The Human Rights Watch World Report recently condemned Australia’s “draconian new policies” towards asylum seekers and refugees. The country’s current policy, which consists of detaining and processing asylum seekers off its shores, has spurred deep controversies both domestically and abroad. Such a policy hasn’t always been the norm, however. After the conclusion of World War II, successive governments built a progressive immigration system that was characterized by a willingness to accept a diverse array of immigrants. Just a few decades later, and well into the 21 century, there are 2,757 people detained in facilities across mainland Australia that Human Rights Watch describes as “substandard, unsafe, and inappropriate.” Australia’s dramatic policy shift can be attributed in large part to the issue’s political rhetoric, which has grown steadily more divisive since the late 1980s. The culmination of the rhetorical fisticuffs between Australia’s conservative Liberal and progressive Labor Parties has come with the current government’s controversial Operation Sovereign Borders initiative, which doubles-down on efforts to reduce the influx of asylum seekers into the country.
There are two consistent, yet contradictory, threads running through Australia’s history of immigration. The first is the country’s need for substantial human resources to drive an industrial economy. The second is deep-seated resentment for each wave of immigrants that has arrived at its shores. As time has passed, Australia’s political realities have changed, and immigration policies have morphed with them. At the end of WWII, the national mood was such that the country had to “populate or perish” — which is to say, grow or risk losing an influential stake in world affairs. As a result, Australia placed annual immigrant intake targets between 60,000 and 70,000 people, twice as large as the intake amounts had been in the inter-war years. However, the “White Australia” policy still favored Northern European immigrants and limited the effects of Australian xenophobia.
The White Australia policy remained in place until its last vestiges were finally removed in 1973, when the Whitlam government enshrined a nondiscriminatory immigration policy into law. As a first step, Australia opened its borders to people from Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. While there were strong, and often negative, reactions to this new vision of Australia, Parliamentary bipartisan support tenuously held. Towards the end of the 1970s, for example, opposition leader Malcolm Fraser publicly welcomed the “boat people” who were fleeing their homeland of Vietnam in a display of this new view on immigration.
By the 1990s, Australian immigration policy had begun to shift again. A 1988 review of immigration found that “multiculturalism had helped make immigration unpopular.” Soon afterwards the country was hit by recession, and the economic malaise that followed pushed the Australian populace to look for a scapegoat — one it found in ethnically diverse immigrants. Tapping into popular discontent, the government at the time, led by Australian Labor Party leader Paul Keating, introduced indefinite mandatory detention as an interim measure to handle recent boat arrivals from Indochina. This move was a marked departure from global norms. Under the UN Refugee Agency’s Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Australia is prohibited from restricting the movements of refugees while it is processing them, making the country’s detentions a potential violation of international law.
Nevertheless, in 2001 Australia departed its legal obligation in what became known as the Tampa affair, where the government left 438 Afghani asylum-seekers, many of whom required urgent medical attention, stranded off its shores on the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa. The Prime Minister was John Howard of the Liberal Party, who as opposition leader in 1988 had infamously given a speech endorsing his “One Australia” campaign. In that speech, he argued that the number of Asians coming into Australia was threatening the nation’s cultural identity and social cohesion. At the time, this sparked a furor in which then-Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, introduced legislation committing the country to an immigration policy that did not discriminate with regards to ethnicity.
Nearly 15 years later, the Tampa affair was invoked in a reevaluation of how the two political parties in government cooperated — or didn’t — on immigration. Despite efforts from the Labor party to quell partisan differences, the Liberal government stuck to its guns. In doing so, it had the public’s backing, as the Australian electorate supported the Liberal government’s resistance to the Tampa. The eventual result of the Tampa affair, and the public groundswell of support for the government, was the so-called Pacific Solution.
Under the Pacific Solution, the Australian government excised thousands of islands from Australia’s so-called migration zone. Anybody who arrived in the zone without proper documentation would be treated as though they had not actually landed on Australian soil. As such, these individuals would not have access to the legal rights and privileges available to lawful arrivals. Any asylum seekers intercepted by border police would then be sent to detention centers set up in Nauru and Papua New Guinea while they awaited processing.
