Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees: A History
by Klaus Neumann
Published June, 2015
I was reading Across the Seas, Klaus Neumann’s history of Australian refugee policy in the first three generations after Federation, while I travelled back towards the heart of darkness, to the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps where so many of my extended family met their truly horrifying deaths. I experienced in passing a sense of that extraordinary passionate thanks that my refugee parents from Poland gave to Australia for providing them with final sanctuary in 1946 after five years in a Japanese camp in Shanghai.
In hard copy and on an iPhone, I worked my way through Neumann’s wealth of archival research, watching as he placed piece together with piece, teased out the hidden innuendo and the often unhidden prejudice that has formed a symmetry of hope and shame for a hundred years. I finally closed the book in Warsaw, in an apartment looking out on a park, in what had been the Jewish ghetto before it was erased by the Nazis in 1943. I had just come from a seminar on multiculturalism in Europe. A key point of discussion there was the reluctance of the Polish government to accept refugee Christians from Syria (their evangelical sectarianism seemed to be the problem) at the request of the European commission. In our symposium, some from the Polish side proposed that Poles and Australians, though geographically separated, appeared to share a common belief in keeping out those people who might make life more complex and challenging for them – or put more simply, those they didn’t like. Neumann would most likely have nodded in partial agreement.
Australia is an immigration country, a stolen land on which the best and the brightest, the tortured and the criminal, the reckless and the kind from across the world have come to create a new life. By the time the first colonists, their militaries and their militias had crushed what remained of the Indigenous resistance, after the devastation of the cultural, biological and chemical warfare that was waged against the country’s original owners, who were herded into our own version of concentration camps, the newly formed nation was firmly focussed on its future as a white haven. Neumann begins his story, having reflected on the turbulent times in which we now live, with the key pieces of legislation that were designed to make and keep Australia white. While there would be no refugee policy so defined until the mid 1970s, or even a Citizenship Act until nearly 1950, the federal government was never unaware that its key role was to defend the borders and maintain control over the make-up of the population.
Neumann has chosen to focus on the period from Federation to the time of the refugee decisions of the mid and late 1970s, especially those made under the liberal Liberals Malcolm Fraser, Michael Mackellar and Ian McPhee, and their last Labor shadow and supporter Mick Young. On reflection, I don’t think it was an accident that the Liberals who supported refugees came of Scottish stock, for there is a sense that the Scots always had a more visionary sense of how the British Empire could be improved – Governor Macquarie being the archetype in Australian history. Perhaps it also took an Irishman like Young to perceive the weight of huge injustice that history could deliver to those who became caught in its unyielding grasp.
Neumann begins at Federation and with the role of history in our national consciousness. Australians are, he clearly believes, a people who have little sense of the realities of that history. We are much taken with the narratives we concoct to make ourselves feel better, especially with regard to our humanism. The capacity of Australians today to sit smugly by and approve, by a vast majority, the actions of a government that is turning back the boats, restricting immigration by refugees who have managed to make it to Indonesia, and blaming asylum seekers for trying to corruptly mislead the Australian people, suggests to Neumann, as it does to me, that some deep ideological purpose underpins our interpretation of refugees’ motives and our own messy responses to their plight. Neumann hints that it may have something to do with the original invasion and possession of Australia by our British forebears, who ensured our Constitution would suppress the original peoples and sanctify our conquest.
Neumann rightly argues that it is insufficient to focus only on Australia. The global context provides a sense of how international power politics has influenced the actions of successive Australian governments.
Refugees enter a narrative field, one that has developed incrementally over the past 100 years or more. Neumann offers three key readings of the presence of refugees in the national imagination (which is where they lurk for most Australians): the political, the oppressed minority, and the camp dweller. The framing of the refugee as either protagonist or victim (either active or inert) has significant consequences for the ways in which the public responds to their claims for asylum. As the public rarely has any direct contact with refugees, and almost none at all with asylum seekers at the commencement of their journey, how the narrative about them is constructed and communicated becomes, from the outset, a central focus of government refugee policies.
