Sending Them Home

Sending Them Home

Refugees and the new politics of indifference

Robert Manne, David Corlett



At a rough guess the years 1914–22 generated between four and five million refugees. This first flood of human jetsam was as nothing to that which followed the Second World War, or to the inhumanity with which they were treated.

—Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes

Between 1976 and 1981 some two thousand Vietnamese arrived on Australia’s northern shore. Despite considerable popular hostility and media stories about armadas, criminal gangs and the introduction of exotic disease, the Fraser government accepted all these people as refugees. For the government to have rejected those fleeing from a regime against which Australia had recently fought would have been regarded by many anti-communist Coalition supporters as a great betrayal. As the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, understood, to have rejected them so shortly after the abandonment of the White Australia policy would also have undermined the belief that Australia had truly changed. Fraser was both an anti-communist and an anti-racist.

To its credit the Labor opposition, under both Gough Whitlam and Bill Hayden, acted with political decency. No issue would have been easier to exploit than this. The Vietnamese boat people were accepted as refugees, not on the basis of individual assessments but, on the recommendation of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as a collective group. There was at this time in our history no thought of mandatory detention. Indeed, if the Vietnamese had been locked up there would have been a conservative revolt. The refugees were housed in comfortable hostels and provided with generous social welfare and settlement assistance and English-language classes. All were offered permanent residence in Australia. All eventually had the right to apply to have close family join them here.

To stem the arrival of boats, the Fraser government became actively involved in the international diplomacy which aimed to find a solution to the Indochinese refugee exodus. As part of its involvement, the government promised Malaysia and Indonesia that it would take a generous quota of refugees from their holding camps. From the political point of view the planned admission of ten thousand Indochinese refugees each year was far less sensitive than the spontaneous arrival of a considerably smaller number in boats. During the 1980s, 177,000 Vietnamese were invited to Australia as refugees or as part of the country’s official migration program. Due in part to the government’s policies, no asylum seeker boat arrived between 1981 and 1987.

The road that led to Nauru began, then, not in 1976 but in November 1989 when a boat carrying twenty-three asylum seekers from Cambodia arrived at Pender Bay in Western Australia. In March and June 1990 two further asylum seeker boats from Cambodia arrived. All the asylum seekers on these boats were immediately placed in administrative detention pending a decision on whether or not, according to Australia’s interpretation of its obligations under the United Nations Convention on Refugees, they were to be offered protection.

There were three main reasons why this “second wave” of boat people – which continued until 1994 and which included, among the seven hundred or so who arrived, the Cambodians as well as some Vietnamese and Chinese nationals – was treated far more harshly than the first wave had been. The Cold War was now over. Virtually no one in Australia felt special sympathy for these people, on what one might call ideological grounds. Furthermore, at the time of their arrival the Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, was deeply involved in the complex diplomacy surrounding the Cambodian Peace Plan, one sensitive item of which was the repatriation of the Cambodian refugees in the Thai border camps. To admit that conditions inside Cambodia might still be capable of producing bona fide refugees would be politically embarrassing. It was far easier to characterise the Cambodians as illegal immigrants or, as Prime Minister Bob Hawke famously called them on one occasion, “queue jumpers”, who had journeyed to Australia not because of political persecution but simply to achieve a better economic life.

The third reason for their harsh treatment arose from the questionable legality of detention at this time. In 1985 the High Court had decided that the question of refugee determination was not exclusively a matter for decision by government but could be reviewed by the courts. Between 1989 and 1991 the Cambodians were shunted around the country and, in 1991, placed inside Australia’s first special-purpose asylum seeker detention centre at Port Hedland in the remote north-west. One reason for this was to make it more difficult for lawyers to contact them.

In May 1992 the detention of asylum seekers was found, in the Federal Court, to be unlawful. Section 88 of the Migration Act, which had provided the basis for the Cambodians’ detention, allowed merely for the short-term detention of stowaways. In anticipation of this judgement, legislation was rushed through the parliament restricting damages to falsely detained asylum seekers to $1 a day. Much more importantly this interim legislation provided a secure statutory basis for the detention of all asylum seekers who arrived in Australia without a valid visa. The detention would last until the asylum seeker had been granted a visa or removed from Australia. Such detention was to be unreviewable by the courts.

