‘No more Muslim men.’ Christians, argued Senate Leader Eric Abetz with little context, ‘are the most persecuted group in the world, especially in the Middle East’.

In 2018, then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton suggested that white South African farmers allegedly facing ‘persecution’ by an expropriating majority black government should be placed ahead of the queue of admissions. They were the ‘sorts of migrants that we want to bring into our country’, had an excellent work ethic and demonstrated a keenness to ‘contribute to a country like Australia.’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now taking a leaf out of the Dutton manual, ‘fast-tracking’ Ukrainian refugee applications. This is despite his government presiding, in the words of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), over ‘the dismantling of Australia’s refugee intake, leaving Australia unable to adequately respond to emergencies’, with 2022 ‘marking the lowest refugee intake in nearly 50 years.’  The pandemic did not help matters, but COVID-19 had little to do with the initial decline in refugee places. Australia’s refugee intake cap was lowered from 18,750 persons in 2018-2019 to 13,750 in 2020-2021.

Abbott, in an echo of his 2015 policy towards Syrian Christians, has also urged the prioritisation of Ukrainian applications. But in an interesting riposte, the conservative Australian Christian Lobby has disagreed, arguing that preferencing Ukrainian refugees made an awful statement ‘to those fleeing the horrors of the Taliban in Afghanistan’. In the views of ACL’s national director of politics, Wendy Francis, ‘We don’t need a pile. We can continue to offer shelter to those fleeing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, as well as processing visa applications swiftly from Ukrainian citizens.’

The structure of international refugee and humanitarian law is intentionally universal, non-punitive and non-discriminatory. There is nothing in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention to suggest otherwise. But international law leaves it to States as to how best to implement such principles. In its implementation, they have chosen to circumvent the right to asylum and discriminate and penalise groups while favouring others. In Australia, being good to Ukrainians even as Canberra maintains an indefinite detention regime for other refugees, is now fashionable. It is, after all, an election year.




Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: People who fled the war in Ukraine walk towards a humanitarian train to relocate refugees to Berlin on March 15, 2022 in Krakow, Poland. (Omar Marques / Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Refugee Policy, Preferential Treatment, Australia



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Existing comments

In itemizing Australia’s allegedly preferential selection of immigrants, one item was missing.
Even after Gough Whitlam introduced anti-racial-discrimination legislation and dismantled the White Australia Policy, some refugees continued to be “more welcome than others.” Whitlam rejected Vietnamese refugees fleeing communism: “I’m not having hundreds of Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their political and religious hatreds against us.” The reference to “Balts” related to the Baltic countries Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia which had been forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union (Whitlam recognized this forced incorporation), which led to a flow of anti-communist refugees. Similarly, the “Vietnamese Balts” fleeing communism might vote conservative.
Last year, the Biden administration refused admission to refugees fleeing communist Cuba. Most Cuban Americans loathe communism and vote Republican. In contrast, last year, Biden’s open-door immigration policies saw almost 2 million illegal immigrants, mostly unvetted and unvaccinated, flood into the USA. Democrats see these immigrants as potential voters to, “create a governing coalition for the long term, not just the election cycle.”
Perhaps the real gripe is that Ukrainian refugees are freedom loving. For while most people prefer refugees to be a best-fit into existing society, others see refugees as a covert means to political power.

Ross Howard | 23 March 2022  

The World Refugee problem is quite overwhelming these days. Millions of Palestinians, descendants of evictees/refugees from their homes with the 1948 partition, live in squalid refugee camps all over the Middle East, where they have become a political football between various Muslim States and Israel.
The Rohingya have suffered attempted genocide and their future is uncertain. Germany has accepted something like 600,000 refugees from Syria. The Scandinavian countries have been equally generous. Neither the UN, nor the opinionati in Melbourne are capable of solving the problem. The Ukrainian refugees are mainly women and children, whose menfolk have remained behind to fight the Russians. They have every intention of returning. Europe cannot accept any more refugees. It is bulging with them. The cost is astronomical. I remember, during the last federal election, a TV reporter trawled through a multiethnic Western Sydney electorate to gauge voter reaction to refugees. A cafe owner of Cambodian origin, himself a former refugee, said they were OK as long as they integrated and worked. So would most voters. Australians are not 'racist' in the main today, but they are realists. The days of White Australia are long gone. Raising it in this article is a red herring.