Political refugees can seem to be morally upright and standard bearers of the cause of humanity. Who can forget Paul Henreid as the anti-Nazi Czech refugee and activist for whom Humphrey Bogart sacrifices Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942), a film whose supporting cast was studded with refugees from Nazism? (Australia had its own Casablanca moment some years before, in 1934–5, when Attorney General Robert Menzies sought to prohibit the entry of anti-Nazi Czech campaigner, though not a refugee, Egon Kisch.) The arrival of escapees from oppressive regimes, especially where the oppression is based on racial or ethnic grounds, produces a generally acceptable narrative. In such cases, however, refugees need to ensure that they perform their ‘victimhood’ appropriately, and conform to the submissive and unchallenging mode of adaptation to Australian norms that the media finds appropriate. Neumann uses a number of examples of acceptable and unacceptable performances, demonstrating the unfortunate consequences for refugees of the latter.
Contested presentations of refugee narratives have become increasingly tortured in recent Australian history, as governments have sought to control public knowledge. Remember the ‘children overboard’ and ‘Tampa’ events of 2001. This year, prohibitions have been put in place that prevent medical personnel describing to the public the traumatic experiences of asylum seekers in Australian-funded holding camps on Nauru and Manus Island.
Camp dwellers have today become the most common narrative focus. These refugees or asylum seekers appear as indistinct cases. They are usually anonymous, usually painfully desperate, usually impossibly alien, and overwhelming in their numbers and unceasing anguish. Neumann proposes that their abject and traumatised state has become necessary to meet the criteria in Australian public discourse that they be seen as deserving of being received as refugees. Refugees with funds – for example, people who can pay for boat tickets with people smugglers – are often deemed to be undeserving and unacceptable, classed as economic migrants.
Neumann intends, as he says, to deploy ‘the narratives of the past to unsettle ideas about the present’. His examples show just how much the public perception of refuge-seekers depends on the cultural interpretations generated by governments, and reinterpreted and circulated by the media. In particular, he argues that perceived national interests, or the political interests of the national government, set out the primary parameters within which policies are developed and actions are taken.
Europe’s media, following the lead of Europe’s governments, typically describe the people fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe using the neutral or positive term ‘migrants’, while in the Australian context similar people would be labelled ‘asylum seekers’. Migrants do present a problem for Europe, but it is not generated by a moral failing of the migrants themselves. The problem is the size of the issue and the incapacity of the infrastructure to cope. In Australia, asylum seekers are regularly presented as immoral, illegitimate and illegal, as people who are trying to ‘game’ the Australian people, even though the vast majority have been found in the past to meet the criteria for legitimate refugee status and are legally seeking asylum.
Australia began as a nation by defining who could not be Australian. Mostly it was Australian Aborigines who could not be Australians: they were not counted in the census and could not vote. They could go to war and kill and die for Australia, but not elect the government that had declared that war. Non-British foreigners could not enter Australia to live if they were ‘coloured’. In practice that could be said, but not legislated for, so numerous devices were invented – the most ludicrous being the dictation test – that allowed government officials to create barriers to entry. Immigration officials became adept at spotting colour – a bit like the censors in communist countries that would tap their noses to show they were hard wired for revolutionary consciousness.
Before Federation, all sorts of refugees had ended up in the Australian colonies. There were African Americans escaping from slavery or post-Civil War persecution, Chinese survivors of the Taiping Rebellion who were fleeing an Emperor who had vowed to take retribution unto the ninth circle, Irish who were fleeing the British (and Irish condemned by the British), Russian revolutionaries fleeing the Tsar, and Jews fleeing pogroms and Tsarist and Ottoman Imperial conscriptions.
The wall of race was raised around Australia in 1901. White-ish refugees could still enter, but others could not. Neumann discusses the very specific Australian prohibition of Polish Jews, ethnic ‘types’ who were unwelcome. On the day in 1940 that my father and grandfather lined up outside the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, in the hope of receiving a transit visa through Japan to safety somewhere, the Australian High Commission in London was instructed by Canberra not to issue transit visas for Polish Jews who wished to travel via Australia for the refuge of the open international city of Shanghai. The Japanese consul, Chiune Sugihara, found a way to keep the transit visas flowing; the Australian High Commission did not.