The new legislation was soon put to the test. In December 1992 the High Court found mandatory detention lawful, with the proviso that its purpose was not to punish or to deter; it was to be used solely as an instrument of migration control. At much the same time the Hawke government introduced new legislation which balanced unreviewable mandatory detention with a Refugee Review Tribunal. The Tribunal offered asylum seekers whose claim for refugee protection had been refused the possibility of an independent “merits review”. An asylum seeker unsatisfied with his or her RRT decision could appeal to the Federal or on rare occasions the High Court. Such an appeal, however, would be concerned exclusively with whether or not the Tribunal had decided the case according to law. The Federal Court could order a new Tribunal hearing, but it could not make a judgement on the substance of the case. If unsatisfied with the RRT decision, the asylum seeker could make a final appeal to the Minister’s discretion, a discretion which was, in lawyer’s jargon, both “non-compellable” and “non-reviewable”. As Philip Ruddock would later put it, the asylum seeker’s “safety net” was the Minister for Immigration. By 1992–93 the basic foundations of the contemporary Australian asylum seeker system had been laid.

Between 1994 and 1997 a “third wave” of boat people arrived in Australia seeking asylum. Some were so-called Sino-Vietnamese, ethnically Chinese refugees who had fled Vietnam and been resettled in southern China under a UNHCR-brokered scheme, the Comprehensive Plan of Action. Others were Vietnamese refugees from the Galang Refugee Camp in Indonesia. Still others were Chinese nationals. Initially, in 1994, some of these third-wave asylum seekers were accepted by Australia on refugee or humanitarian grounds. However, after the Migration Act was amended in late 1994, and repatriation agreements concluded with the Chinese government, virtually all the Sino-Vietnamese, the ex-Galang Vietnamese and the Chinese nationals were successfully, if brutally, removed. Some Vietnamese were forced into an aircraft bound hand and foot. There were violent protests at Port Hedland. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the Hawke and Howard governments, during the period of the third wave the system of detaining, assessing and, where possible, removing unauthorised boat arrivals “worked”. Figures tell the story best. Between 1995 and 1998 fifty-four boats arrived spontaneously, bringing with them 1434 people. Of these 170 were accepted as refugees; eighteen (East Timorese) were granted bridging visas; 1246 were despatched. When the Howard government took office in 1996, Philip Ruddock discovered two hundred or so Chinese boat people still in detention. He thought even this number too great.

During 1999 the flow of Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese boat people dried up. The message had finally got through. Those who reached Australian shores would be sent home. On the other hand, in 1999 more boat people arrived than during the entire period of the second and third waves. Most of these asylum seekers came from Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the handful of Iraqis and Afghans who had reached Australia between 1996 and 1998, all had already been accepted as bona fide refugees. It was almost certain that the new arrivals would be as well. For the Australian asylum seeker system a kind of crisis had arrived. It is with Australia’s treatment of these people that this essay is concerned.

Why had these people come to Australia in search of protection? By 1999 there were 2.5 million Afghan and 600,000 Iraqi refugees, according to the figures of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In the same year more than 20,000 Afghans and 30,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in the Western world. In the following years numbers grew. By the late 1990s the political conditions for the refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, who had sought sanctuary in contiguous countries – Iran, Pakistan, Syria – had begun to deteriorate. Those who were poor had no alternative but to stay put. Those with even meagre resources or property to sell began, in increasing numbers, to turn to people smugglers offering passages to countries of possible safety in the West, where lives could be rebuilt. According to the accounts of many of the Iraqis, Afghans and, later, Iranians, one of the cheapest passages at the time was to Australia. By 1999 a route had been opened up, involving, essentially, flights from one or other country in the Middle East to Malaysia (where visas for Muslims were unnecessary); movement by sea or air from Malaysia to Indonesia; sea passage on an often barely seaworthy fishing boat from Indonesia to one of Australia’s Indian Ocean territories, Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef.

The passage from the Middle East to Australia via Indonesia became common only in the second half of 1999, at the time of Australia’s involvement in the politics of East Timorese independence. Although it cannot be proved, it seems likely that at this time the Indonesian authorities turned a blind eye to the activities of the people smugglers as a way of registering their displeasure at Australia’s meddling in East Timor.

