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Echoes of Calwell in refugee policy

By David Holdcroft - posted Friday, 2 November 2007

The Government feels that it has gone as far as it could reasonably go granting … permits to persons of these classes on purely humanitarian grounds… It is intended that in future the approval of applications will depend more on the intending migrants’ ability to contribute to Australia’s economic welfare.


One might be tempted to think these words were spoken recently somewhere in Canberra. They were in fact the words of Arthur Calwell, the immigration minister, announcing a change of policy towards Australia’s post war admittance of Jewish refugees in 1938.

There is a stark similarity between these words and those spoken recently by Kevin Andrews about the cut in acceptance of refugees from Sudan. Both place national interest criteria at the heart of the decision - in the Africans' case the ability of refugees to integrate into the community. Unfortunately both have deep historical precedent and point to a question around Australia’s refugee resettlement program.

It begs the question: what and who is the program for?

Australia is generally considered to run the third most generous program of humanitarian resettlement anywhere, after the United States and Canada. Our program grew in the post war years as a subset of post war immigration and under the influence of the twin imperatives to accept people displaced by the war and those fleeing from the rise of the communist bloc.

The key drivers however were the need to increase the country’s overall population while making it younger and providing workers for the growing manufacturing industry.

Up until 1975 some 3.5 million people made their way here. Of these, just under 10 per cent - or 350,000 people - were refugees. The arrivals were not exactly free: they participated in government directed labour schemes for the first two years of their stay as a condition of their entry. Nor were they randomly selected: preference was given to the young, healthy and European looking. There were also various schemes to ensure the integration of new arrivals.


The first arrival of a boatload of Vietnamese in 1976 ushered in a new era humanitarian arrivals. No longer were economic and demographic motives the main drivers. Rather Australia’s desire to be a good East Asian citizen, and the pragmatism that recognized the inevitability of arrivals, combined to push the Fraser government to negotiate the Comprehensive Plan of Action with East Asian governments. This scheme saw the eventual resettlement of 1.3 million refugees from indo-China to the West in a multilateral approach to solve a problem held in common.

Recent years have seen a breakdown of this pragmatism. In response to the rise of the “jet age asylum seekers”, the rapid movement of people across borders, there has been the tendency of all western governments to restrict access to newcomers. But perhaps uniquely, Australia has revisited its tendency to seek immigration outcomes in its humanitarian program.

In one of its first moves in regards to refugees, the Howard government included spontaneous arrivals –cross border asylum seekers - as part of its humanitarian quota, which is itself placed within the overall immigration intake. At the same time there persist consistent accusations that the Program continues to weed out those who would burden our society, the old and infirm.

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First published in Eureka Street on 18 October, 2007

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About the Author

Fr David Holdcroft SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (Australia).

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