After 1918, there was international co-operation in regard to the protection of people displaced during war. Australia was happy to put some funds in the pot. That being done (keep them over there and away from us) Australia declined to participate in any of the ten intergovernmental conferences held from 1921. In a parallel assertion of Australian values, Prime Minister Billy Hughes used the high numbers of Australians killed in the war as a means to force the other Allied powers to agree that racial discrimination would not be outlawed by the League of Nations.
Australia attended the conference at Evian in July 1938 to discuss the plight of refugees from the Reich and other stateless Jewry. Following the March 1938 Anschluss with Austria, refugees from the Reich who arrived in London were confronted with both a £200 landing fee and a quota of 300 permits a month if they tried to get to Australia. Meanwhile, Poland had cancelled the citizenship of all Poles who had been living outside Poland for more than five years, propelling thousands of Polish Jews living in Austria, France and other European countries into the limbo of statelessness. In Australia, however, Germans and Austrians were to be given preference.
Australia’s main representative at Evian, T. W. White, a conservative parliamentarian and the trade minister, voiced what was then – and for some remains to this day – the overarching Australian attitude to those seeking refuge:
As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.
As it turned out, none of the countries that attended the Evian conference did much to address the problem, and while Australia increased its quota to 15 000 a few months later, it was too late with the other restrictions to do much more than get half that number in before the Pacific War began.
Australia was to receive many refugees during the Second World War, significant numbers of them from Asia. At the war’s end, the Labor Government sought to expel them. At the same time, it was eyeing Europe and its Aryan refugees as a prime source for its post-war population surge. The first tranche came from the displaced persons’ camps of central Europe and from Poles left in England, who had no desire to return to their now Soviet-occupied country. The acceptance of displaced persons provided the template on which the imagined future population would be shaped. Saturated with assumptions about hierarchies of racial embodiment, the policy now sought out ‘beautiful Balts’ to fill the factories and the maternity wards of post-war Australia.
The values that T. W. White had voiced less than a decade before were still at the forefront of public discourse. In 1946, when the first Polish refugees and other Jews began to arrive from Shanghai (my parents among them), they were confronted with the same apprehension that had clung to the Evian rhetoric. For instance, the Application for Admission of a relative for my parents, grandmother and uncle, which was signed by my aunt in 1945, expressed her ‘desire to introduce into Australia the following person who is of Polish nationality and who is / is not Jewish’. Only Jews were accorded this inquisition about their faith, the presence of the two categories of ‘Jew’ and ‘Not Jew’ sending a shiver down the spines of the Holocaust survivors. They arrived on the MV Yochow in September 1946, four of the six Polish Jews on-board, among dozens of Austrian and German Jews.
Fortunately, by 1952 my father was found to have generated no objection from security and his child was found not to be mentally deficient. The reporting officer B. M. O’Neill thought he was ‘a good type’, despite him speaking English with a slight accent. My father became an Australian citizen through naturalisation, as I had when I was born soon after the Citizenship Act 1948 was passed. Sighs of relief all around.
The use of individual cases throughout Across the Seas throws the issues into relief. As Neumann comments, the strategy of rendering refugees anonymous has done much to distance these issues from everyday Australians. It has allowed governments to control the agenda. The central part of Neumann’s history charts the wavering fortunes of the idea of the refugee, and points to the way in which, through the long afternoon of the Menzies government, most of the refugees who were settled in Australia were escapees from the Eastern bloc. His digging enables him to show how Australia’s national interest was always to the fore. The selection of refugees was always tempered by the seeking of ‘good types’. People with disabilities, single mothers (for a time), and others who might be either a financial burden or a moral failure were excluded. Prime Ministers of opposite parties held to a steady course. William McMahon was as likely as Gough Whitlam to say that Australia’s interests should come ahead of compassion. In this, Australia has stood into the wind, in contrast to New Zealand, which has incorporated compassionate phrasing into its usually more generous response to refugee crises.