The arrival of the asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and, soon after, from the Islamic theocratic state of Iran as well, raised serious problems for the Australian government and people. In assessing their response, the following seem to us the most pertinent facts. According to Australia’s historical experience, the number of “unauthorised” asylum seekers who arrived by boat between 1999 and 2001 – around 9500 in total – was large. According, however, to the recent experiences of North America and especially Western Europe, which by the late 1990s received several hundred thousand asylum seekers each year, the number was small. The first three waves of boat people came from the Asian region. Although those who now arrived had no historical or geographical relationship to Australia, their claims to refugee status were as powerful and plausible as any claims could be. After the 1970s the region from which they had fled had experienced a kind of perpetual turmoil – the Iranian Islamic revolution; the consolidation of Baathist totalitarian rule in Iraq; the devastating eight-year Iran–Iraq war; and in Afghanistan, worst of all, the Soviet invasion, the resistance of the mujahideen, the rise of the fearsome fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime. In its ferocity, this turmoil was almost equivalent to the “age of catastrophe” that had overtaken Europe between 1914 and 1945. By the late 1990s the political conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and, less dramatically perhaps, in Iran, were comparable to the conditions which had created the Jewish refugee crisis in Central Europe in 1938–39 or the post-war flight of millions from the imposition of Stalinist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. No one ought to pretend that the unanticipated arrival of the Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians did not pose real legal, administrative, political and ethical problems for Australia. However these problems arose not because these people were not genuine refugees. They arose, rather, precisely because the overwhelming majority of them were.

With the arrival of these asylum seekers the Australian government had no alternative – unless it were to renounce its signature to the UN Refugee Convention – but to assess the validity of their claims for protection. Until those claims had been assessed it was, of course, predetermined that all would be administratively detained until a visa was granted or the failed asylum seeker removed from Australia. The government was, however, clearly alarmed. Two initiatives were taken. As early as June 1999, very heavy fines and long jail sentences were legislated for those responsible for organising the passages of the asylum seekers to Australia. Even more importantly, a new form of temporary protection visa for all “unauthorised arrivals” was introduced by regulation in October 1999. Asylum seekers found to be refugees were now to be granted three years’ temporary protection.

When the Vietnamese boats arrived in 1976, the Fraser government and the anti-communist intelligentsia understood and strongly sympathised with their flight from Hanoi’s rule. When, however, the Iraqi and Afghan boat people began arriving on Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef in the spring of 1999, they had no significant political friends in Australia and were greeted by the Australian government with an undisguised hostility. On the road to Nauru this was an important moment.

In 2003 the Prime Minister spoke to the Australian people with real eloquence about the shocking brutality of the regime of Saddam Hussein, in preparation for the US-led invasion. Yet not once between 1999 and 2001 did he or any minister in his government explain to the Australian people the kind of terrifying conditions from which the asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran had fled. Prior to September 11 the Australian people knew next to nothing about these regimes. In the absence of such understanding, the Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, was able to conduct a very successful campaign of scaremongering and disinformation.

Ruddock’s first significant move was to claim in November 1999 that Australian intelligence revealed ten thousand people from the Middle East, including entire villages, were uprooting themselves and setting out for Australia. To speak of whole villages suggested economic not political motivation. To speak of the Middle East, rather than Iraq or Afghanistan, inhibited even rudimentary political understanding. To speak of the imminent arrival of ten thousand excited the oldest Australian nightmare, of alien invasion from the north.

For those who had already arrived, Ruddock’s characterisation was different. On 22 September 1999 he informed the parliament that he had been deeply disturbed by reports that the “very generosity of our refugee determination system” had attracted these unwanted people. On arrival, the new asylum seekers had demanded “Pert 2-in-1 shampoo” or to see “orthodontists” at once, “something”, he pointed out, “many Australians would like to be able to do free of charge”.

The most recent asylum seekers were not only insolent, they were also wealthy. Ruddock divided asylum seekers into two clear types – the worthy and unworthy – which resembled the nineteenth-century distinction between the respectable and unrespectable poor. Worthy refugees waited patiently in a Third World camp. Unworthy refugees used their money to engage the services of people smugglers. Willingness to pay people smugglers stripped unworthy refugees of any claim to sympathy. It represented, in them, a kind of indelible moral taint. In a speech on the asylum seeker problem delivered to a meeting of the Anglican church synod in Sydney in July 2001, Ruddock argued thus:

I could characterise the task for both of us in familiar terms of doing good and fighting evil.

The good is extending our compassion and welcome to refugees who have no other option.

The fight against evil is against the exploitation by people smugglers of people desirous of a better life and the resultant abuse and the distortion of the system that has been set up to support refugees.

Ruddock had by now convinced himself that his struggle to keep asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran from reaching Australia was part of a fight of good against evil. He regarded the money spent on processing asylum seeker claims in Australia and the West, as opposed to the money spent on the worthy refugees in the camps, as utterly “obscene”.

Although the number of refugees around the world exceeded fourteen million at this time, from which Australia took an annual quota of four thousand (with eight thousand additional humanitarian places), Ruddock consistently described those who reached Australia as “queue jumpers”. For the situations these people really faced, a refugee lottery or, even better, a refugee heap was a more appropriate metaphor than a refugee queue.

