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Type: Thesis
Title: The Australian Way: A Critical Review of Australia’s Responses to Refugees and Asylum Seekers 1901-2013
Author: Stats, Katrina Therese
Issue Date: 2017
School/Discipline: School of Social Sciences : Politics & International Studies
Abstract: When Coalition Prime Minister John Howard declared in 2001 that it was “in Australia’s national interest that we draw a line on what is increasingly becoming an uncontrollable number of illegal arrivals in this country”, he argued that this was necessary not only to “protect Australia’s borders and to defend our right to decide who comes to this country and in what circumstances” but also to preserve Australia’s long-standing tradition of resettling offshore refugees under its formal humanitarian program.1 According to Howard, onshore asylum seekers arriving by irregular means (so-called “boat people”) were displacing people whose claims for refugee status were more meritorious and testing the limits of Australia’s generosity. The defence of this program with the Pacific Solution measures was thus, in the words of Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, “rational compassion”.2 But for many other observers, when he drew a line in the sand against the Tampa asylum seekers and those who would follow in their wake, Howard was also drawing a line between Australia’s proud past as compassionate nation and generous supporter of refugees and its increasingly punitive border protection policies and cruel treatment of asylum seekers since then. I take issue with both of these accounts that have together contrived to forge and sustain a dominant narrative about Australia’s refugee history, namely, that it is a long and proud one of generously offering hospitality to refugees. According to the former account, this is a long and unbroken history, which current border protection policies seek to defend; according to the latter, these policies represent a deviation from, and the destruction of, this proud history. In this thesis, I critically review Australia’s “proud” refugee history and its contemporary “aberrations”. While other scholars have compiled critical accounts of Australia’s responses to particular refugee populations or periods of history, this is the first comprehensive account of Australia’s responses to those seeking refuge within its borders and its approach to the principle of asylum from Federation in 1901 until the present era. While not disputing the humanitarian outcomes of Australian policy responses to various refugee crises over time – the large numbers of displaced persons who found refuge and made a home in Australia after the Second World War, or the integration of the Indochinese who were welcomed not long after the White Australia policy had been abandoned, for example – I nevertheless contest common accounts of Australia’s refugee history that construe the architects of such policies as exemplars of a proud humanitarian tradition. By measuring the success of these policies not merely according to their outcomes as viewed through the fuzzy lens of time but with respects to their objectives, I demonstrate a consistent trajectory to refugee and asylum policies that have been charted by both sides of politics in Australia since the birth of the modern state. I show how Australia’s recent responses to asylum seekers arriving by boat were foreshadowed by its responses to earlier refugee populations. I argue that Australia’s approach to refugees has, since the beginning of the contemporary settler nation, been directed by its approach to immigration in general, with a conflation of the aims and objectives of these two very different policy areas that has persisted until the present. This has resulted in a selective approach to Australia’s humanitarian obligations that assesses people’s value before their vulnerability and privileges the protection of borders over the protection of people. It is an approach that has been characterised by restriction and selection and driven by the desire for control since Federation and was neatly summed up a century later by Howard’s message to the Tampa refugees: “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. These words will forever be associated with the 25th Prime Minister of Australia but, as this thesis clearly demonstrates, they were not invented by him and nor was “the Australian way” of dealing with refugees and asylum seekers.
Advisor: Macintyre, Clement
Dissertation Note: Thesis (Ph.D.) -- University of Adelaide, School of Social Sciences, 2017
Keywords: Australian refugee and asylum seeker policy
asylum seekers
border protection
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