By the mid 1970s, the situations that had underpinned the refugee crises of the 1960s had been transformed by major political changes to what had been a somewhat stable if violent international landscape. The previous generation had seen waves of refugees fleeing communism; now Latin America – Chile, Uruguay and Argentina – saw an exodus of Leftists. Then, in 1975–6, the two most important conflicts yet to affect Australian refugee policy occurred. In Indochina, the American- and Australian-backed regimes in the former French colonial empire fell into the hands of militarised communist states. In the Middle East, the bubbling tensions in Lebanon exploded into civil war. The Whitlam government was privy to the opening rounds of these tensions, but it would be the Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser that would have to deal with the consequences.
The Fraser moment has been hailed, especially during Fraser’s memorial celebrations, as an exemplar of rational, regionally compatible, moral and compassionate refugee policy. It has also been attacked for exactly the same reason: condemned as a bleeding-heart, knee-jerk reaction, swathed in the rhetoric of the United Nations, that delivered into Australia tens of thousands of socially dangerous, violent and unsuitable immigrants, whose criminality and that of their children created the now thriving drug trade and planted the seeds of violent jihadist terrorism. It was indeed the pressure of the refugee situation in the Middle East and in Indochina that drove Fraser and MacKellar, his immigration minister, to find the words that would shape Australia’s first real refugee policy in 1977.
As Neumann shows, the first demand that Australia ‘turn back the boats’ using the military, came from the Labor Party’s Shadow Immigration Minister Tony Mulvihill in 1977. He did not face much hostility to his words; MacKellar defended the boat arrivals against claims that they were rich, selfish and criminal – the same claims that were used against the Shanghai Jews 30 years before. Once in place, these labels would be attached to the ‘boat people’ for the next 40 years, and become swollen with rhetoric and self-interest.
Fraser’s government was soon battling public opinion on all sides. Racists wanted the Vietnamese stopped because they were Asian; anti-communists wanted them to be helped; opponents of the Vietnam War saw them as vanguards of anti-Leftist politics – an accusation that had been directed at the eastern Europeans of the previous refugee cycle. Unionists came out in opposition to the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in the name of protecting Australian jobs from the Yellow Peril. Catholics and supporters of the failed South Vietnamese regime argued that we had a moral responsibility toward those who had been our allies and were now fleeing for their lives. Other church groups also pressed a moral case for helping those in need. In the region, the new nations that had been formed out of the remnants of the Dutch and British empires either interned or pushed away the refugees, sending them on their way south. The well-embedded fear of Asian boat people, going back at least into the nineteenth century and invigorated in the 1950s, was excited by the renewed controversies.
In fact, in the first years of the new refugee awareness, the fiercest immediate pressure was coming from across the world, from the Levant, where age-old tensions between Christians and Muslims were producing another group of people seeking refuge. The Christian Lebanese, who were caught in the fire from Muslim militias (and who were often giving as good as they got), and who had been so active in demanding Australia open its doors to their families, were less impressed when many of these Muslims, who were fleeing the bullets of the Christians, also sought sanctuary in Australia. At the same time, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, approved of by Whitlam, had produced another wave of refugees demanding Australian protection, their exodus prompting an excuse from Whitlam in regard to his reluctance to take in the Vietnamese.
It was because of these extraordinary pressures – this combination of domestic, regional and global forces – that the Fraser government was forced to find a way to adapt to the increasing demand for refuge. Fraser reasoned that while Australia’s national interest had to be paramount, this interest clearly included explicit support for international conventions on rights, because if Australia stood up for those values, then it could advance them in the region and globally. This would spread the load and build a wider civic culture of compassion. There was no way that the still impoverished nations of Indonesia or Malaysia could find the resources or would sign on to these values if Australia did not help them – not only put its money but its action where its mouth was.
Forty years later, our perspective has changed. It has retreated back into a narrow projection of national self-interest, cloaked with deterrence and draped with unctuous do-gooding rhetoric. The model that emerged at that turbulent time 40 years ago still underpins Australia’s political awareness of the issues, but it no longer provides the strategy to maintain the balance between the competing priorities. We have a refugee policy that works for refugees ‘over there’ reasonably well. We like the idea that order is maintained out of our sight, and that by the time people arrive they are scrubbed, polished and processed. We don’t like the idea at all that people in boats can just arrive, entering our space without a by-your-leave, re-enacting the fleets of invasion that so stunned the Indigenous tribes of Sydney Cove nearly ten generations ago.