At the time the Tampa incident occurred, there was a heightened state of fear regarding immigrants. Although these fears range from the moderate to the absurd — Wilson Tuckey, a Member of Parliament, warned that boats of immigrants could provide cover for terrorists disguised as refugees — they continued to have a prominent place in Australia’s discourse about terrorism. And politicians like John Howard have since been able to use these public fears about the place and legitimacy of immigrants to defend anti-immigrant policies that would previously have faced public opposition.
Six years later, Kevin Rudd, a member of the Labor Party, was elected to government. Rudd attempted to break the pattern on immigration by championing Big Australia, an initiative that would have attempted to increase the population from 22 million in 2010 to 36 million in 2015 — efforts that would have been largely fueled by immigration. However, a simultaneous increase in the frequency of arrivals of asylum seekers galvanized popular revolt against the policy and the Labor Party in general. Attacked for mismanaging the country, the Labor Party crumbled. The party subsequently rejected Rudd’s “Big Australia,” blaming the policy for leading them astray and concluded that they could only survive the next election by a taking a hardline on asylum seekers and reinstating Howard’s Pacific Policy.
Despite the shift in immigration policy, Labor did not win the next election. The Liberal party was instead elected in 2013 under the leadership of Tony Abbott — who promised he would “stop the boats” as a central platform of his election bid. With this in his platform, Abbott was elected by a landslide, with his Liberal Party winning 90 seats in the House of Representatives to the Labor Party’s 55. Needless to say, the Liberal government undid several of the progressive efforts of the previous Labor government; specifically, Abbott’s administration opposed a former agreement with Malaysia providing that all new boat arrivals would be relocated to the South-Asian country. Since the election, the new Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, has also introduced “Operation Sovereign Borders,” a policy designed to reduce the flow of asylum-seekers attempting to travel to Australia via boat.
The program was conducted across a number of military divisions and overseen by a three-star general. The operation has oftentimes been shrouded in secrecy, as public statements on the arrival of boat people have slowed to a standstill, with the Immigration Minister declaring that such information would be released on an “as needs be basis.” Other officials refused to comment on what were referred to as “on-water matters,” seemingly out of fear that such discussion could jeopardize the operation. As a result, intercepted asylum seekers were effectively towed back to Indonesian waters, which did not endear the policy or its makers to the Indonesian government, contributing to the increasingly fractious relations between the two countries.
Abbott’s policies faced legal challenges after two Sri Lankan boats of asylum seekers were seized in July 2014 under the new policy. Operation Sovereign Borders was then under investigation for violating international law — though it was not ultimately found to be unlawful. People on one of the boats were assessed under an “enhanced screening process” before being returned to Sri Lanka. The other boat was turned back in accordance with previous policies, and upon the boat’s return, the Sri Lankan government charged its occupants for illegally leaving the country.
Those who had made it to Australia — and were subsequently transported to the detention camps — faced trying conditions in their temporary homes in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. In February of 2014, prison officials in the Papua New Guinea camp bashed an Iranian detainee to death in a riot. Others were so seriously injured that they had to be evacuated. This wasn’t the only troubling instance; the Australian government has also since confirmed that people in the same detention center were going on hunger strikes and even engaging in self-harm.
Despite the controversy surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders, immigration into Australia has continued to grow faster than ever, from 131,162 permanent additions between 2000 and 2001 to 254,737 between 2012 and 2013. Primarily, this growth is primarily driven by demand from businesses and universities for more labor and students.
The current climate surrounding the so-called refugee crisis has come to the point where it now casts an inordinately large shadow over Australian politics. The obsession with turning back asylum seekers is little more than a talking point that diverts public scrutiny away from more pressing issues like development and growth. But the rhetoric has been effective, as tapping into Australians’ xenophobic fears has allowed politicians to promote strong anti-immigration policies, even if the result has been damage to the lives of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers. As for Australia’s reputation on the global stage, the ship may have already sailed.