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When ‘Good Refugees’ are admitted

  • 21 March 2022
  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