Edward Fido | 24 March 2022  

A very illuminating article. The Prime Minister’s extraordinary decision to send Ukrainian refugees to the head of the queue, presumably ahead of the desperate Afghans to whom Australia owes a debt of gratitude is placed in a very sad historical context.

Juliet | 25 March 2022  

Good overview; similar to the US experience from 19th through 20th centuries with top down ideology inc. eugenics and policies reflecting the same.

However, humanity is an issue for authority as witnessed in, of all places Hungary.

Initial waves of Syrian etc. migrants were welcomed, walked with and hosted by Hungarians, irrespective of political leanings, until...

The Hungarian Govt. enacted legislation criminalising (along the lines of 'foreign agents' & blaming Soros) individuals, NGOs, charities, civil society etc. offering assistance.

No doubt inspired by Australian style laws.

Andrew J. Smith | 26 March 2022  

Some important points of clarity re: the Ukrainian situation here.

Ukrainians are allowed entry to Poland under the existing entry agreements. They are allowed open entry to the Schengen zone. They are exercising a right.

Few of the Ukrainians fleeing the conflict are seeking resettlement. This is a critical difference. They have mostly headed to Poland. Poland has cultural, ethnic, historical, language, familial ties with Ukraine. Poland is no different to Jordan hosting Syrians, Brazil hosting Venezuelans, Pakistan hosting Afghans. People flee to nearest safety. Many fleeing Ukrainians are staying with family. Most Ukrainians are seeking protection until they can return, especially given that many men, the vast majority, are staying to resist.

Important in this context to distinguish saving, asylum, hosting, rescue, resettlement etc and the implications of each. European nations are viewing this as rescue and provision of safety leading to eventually, resettlement back in Ukraine. Poland should be supported for their efforts, partly to support the humanitarian need but also to support the future rebuild of Ukraine.

Comparing it to the Syrian situation is a long bow to draw. Implying preferred treatment on the basis of "whiteness" does not fit the facts.

John | 30 March 2022  

The Left ranges widely, historically, on the issue of refugees. A bit from here; a bit from there. Here we have Federation, the Evian conference of 1938, detention of boat arrivals and the Ukrainian situation. All are casually linked to make the point - its all selective and all about skin colour. An opportunity is never missed to tweek our noses.

Much is overlooked. The Evian conference was a global failure. Not Australia's alone. All countries did not see the emerging crisis for Jewish people in Europe. Kristalnacht changed this for Australia. Public opinion swung around and over 9000 Jewish refugees settled in Australia by war's start in 1939. Australia became, post war, the largest resettler of holocaust survivors, per capita, outside of Israel. Never mind.
The Women at Risk program that resettled 15.000 women from various countries? The IndoChinese special program? Almost a million refugees resettled since 1947? So what?
The Liberal party are no friends of refugees. What will the Left write about if they are tossed out at the next election? Perhaps some new policy settings might encourage some deeper debate. Perhaps the Left may offer some sustainable solutions to the complex problems? Let's hope so.

