Refugees & people seeking asylum

What is a refugee?

It is often said - and it is true - that Australia is a country of migrants. That means if any of us were to trace back our Australian origins we would find ancestors who left their home for one or more reasons - opportunity, escape from oppression of some kind, adventure, reunion, and so on. Among them all would be lots of refugees: people getting away from something, looking for something better and safer.

But in the beginning, Australia was a colony. That is, the original settlers came to a place already occupied, and displaced the people they found there. So our country is also, from the start, a country of refugees - internal ones. We don't often think like this, but if you are an historian, you know that as a nation, we have always had a strange ambivalence about this subject. We both know it, and don't know it, at the same time. We have also, from the beginning, had a persisting fear of invasion from the populous lands to our north.

We still do. That's why it has always been easy to stir up anxiety and resentment against immigrants who look or behave a bit different. The wisest of our leaders have known that stirring this hornet's nest is a bad idea, and thanks to their example we have become one of the world's most successful multi-cultural societies, peacefully integrating new citizens from dozens of places, and enriching ourselves by so doing. But not all leaders are wise. Igniting and magnifying passions can help their cause, but only by stoking intolerance and division. No society can do that for long without bringing lots of trouble for itself.

Asylum seekers are people who flee to another country for protection. They can do that because an international covenant brokered by the United Nations after the war mandates both the rights of persecuted people, and the duties of countries that receive them. Australia is bound under international law to observe those rights and responsibilities. So we are not at liberty to use refugees as political pawns, nor to pretend that harshness is the only way to manage the problem of 'people smuggling'. Yet we do.


• A comparison of the two major parties' refugee policies since 2001, published by the Parliamentary Library 2016-17. This should give you a good idea of how the policy landscape has been shaped since 'the Tampa affair' and the ensuing 'toughness competition'.

• The two parties' current positions (details can change) can be found in the ALP's platform document, Chapter 9, sections on immigration & humanitarian policy; and the liberal party's plan under the headings of 'Fighting Terrorism and Crime', and 'Securing our Borders'.

• Here is an interesting article [Guardian 6/5/2018] with an account of the origins of our post 2001 policy, dominated by off-shore detention and the punitive discourse of people-smuggling.

• This guide, published by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, examines common and spurious claims frequently made about refugees. It is full of interesting facts.

• This brief statement gives the gist of the ALP stance it will take to the election. Notice both the conventional tough talk about smugglers, and the claim to compassion. The promised reforms are long overdue.

• In this piece [Conversation 14/6/2016] Jim Middleton summarises the history of policy and attitudes to asylum seekers & refugees.

• Here, an expert on this area of law discusses how a future ALP government can move our policy forward, and away from sterile and divisive fights over the plight of vulnerable people.

• In this article [SMH 12/8/2016], four prominent Australians make a case that off-shore detention can be ended, and the refugees resettled in Australia without 'restarting the boats'.

• The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has data & information on the global refugee problem.

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