Nor were these people, according to Ruddock, only jumping queues. They were also “stealing places” from the worthy refugees Australia wished to help. How so? In 1996, for its own reasons, the Howard government had decided to link the onshore and offshore dimensions of Australia’s humanitarian migration program (onshore applicants comprising arrivals in Australia by sea or air). As a consequence of this decision, the greater the number of “onshore” places given to refugees the fewer the number of “offshore” humanitarian places Australia would allot. This linkage was not written in the heavens; it was a Howard government choice. Apart from the empty moralising from a position of comfort involved in the idea of “stealing places”, did Ruddock really imagine that those who fled to Australia via the Indonesian route had the kind of detailed knowledge of Australia’s migration regulations which 99 per cent of Australians did not possess?

Not only were the asylum seekers queue jumpers who stole the places of worthy refugees, they were also, according to Philip Ruddock, “forum shoppers” who on their journey to Australia had passed through a number of countries in which they had been “safe and secure”. These countries included Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Anyone who was willing to listen to asylum seeker accounts of the perils of existence in countries such as these understood the utter unreality of Ruddock’s concept of “safe and secure”. It might have been inconvenient for Australia that the asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran had the audacity to hope to rebuild shattered lives in a country where the rule of law and respect for human rights was strong. But it was hardly a moral failing or an instance of selfishness on their part, as Ruddock’s use of the idea of “forum shopper” was meant to suggest.

Nor was it just for Ruddock to describe the asylum seekers as “illegal migrants” or as “illegals”. Australia was one of the first signatories to the United Nations Convention on Refugees. The central purpose of the Convention was to create a world where those who fled from persecution in their homelands could move in search of sanctuary under the ultimate protection of international law. It was reasonable to speak of the people who reached Australian territory as “asylum seekers” and as “unauthorised arrivals” before their refugee claims had been assessed. But to describe them routinely as “illegal immigrants”, or simply as “illegals”, both defied the spirit of the UN Convention and encouraged popular misunderstanding and hostility – as was, no doubt, the government’s intent.

Between July 1999 and June 2000 a little over four thousand asylum seekers, predominantly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, reached Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef. It is unlikely that the asylum seekers had even heard about mandatory detention and temporary protection visas or that the impoverished Indonesian fishermen the people smugglers paid to bring them knew about the lengthy prison sentences they risked. What was certain, however, was that Australia’s deterrent measures were not working. In the Middle East the Minister for Immigration sought the co-operation of governments in preventing the movement of asylum seekers. In Indonesia he offered Australian money to finance an island detention camp, an offer which Jakarta, with fresh memories of the international criticism it had received over its Vietnamese refugee camp at Galang, repeatedly refused. As an alternative the Australian Federal Police were sent to co-operate with Indonesian counterparts in anti-people smuggling operations, as was Australia’s external spy agency, ASIS, in August 2001. To general amusement, the Department of Immigration even produced in June 2000 a video for distribution in the Middle East showing Australia as a land of desert, crocodiles, snakes and sharks. Despite all these initiatives nothing seemed to work. Between July 2000 and June 2001 an almost identical number of asylum seekers arrived via the Indonesian route as had come in the previous year.

More than eight thousand asylum seekers had now arrived in the space of two years and the existing detention centre system was unable to cope. The Curtin airbase near Derby in the far north-west had to be recommissioned. In the South Australian desert, at Woomera, a new centre was hastily built. In these centres, particularly in the remote or desert camps, conditions were especially harsh. On one famous occasion Ruddock boasted that they were not designed to be “holiday camps”. The detention centres became sites of disorder and despair, of riots, arson, mass escapes, self-inflicted wounds, sewn lips, hunger strikes, suicide attempts.

On the grounds that the privacy of asylum seekers needed to be protected, journalists were not permitted to conduct interviews inside the detention centres. Film was, however, taken outside them at times of major disturbance, which created for the Australian public an enduring image of the asylum seekers as wild, irrational, hysterical, dangerous and manipulative. Even more importantly, whenever a disturbance occurred the Minister was available to offer his interpretation of what this kind of behaviour meant. Sometimes he suggested that asylum seekers’ actions stemmed from their cultures. Sewing lips together, he remarked on one occasion, was a practice repugnant to Australians. Sometimes he suggested that the asylum seekers were trying to take advantage of the natural kindness of Australians, by what he routinely described as their “inappropriate behaviours” and occasionally as their “antics”. One thing, however, was clear. The asylum seekers would never achieve “the outcomes” they desired by “moral blackmail” of this kind. Ruddock had no intention of conducting any negotiations under conditions of what he called “duress”. Through the combination of the television images of savage asylum seekers and the Minister’s invariably pitiless interpretation of their cries for help, a terrible coldness settled on very many Australians’ hearts. This failure of sympathy was a crucial way-station on the road to Nauru.