John | 30 March 2022  

Perhaps the article is pertinent but I anticipate the evaluation of the Ukraine refugee type(s) movement is better placed if the discussion aligns with abnormal event. As John observes here, the refugees aren't predominately working-age males; reportedly, Ukraine male citizens are expected to stay and fight. A liklihood of refugee families split by this anomaly of occupation is that those who flee may stay as close to Ukraine as possible to reunite or return. There is some evidence that non-resident males (e.g. working visa) are attempting to leave but their exit is delayed, some just want to return to their country of origin but no doubt some will be just as happy to work elsewhere; without a valid Ukraine visa they'll have difficulty convincing authorities they are either a refugee or returning home. Aside from the humanity of the situation there's little similarity to the WW2 "Exodus" of whole families nor the Vietnamese boat people scenario. Question: should the Australian government approve an application for a single Ukranian working age male who has stayed to "fight" as a resistance fighter but hasn't joined the Ukrainian army? This seems a similar situation to Tamil claims I've heard before...

ray | 30 March 2022  

I am always elevated when a former eminent politician talks eminent sense. So was it with Jeff Kennett and his article in the Courier-Mail today. He used the adjective 'cruel' about our detention of refugees for long periods, often nine years, thereby destroying their lives, hope and mental health. He felt the new agreement with NZ, which has the potential to free many of them from this intolerable bondage, was a very good thing. I concur.

Edward Fido | 31 March 2022  

Now that they’ve got the taste of suing government officials, perhaps those kids can move on from the climate to suing Putin on behalf of Ukrainian refugees, the Myanmar junta on behalf Rohingya and other asylum seekers, various Islamic governments and non-government groups on behalf of the people fleeing them, the kleptocracies of Latin America for pushing people to the US border, in fact, just about anybody with state or state-equivalent power except those nation-states that comprise the few shining lights that belong to or can claim effective descent from Western European Civilisation.

We know where the refugees and asylum seekers come from and so we know who is responsible for their plight. We’re just not good at bringing the responsibility home to the miscreants.

There would be a certain mediagenic charm to the optics of children suing to protect other children from adult cruelty. And, after that, there's always the millions of antenatal humans who need protecting from their own parents.

roy chen yee | 12 April 2022  

A predictable few here construct events according to a pre-modern DLP template that lived and died on anti-communism.

Zelensky is a comedian who used his populism to oust the sitting democratically-elected President.

Ukraine has been a semi-autonomous region for a thousand years, highly contested between Catholics and Orthodox, who, like the Taliban in regard to all other modernist intersectionality, detest each other.

The Russians, long before communism, brought stability to the region which is the bread basket of Europe.

The Cold War further exacerbated the fault-line that runs through it because Western Ukrainian Catholics welcomed Nazis as allies against Stalinists and Jews, while the Easterners saw Russia as their ally.

Until this war broke out they ignored the Pope's pleas for 'open borders'. People of colour, as in primitive parts of the US, are treated like dirt.

Apart from sporting white skins, Ukrainians generally have poor educational and democratic standards with historically (and understandably) huge emigration rates.

Eastern and Western Ukrainians mirror the divide between Croats and Serbs after Yugoslavia's collapse, Croatians being Catholic and Serbians Orthodox.

Slavs share a bitter hatred of Muslims. 8372 massacred in Srebrenica!

Russia regards Eastern Ukraine as a buffer against the CIA and NATO.

Michael Furtado | 18 April 2022  
Show Responses

'used his populism to oust the sitting democratically-elected President.'

And? It's not unusual for a sitting, democratically-elected president or prime minister to be 'ousted' by somebody more popular in a general election held because their term has run out.

roy chen yee | 20 April 2022  

Democratically-elected? Who says? Democracy depends not just on free-elections independent of external influence, both Russian and American, and control, but also on clear-cut evidence of a separation of powers.

Thus, the question of who runs the Ukrainian armed forces has also to be a critical one. Last time we heard its led by paramilitary protofascist populist forces that have forced Zelensky's hand.

Back to the negotiating table, say UN Sccretary General Antonio Gutierrez, French President Emanuel Macron and almost all of the non-aligned world. Both sides need to heed this. In such dire circumstances why support war rather than peace when human life is a prior ethical consideration!

Michael Furtado | 08 May 2022  

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