A Critique Of Australia’s Refugee Policy – OpEd


By Prof. V. Suryanarayan

Modern Australia is a nation of immigrants. Its population is approximately 34 million. It is one the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. The contribution made by the immigrants to the growth of Australian population can be understood from the fact that 25 per cent of the population today is born outside the country.

The initial policy of the Australian Government was to restrict immigration to Europeans only. Social Scientists characterized it as the beginning of “White Australia policy”. After the Second World War Australia began to change this policy. The new policy enabled the refugees and asylum seekers from Asian countries to migrate to Australia. Number of immigrants began to increase. From 1945 to 1960, 1.6 million persons migrated to Australia. Today people of British origin are the majority comprising 67.4 per cent; the Irish constitute 8.7 per cent; Italians 3.8 per cent and the Germans 3.7 per cent. The aboriginal and native population is getting extinct, today they number only 3.0 per cent. From an Asian point of view the Chinese constitute 3.0 per cent and the Indians 1.7 per cent of the population.

The Australian leaders used to cite the increase in immigration as an illustration of the success of its policy of multi-culturalism. They celebrated their diversity. More than 300 languages are spoken in the country today. The increase in immigration of people from non-white countries led to social tensions. It may be recalled that there were violent incidents involving Indian students (mainly from North India) and the local population who viewed them as unwelcome intruders.

Immigrants have made yeoman contributions to the development of Australia.  To cite an example, Sri Lankan Tamil professionals – doctors, engineers and IT specialists – who went to Australia after the genocide in Sri Lanka in July 1983 is a good illustration of how immigrants have made a new home and enriched Australia in many ways. The relatively liberal atmosphere in Australia attracted many young people from Malaysia and Singapore who were stifling under repressive regimes in their country.  Late Prof. S Arasaratnam, a Sri Lankan Tamil, associated with the Department of History in the Peradeniya University left Sri Lanka for Malaysia; to his dismay he found the Malaysian educational scene equally stifling and moved to the University of New England in Australia and became an Australian citizen. Professor Arasaratnam’s major works on maritime history of India were completed while he was teaching in Australia.

The facts mentioned above made Australian Government “play a key role” in drafting international treaties that protect people fleeing from persecution. As the Kaldor Centre for International Humanitarian Refugee Law in a recent report has pointed out these agreements “reinforce rather than undermine Australia’s sovereignty”. It co-operated with international community on matters of common concern, what is more it gave expression to the voice of the voiceless – refugees scattered across the globe.

Australia’s refugee policy began to change for the worse when the asylum seekers from Cambodia began to arrive by sea. The Labour Government introduced the Migration Amendment Act, 1992, which stipulated that any person arriving in Australia without a visa would be held in detention while his application was looked into.  The major plank of the election campaign of John Howard was stricter laws of immigration. In one meeting, John Howard declared: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they arrive”.

On the eve of the election a Norwegian ship MV Tampa reached the Australian shores in August 2001carrying 438 asylum seekers. The asylum seekers were rescued from the sea by the captain and his crew. Rather than congratulating the captain and his team for their humanitarian act the Australian Government sent its security forces to the ship and accused the captain of human trafficking. The Norwegian Government complained to the UNHCR, International Red Cross and the International Migration Organisation. On the domestic front it was God send for John Howard who was able to exploit the anti-refugee feelings to his advantage; naturally he won the election.

John Howard announced a new refugee policy soon after he was voted to power. It was known as the “Pacific solution”. Its objective was to halt the arrival of asylum seekers by sea. Australia opened two detention centres in two neighbouring countries, one in Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and another in Nauru. The asylum seekers were detained in these islands. The Government also excluded its Indian Ocean territories including Christmas Island, from the jurisdiction of the Migration Act. As progressive Australian scholars, specializing in refugee studies, have pointed out, “This meant that they would no longer have the right to their claims being processed by Australia”. More deplorable, the Government pandered to the anti-refugee sentiments and began to criticize the policy of multi-culturalism. The Labour Party leader Kevin Rudd remarked, “Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as a refugee”.

The Labour Party was determined to prevent the flow of refugees to Australia by sea; in order to attain this objective the government sought the assistance of Indonesia and Malaysia. Canberra suggested that it will finance the opening of refugee camps in Indonesia and the Indonesian government should ensure that the refugees do not move out of the camps. It suggested to Malaysia a “swap deal” which meant that Malaysia would accept 800 asylum seekers. In return Australia would accept 4000 UNHCR sponsored refugees. Both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur were lukewarm to the proposal and it became a non-starter.

If one compares the Australian situation with the rest of the world, the number of applications received for asylum is less than that of Canada, Germany and England. And, what is more, the asylum applications are less than the immigration quota provided for Asian countries.

The Kaldor Committee Report has rightly highlighted the fact that “family unity and protection of the children” are fundamental principles of international humanitarian refugee law. The present Australian policy has led to the separation and disintegration of several families. The deplorable conditions of the children have been criticized by several human rights organisations. To quote from the article written by John Minns, Kieran Bradley and Fabricio H Chagas-Bastos: “In maintaining its policy of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers, the Australian Government has breached several international conventions, been  complicit in widespread physical, mental and sexual abuse of detainees, and introduced domestic laws that severely curtail the democratic rights of the Australian citizens”

From a Tamil Nadu point of view, it must be pointed out that few Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have fallen prey to the false promises made by human traffickers. Since the Tamil Nadu coastline is patrolled by the Coast Guard, they go to Kerala, take a small boat to go to mid-sea where they get into a rickety ship. The next halt is either Thailand or Indonesia from where they board another ship. How many refugees have died on the way is not known?

Is deterrence, the cornerstone of Australia’s refugee policy, a viable solution to the refugee problem? Has capital punishment brought down murders and assassinations? The clear answer is an emphatic no. In this context the suggestions made by the Australian leaders that European countries should follow the Australian model is wrought with dangerous consequences. As the three authors, mentioned above, have rightly put it the “Australian model applied to Europe will be a humanitarian outrage”.

The only solution is to mount pressure on Australia, both from within and outside, that it should give up its present policy. The international community, especially the UNHCR and human rights organizations should mobilise support and compel Australia to pursue a more humane policy towards asylum seekers. Australia must also conform to international conventions in the drafting of which the Australian experts have played a key role. Then only Australia can claim that it is a multi-racial nation.

The Author wants to acknowledge his gratitude to two publications. 1) Kaldor Centre Principles for Australian Refugee Policy (UNSW. Sydney, 2019) and 2) John Minns, Kieran Bradley and Fabricio H Chagas-Bastros, “Australia’s Refugee Policy: Not a Model for the World”. International Studies, Volume 55, number 1.

*Dr. V. Suryanarayan is founding Director and retired Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. His e mail id: [email protected]


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

One thought on “A Critique Of Australia’s Refugee Policy – OpEd

  • July 16, 2019 at 1:30 am

    Australia is a country of 25 million people and has a human carrying capacity of 10 million. Ergo, we are vastly overpopulated. We have the highest extinction rates in the world, arid and semi-arid soil, with only 6% usable. We are simply full.

    As for refugees: the world over they are being rejected. It would be better for the UNHCR to take care of all refugees, lock, stock and barrel, let them reside in UNHCR camps , managed by the residents, for as long as is necessary and until they can return to their respective homelands.

    We live in a vastly overpopulated world. Each and every country has to aim to look after their own and not send their supernumeries to other places.

    India too must aim for population decline. Yet, they are still growing.


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