A nation all at sea: seeking leadership on asylum seekers

10 Dec 2014


The history of Australia over the last 200 years is one of immigration, the story of millions of people leaving their homes to build a new life in another part of the world. Through waves of immigration over 200 years, Australia has evolved into a successful, modern multicultural democracy.

Australia also has a strong record of welcoming refugees. The Second World War and the holocaust gave rise to an international awareness of the need to provide asylum for those fleeing war, persecution and torture, and Australia accepted around 10,000 people fleeing Nazi Germany between the mid- 1930s and the early 1940s. After the Second World War, tens of thousands of people flooded out of Europe. In 1947 the USAT General Stuart Heintzelman arrived in Fremantle carrying 843 displaced persons from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It was the first of almost 150 voyages by 40 ships bringing refugees from the war in Europe to be resettled in Australia.

In response to the massive movements of people after this devastating war, the General Assembly of the United Nations convened a conference to draft a convention relating to refugees. Australia was one of 26 countries represented at this conference, and in 1954 was one of the first countries to sign the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (hereafter referred to as the Refugee Convention).

Since then, Australia has resettled around 750,000 refugees. Today, Australia is one of nine nations who, along with the United States, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Denmark and the Netherlands, resettle the bulk of UNHCR refugees annually, and our ongoing commitment to this global resettlement program is something we should be proud of.

Given this record, what can we make of the central place that fear and even hysteria of asylum seekers on boats now occupies in our political life? How has a country that is built on immigration, is a signatory to most international human rights instruments, and shows a continued commitment to the UNHCR resettlement program become so preoccupied by the spectre of boats of desperate people off our coast?

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