Date: 26 July 2013
Author: Stefanie Scherr
Publisher: Australian Policy Online
Owning Institution(s): Swinburne University of Technology
Title: Hope: Refugees and their Supporters in Australia since 1947
Publisher: Halstead Press, Sydney
Date Published: 2013
Author/s: Ann-Marie Jordens
Australia has a long history of accepting refugees for resettlement. Since the end of the Second World War, more than 750,000 refugees and Displaced Persons (DPs) have been resettled (DIAC 2012). Research on Australia’s long-term commitment to refugee resettlement has, however, rarely adopted a historical perspective, but was largely concerned with the present and the future. Neither historians nor refugee researchers have provided us yet with a comprehensive analysis of how local communities, service providers and community organisations have reacted to the arrival of various refugee groups in Australia, and the political response to their resettlement.
Hope: Refugees and their Supporters in Australia since 1947 is not a book that seeks to close this gap. It provides us, however, with a thought-provoking and engaging narrative of refugees’ resettlement experiences from the perspectives of several refugees who have been resettled in Australia between 1947 and 2006, and of the people who supported them. Although Jordens adopts a regional viewpoint and focuses on the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), she presents an Australian refugee resettlement history. This history is marked by major shifts in government policies addressing refugees and asylum seekers, as well as in the public discourse about their settlement. In the first part of this book, the life stories of twelve refugees who have been resettled in Australia explore experiences of violence, war, displacement and forced migration, as well as their arrival and integration in Australia. In the second part, these individual migrant stories are contrasted and supplemented with accounts of service providers, volunteers, government officials and representatives of non-government organisations who helped these refugees to settle in Australia.
Although this book lacks any methodological reflection on the selection and use of its 26 interviews, which Jordan recorded for the National Library of Australia, it presents a complex and individual look into refugees’ resettlement experience. Through the life stories of the refugees and of the people who helped them settle in Canberra we gain an understanding of the changes in the political responses to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Australia since 1947. The resettlement experiences of two DPs from war-torn Europe highlight that Australia’s first large refugee intake was largely shaped by Cold War alliances and the White Australia policy. The life stories of a Chilean and a Vietnamese refugee woman, both fleeing the political upheaval in their countries during the mid-1970s, point at the diversification of Australia’s refugee intake under the Whitlam government. By then, Australia also accepted refugees from the Middle East, Latin America and Indo-China. Until 1979 the resettlement experience of all refugees arriving in the ACT was closely connected with the Good Neighbour Movement, a large network of community organisations and volunteers providing support for newly arrived refugees and immigrants. The main critique that Jordens voices in this book is that the pioneer spirit of the Good Neighbour Movement has been lost in the provision of today’s settlement services.
Traditionally, the provision of support services for refugees strongly involved volunteers, as well as local and ethnic communities which support refugees to settle in Australia. Much has changed since Malcom Fraser abolished the Good Neighbour Movement in 1979. Presently, government-funded services are mostly contracted out to non-governmental organisations which provide assistance for refugees in areas such as education, language training and health. This competitive funding model encourages the fragmentation of services and makes the long-term development of institutional capacities difficult. Jordens criticises that current arrangements of delegating refugee settlement services to welfare bodies and contractors devalue the work of community organisations and volunteers supporting refugees. This development, argues Jordan, “conveys the impression that the settlement of refugees is not the concern of the ordinary Australians who meet them every day in their local communities” (Jordens 2012: 226). Although Jordens acknowledges the need for professional support services for refugees, she calls for a community-based perspective of settlement service provision which could ensure refugees’ social inclusion within the wider community.
Jordens also points out that recent political and public debates have alienated a large part of Australia’s society from refugees’ settlement experience. Despite the success stories of refugees who are well integrated in their local communities and engaged in supporting newly arrived refugees, the current securitisation of Australia’s approach to asylum seekers has created feelings of fear and suspicion against all refugees. Since the arrival of the first ‘boat people’ from Vietnam in 1976, Australia’s response to the ‘deserving’ refugee and the ‘unauthorised’ asylum seeker has changed remarkably. In 1992, the Hawke government passed laws introducing mandatory detention for all unauthorised arrivals until their claims for refugee status were assessed. The experience of an Afghani Hazara who arrived in 2001 as a ten year-old boy by sea describes the devastating experience of a child living in an on-arrival detention centre for over three years. Mandatory detention for lengthy periods is, in Jordens’s point of view, inhumane, costly and does not deter desperate asylum seekers making their way to Australia. She argues that undocumented arrivals should be cared for by government-funded agencies in the community while their refugee status is determined, as they were in the past.
The life story of an Albanian Muslim refugee who fled the war in Kosovo with her family makes another major shift evident that occurred in government policies during the 1990s. In 1999, the Howard government decided to grant refugees who fled the war in Kosovo only temporary protection for three months, and denied them access to the settlement services that welfare agencies routinely provided. After some refugee families refused to return to their hometown in Kosovo, they were detained in the Port Hedland Detention Centre. The Howard government also passed the Border Protection Bill, which denied family reunion to those on temporary protection visas, and introduced the off-shore processing of asylum seekers on Christmas Island and Nauru. These developments in Australia’s response to the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers made advocates, rights activists, lobby groups and government officials in Canberra and regional ACT call for action. Raising awareness within the community, government and non-government agencies for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees became more urgent concerns in the community engagement with refugee issues than service provision.
Jordens highlights the crucial role that the community of Canberra and regional ACT played in national refugee resettlement efforts. Instead of promoting a short-sighted and politicised public discourse about refugee and asylum seekers issues, this book tells us about the lessons learnt from Australia’s long-term commitment to refugee settlement. A strong involvement of local communities, volunteers and neighbourhood networks in refugees’ settlement experience leads to successful settlement stories. This book gains from the richness and candour of the personal reflections it presents. It runs, however, the risk to juxtapose the refugees’ helplessness and resilience with the resourcefulness and compassion of their supporters instead of interweaving their life stories. Jordens voices an important critique of recent developments in Australia’s public debate about refugee and asylum seeker issues, and provides an engaging narrative for readers interested in individual accounts and personal reflections, rather than academic discourses.
The book was reviewed by Dr. Stefanie Scherr. Stefanie Scherr is a historian and recently accomplished her PhD at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. In her thesis she looked at the importance of religious and migration memories in a group of Russian Old Believers who were resettled in Australia.
Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) (2012). Fact Sheet 2: Key Facts about Immigration. Retrieved from http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/02key.htm (61) (accessed 8 July 2013).
Neumann, Klaus (2013). The Resettlement of Refugees in Australia: A Bibliography (5th rev. ed.). Retrieved from http://apo.org.au/research/resettlement-refugees-australia-bibliography (accessed 8 July 2013).