An extremely brief historical overview of postwar immigration to Australia

Australia has resettled around 800,000 refugees and displaced persons since 1945, when thousands of people were fleeing war-torn Europe. Prior to the 1970s, the focus was on assisting refugees “offshore”. However, the influx of Indochinese boat arrivals in the wake of the Vietnam War compelled the Government to develop a policy designed to respond to humanitarian crises.

By the early 1990s, a comprehensive system was in place within the immigration portfolio, and three years later, the Keating Government officially detached the Humanitarian Program from the Migration Program (for skilled and family migrants). And so our current immigration system was conceived.


The Humanitarian Program

(Suggestion: If you’re more of a listener, check out the interview where Professor William Maley talks about Australian immigration policy if you haven’t done so already. More of a words-on-a-screen person? Keep reading.)

Australia’s Humanitarian Program has two components: the “offshore” and the “onshore”.

The “offshore” component resettles UNHCR-deemed refugees who have applied for a visa prior to coming to Australia. Meanwhile, the “onshore” component applies when a person has already reached Australian borders and seeks to engage our 1951 Refugee Convention obligations via a Protection visa.

In 1996, the Howard Government linked these onshore and offshore components of the Humanitarian Program, and allocated quotas for onshore places. This meant that if, for example, in one particular year there were more “boat people” who made successful refugee claims, fewer places would be conferred to offshore refugees.

However, only about 24 nations participate in UNHCR resettlement programs (our “offshore” component), and of the world’s 10.5 million refugees of concern, around one per cent are submitted for resettlement in any given year. Which, understandably, is why many opt for the boats.


The numbers in context

In 2011-2012, the government assigned 13,750 places to refugee protection, and 13,759 visas were granted. 6,718 of these were “offshore” and 7,041 were onshore. (For purposes of comparison, during that same period, almost 10 times as many visas were given to skilled migrants.)

Take a look at the visualisation below. The number of visa grants to refugees is just about equivalent to the amount of meat pie you would give to a vegan.

Permanent visa grants in Australia, 2011-2012

Okay, so the quantity of spaces has been increased to 20,000 for the upcoming financial year, but it will not make much difference. While successive Liberal and Labor governments have been busy cartwheeling around the asylum issue with their botched “solutions”, the heart of major party policies remains still and cold: a focus on implementing strategies to deter people from approaching Australian borders without authorisation, and resettling those who have supposedly waited patiently in a fictional queue.

We can play Candy Crush on our Galaxy Tabs and whinge about a wet weekend, but bloodshed and dislocation are grave realities for millions of Hazaras, Tamils, Rohingyas et cetera around Planet Earth. Biding time in anticipation of an “okay, you’re welcome” from the Australian government is, in many cases, not a safe option.

But then again, judging from the 300-or-so asylum seeker drowning deaths so far this year, neither is paddling here on a boat.


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