‘Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees. A History’ by Klaus Neumann


2015, 300 p. plus notes

There’s often a frisson of  defiance among non-Coalition voters when singing  the second verse of our national anthem, the dreadful ‘Advance Australia Fair’.  Irony of ironies, in our national anthem, we declare

For those who’ve coming across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share

knowing full well that Australia currently funds off-shore detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island  that were deliberately designed to ensure that those who come across the seas do not (by ‘hook or by crook’) share in our boundless plains.

In the introduction to his book, Neumann declares his intention to make the present appear unfamiliar, by drawing attention to both radical differences in Australia’s refugee policy in the past, and at the same time, to identify continuities and parallels in past and present policies.  His account is chronological, commencing with Federation in 1901 and concluding in 1977.  Why 1977? Because it was then, he argues, that the public response to refugees to which we are now accustomed had been fully formed.  I finished reading this book, having read the obituary to Fraser govt Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar that very morning, and Neumann has convinced me that his endpoint of 1977 is an appropriate one.

The majority of the book takes  a chronological, historical approach, albeit informed by current events and debates. As he says:

I understand this book to be an intervention in current debates about refugee and asylum seeker policy, and so I privilege past events that allow me to achieve what the German playwright Bertolt Brech called the Verfremdungseffekt – that is, an effect that makes the present appear odd and strange. (p.11)

I’m not sure that he achieves his aim of making the present seem “odd and strange”. Instead, I found my easy assumptions about ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ challenged, and I found that there was far more continuity in refugee policy than I realized. I hadn’t realized that there were so many successive waves of refugees triggered by geo-political events elsewhere in the world, and I hadn’t realized that there had been such ambivalence over a long period of time over being seen to “do the right thing” internationally.   I’m old enough to remember the “two Wongs don’t make a White” quip of Arthur Calwell, and wrongly assumed that he was the grey curmudgeon of refugee policy generally, not realizing his advocacy for the admission of Displaced Persons after WWII. While I was previously aware that the dismantling of the White Australia Policy commenced under the Liberal/Country Party coalition, I’d assumed that Whitlam, Hawke and Keating had been more proactive in refugee policy than they were.

There are five chapters in the book, each one fairly lengthy and detailed at about 60 pages length: generally too long for a single sitting. Fortunately Neumann provides a very good summary in the final pages of each chapter.  There are extensive footnotes at the rear of the book, generally listing only the source without any alternate or expanding argument carried on within the footnote.  For that I was grateful, because there’s already enough detail in the main text itself.

Although the emphasis of the book is on policy, the text is liberally studded with particular episodes which either prompted or framed the policy response, and this is where the policy comes to life through lived experiences.  Unlike the current government, which is determined to keep faces hidden and identities generic, Neumann seeks out individual stories.

Chapter One starts with the newly federated Parliament, which as we know, gave early attention to the White Australia policy.  The colour aspect was strictly applied but European arrivals were barely screened at all.  For the first four decades, nobody was invited to settle in Australia because s/he was a refugee. Where the government did subject arrivals to scrutiny, it was to restrict the immigration of Jews and people of leftist political persuasion. Until 1939 Germans and Austrians were preferred over other Europeans, and Gentiles preferred over Jews. The public was mainly apathetic.

The second chapter ‘Wartime Refugees and New Australians’ deals with the 1940s. Under the stewardship of Arthur Calwell, Australia deported more non-European residents (most of whom had been admitted in the early 1940s as refugees, evacuees or internees)  than at any time since the repatriation of Pacific Islanders under the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901.  However, when a consensus emerged that Australia needed a mass immigration program, the government turned to the International Refugees Organization, which in the post-war straitened years had the shipping available to transport Displaced Persons. The IRO allowed the Australian immigration authorities to select those who could comfortably be accommodated under the parameters of the White Australia Policy, and there was a swift backlash against the arrival of a comparatively small number of Holocaust survivors from Europe, the Middle East and China.  Under Curtin and Chifley, Australia adopted a comparatively outward-looking stance in its participation in international forums.

This stance was largely continued under the Menzies government, as Ch. 3 ‘Defectors, Deserters and the ‘Hard Core” shows.  The pool of desirable Displaced Persons shrank (with the exception of the Hungarian uprising of 1956) and Australia gradually adopted a more humanitarian (albeit, still very limited) approach to refugee settlement.  By the early 1960s the government had moved away from its emphasis on assimilation, and began promoting the idea of ‘integration’. In 1956 it developed a comprehensive asylum seeker policy, aimed at dealing with those who sought asylum once they were already in Australia, driven largely by the anticipation that athletes would defect from the Melbourne Olympic Games.  The White Australia policy remained intact with the refusal of permission for West Papuans to settle in Australia, although in a hint of current practice, they were allowed to remain in Papua or New Guinea on temporary visas. Environmental refugees from Nauru, however,  were allowed to settle in recognition that their displacement was a direct outcome of the mining of phosphate (ripples of future accommodation of climate change refugees, I wonder? Not under this current government, I wager).