In the first three weeks of August 2001 six boats arrived with more than 1200 asylum seekers on board. Evidence about government intentions at this time is difficult to interpret. On 8 August, at a meeting of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, the Chief of the Defence Forces, Admiral Chris Barrie, was asked to investigate what action the Navy might take to create what was called a “thick grey line” across the Indian Ocean. This suggested a policy of military deterrence was already under consideration. On 23 August the Minister for Immigration announced plans for two major new detention centres at Singleton in New South Wales and Port Augusta, South Australia in addition to those at Darwin and Brisbane, which had previously been announced. This suggested that the government anticipated large numbers of asylum seekers would continue to arrive. What was the Prime Minister’s view? On 17 August, following the arrival of a boat-load of 345 asylum seekers, he was challenged, on Melbourne radio, about the failure of his policy. What, he replied, are we to do? “We are a humanitarian country. We don’t turn people back into the sea …” If the Prime Minister was already thinking seriously about military measures, it is unlikely that he had come to a firm decision by that time.

On 26 August, in response to an alert from Australia, the Norwegian cargo vessel MV Tampa rescued 433, mainly Afghan, asylum seekers en route to Australia. The Prime Minister now made up his mind. With his decision Australia changed. The Tampa sailed towards Christmas Island. Australia refused it permission to enter her territorial waters. Because of his fears about the health of the people he had rescued, the captain disobeyed. Australian troops boarded the Tampa and soon transferred its human cargo to a naval vessel, HMAS Manoora. An Australian legal action to bring the asylum seekers to Australia was mounted. By mid-September it had failed. Australian public opinion exploded in favour of the government’s decision. The Labor opposition was badly scared.

Over the next fortnight or so the Australian asylum seeker system for dealing with boat arrivals was radicalised. Within Australia new legislation was passed with opposition support. To prevent the use of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reefs as the landing points for boats bringing asylum seekers to Australia, both were excised from the Australian migration zone. Penalties for people smuggling were increased. The courts were all but excluded from interference in government’s handling of asylum seeker cases, a measure the High Court effectively rebuffed within eighteen months. The temporary visa system became even more harsh. The legal definition of a refugee was made far narrower than it had previously been.

While these laws were passing through the parliament, in the atmosphere of heightened tension over border security following the terrorist attacks of September 11, one of the most secretive and bizarre military actions in the history of the Australian defence forces, Operation Relex, was mounted in the Indian Ocean, against a flotilla of thirteen asylum seeker boats. One of these boats sank, with 353 drowned. Questions would later be asked about whether Australia had been in a position to mount a rescue operation. Some boats were sent back to Indonesia. Some were not able to be. As a result of the boarding of the Tampaand Operation Relex, 1500 asylum seekers fell under Australian military control.

What was to be their fate? New Zealand agreed to provide homes for up to 150 of the Tampa rescuees. Nauru and Papua New Guinea agreed to create “processing centres” on their soil. Since 1999 Australia’s asylum seeker policy had followed an increasingly punitive logic. By September 2001 – to the general applause of a majority of Australians and to the dismay of a bewildered minority, now called the “elites” – Australia had arrived at a situation which would once have been thought inconceivable in what the Prime Minister had recently called a decent “humanitarian” country – the military repulsion of asylum seekers followed by their detention in offshore tropical detention centres until such time as their refugee status was determined. The Australian system for dealing with asylum seekers had finally reached its logical conclusion, at Nauru.

The system – based around mandatory detention, temporary protection and the Pacific Solution – was incomparably the harshest in the Western world. Only one task remained. It was to prepare to send the overwhelming majority of fourth-wave refugees and failed asylum seekers home.


This is an extract from David Corlett's Quarterly Essay, Sending Them Home: Refugees and the new politics of indifference. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Dr David Corlett has worked with refugees and asylum seekers for about two decades as a case worker, researcher and advisor. He is the co-author of Quarterly Essay 13: Sending Them Home – Refugees and the New Politics of Indifference (with Robert Manne). His writing has also appeared in the UNSW Law Journal, the Monthly, the Age and the Canberra Times.


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