Chapter 4 ‘Border Crossers, Evacuees and Political Refugees’ focusses mainly on the Whitlam years.  From the 1960s Australia had to contend with growing expectations that it would resettle non-European refugees, especially Vietnamese.  Australia had signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, but this applied only to people who became refugees as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951. There was more resistance to signing the 1967 Bellagio Protocol which removed the temporal qualifier.  About 6000 Czechs were settled after the Prague Spring of 1968, but West Papuans were transferred to Manus Island where, like the 21st century manifestation of the same ‘solution’, uncertainty about the future, lack of meaningful work and isolation took their toll.  Prime Minister Holt was open to the dismantling of the White Australia Policy: Gorton (his successor after that ill-fated swim) was a staunch defender of it. A small number of Asians from East Africa, especially Uganda, were admitted.  There was little change, initially, when the ALP took power in December 1972. Chilean refugees, fleeing the Pinochet regime were admitted, but they had to meet the normal migration criteria.  The ALP committed to a non-discriminatory immigration policy, but it also insisted that immigration respond to the capacity of Australia to provide employment, housing, education and social services. With the decline of economic circumstances between 1972 and 1965, Australia resettled comparatively few refugees, especially those from Vietnam. Those few who were resettled were forced to sign a commitment that they would not agitate against the government in Vietnam.  Many felt that Whitlam was morally wrong and hard-hearted, although compassion needs to be viewed sceptically.  The first ‘Operation Babylift’ of Vietnamese babies and children was a feel-good exercise; by the time the second Babylift came about just a fortnight later, public opinion had hardened.  Whitlam wanted to be remembered as a champion of international human rights conventions, but was less prepared to apply the 1951 Refugee Convention, and barely mentioned refugees in his 788-page tome The Whitlam Government 1972-1975.

In the final chapter ‘Boat People’, Neumann challenges the perception that Fraser’s generous response to Vietnamese refugees was instantaneous and unequivocal.  Instead, he notes, during Fraser’s first two governments, the number of Indochinese refugees resettled in Australia was small in absolute terms and small relative to the total migrant intake and  resettlement of displaced people from Lebanon.  However, this period marked an important turning point.  First, under the Whitlam govt, it was recognized that the selection of refugees should be governed by specific criteria, and that they ought to be assisted in their specific needs.  Second, Australia experienced its first wave of ‘boat people’ and third, the bipartisan consensus over refugee policy broke down for the first time since Federation, with the Fraser-led opposition demanding that more Vietnamese refugees be permitted to settle than the Whitlam government was willing to allow.  Finally, for the first time, the government defended its approach to refugees by drawing on the language of humanitarianism and by invoking Australia’s responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific region.  However, he notes, they did not draw on the language of human rights or Australia’s international legal obligations.  The Whitlam opposition by now raised the mirage of a ‘queue’ that was being bypassed by ‘queue-jumpers’- a trope familiar to us now- but the Dept of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs offered an argument that neither side of government would air now: that, in similar circumstances, Australians could, likewise,  become refugees.

Neumann’s telling of this history is evenhanded and dispassionate.  Although there are signposts to 21st century developments throughout the text, it is only in the Conclusion where he indulges in overtly political contemporary commentary.  Nonetheless, he notes that

Little can be gained from using this or any other history to establish whether or not Australia’s response to displaced people in the late 1970s was ‘superior’ to that in, say, the late 1930s, or whether the government’s current policies are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than those of the Fraser or Lyons governments.  The latter comparisons tend to reduce the past to a yardstick by which to measure the present, and make it difficult to think about it in its own right. Besides, there is no clear-cut ‘better’ or ‘worse’.  The episodes, at least in the way I have told them, in fact suggest not so much historical progression or decline, but rather continuity. (p.291)

He points out that many refugees have come to Australia because they had no other choice, or because Australia was the first option that presented itself.  Australia has often claimed to be a model international citizen, and the numbers support it, but many of the numbers brandished to support this claim include people who had been sponsored by relatives. At times, Australia has let its refugee and asylum seeker policy be informed by Article 1 of the Refugee Convention (ie. “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” etc.) but at other times, it has paid little attention to it.  The post-war Displaced Persons were available at a time when Australia was looking for migrants, and ships were provided to transport them.  There were virulent xenophobes in 1939, 1947 and 1977 as well as today: there were also passionate advocates at all of  those times too.

He finishes by confessing that there are no straightforward “lessons” beyond that the issue of forced migration is complex; that it is not easy to neatly distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants, and that instead of looking for easy solutions, we should try to learn to live with a complex and often uncomfortable problem.  (p. 299)

I hope to have encouraged you, my reader, to imagine alternative futures- which take into account Australia’s capacity to assist people in need of a new home, its responsibility as a regional power, its legal obligations as a member of the international community, and most importantly, the precarious circumstances of the men, women and children who are seeking Australia’s protection.  (p.300)

I’m with him.  I really don’t know what the solution is- in fact, I don’t think that there is ‘a’ solution.  I do know that it takes more than a three-word slogan, and that we should have the honesty and humility to acknowledge the complexity and moral stickiness of it all.

There’s a good review of this book in the Saturday Paper ( although it’s behind a firewall, you can read 3 free articles per week)

5 responses to “‘Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees. A History’ by Klaus Neumann

  1. I can’t remember which book it was, but when I reviewed one of those ‘refugee-made-good memoirs that good-hearted people are writing in the hope that attitudes might change if refugees are humanised as individuals, I asked myself: will it achieve that aim? Do you think this one will ‘be an intervention’?

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    I had not heard of the 1951 Refugee Convention that applied only to people who became refugees as a result of events occurring before January 1951. But even if that was the Convention that Australia originally signed, have we changed since?

    Shame Australia, Shame 😦

  3. “I really don’t know what the solution is- in fact, I don’t think that there is ‘a’ solution. I do know that it takes more than a three-word slogan, and that we should have the honesty and humility to acknowledge the complexity and moral stickiness of it all.”

    Hear, hear!

  4. Pingback: A Gleam of Hope | Stumbling Through the Past

    • Thank you for this lovely posting. I too am expecting my first grandchild in November and another in February. I’m finding the troubles of the world – refugees, environment, corporate power, inequality etc etc (so many etcs)- weighing on me more heavily now that the ‘future’ is embodied in a child known to me. Selfish and self-centred I know, or perhaps just being held accountable personally?

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