What happened to the boundless plains? What happened to sharing?

This week is celebrated in Australia as Refugee Week. It is a week for us to celebrate the contribution made to our community by those who have come to Australia as refugees.

RW banner

It is also a good time to reflect on our historical response to those who have come to our borders seeking refuge. We have got so used to the heinous deeds of recent Immigration ministers such as Dutton, Morrison and Ruddock that we forget that for most of our history Australia has a good record of welcoming and settling refugees.

Last week I was invited to give a pechakucha presentation in Townsville on Australia’s response to refugees since the end of the Second World War.

While shocking things are common in our world today, it is still difficult to imagine how people must have felt at the end of the Second World War. There was great relief that such a terrible event had finally ended – but there was also great dread that twenty one years after the war to end all wars, another even more destructive war had been allowed to happen. This sense of dread was heightened as photos of the horror of the Nazi death camps began to emerge.

2. Nazi death camp

This strong desire to protect human rights and to ensure that events such as the holocaust would never happen again resulted in the proclamation of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights in 1948. At the time, Australia showed leadership in the area of human rights and there was an Australian on the small drafting committee.

3. universal-declaration-human-rights
(Eleanor Roosevelt displays text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948)

At the end of World War 2, there were millions of displaced people from Eastern Europe needing resettlement in other countries. It was expected that once these people were resettled then the refugee crisis would be over. Sadly in the years following the end of the war, local conflicts erupted around the globe, resulting in more displaced people and more refugees. To protect these vulnerable people, the International Refugee Convention came into being in 1951 with 145 countries as signatories.

Back in Australia people were still is a state of shock that the country had almost been invaded during the war. The Government was convinced the only way to safeguard against future threat was to drastically increase the population by immigration. From 1947 Australia embarked on an ambitious immigration program aimed at an annual 2% increase in immigration. Populate or Perish was the slogan of post war governments of all political persuasions.

6. postwar migration
(Post war immigrants arriving in Australia)

In 1947 we still had the White Australia policy and the immigrants came from the United Kingdom and from Europe. Increasingly Australia looked to the displaced people from Eastern Europe to provide the people needed to build up our population. In the eight years from 1947 to 1955 more than 170,000 displaced people (refugees) came to settle in Australia. These people formed the majority of the work force on large post-war infrastructure projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme. During the 1950s and 1960s the level of immigration remained high.

The final vestiges of the White Australia policy were abolished by the Whitlam government in 1973. Soon after this was the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and in April 1976 the first Vietnamese refugee boat sailed into Darwin Harbour.

8. Vietnames boat Tu Do Darwin
(Vietnamese boat Tu Do (Freedom) arrives in Darwin Harbour 1976)

Many Australians were horrified by these uninvited visitors from SE Asia but the Fraser Government and the Labor opposition adopted a bipartisan approach and supported a regional solution to this refugee crisis. In the ten years following 1975 more than 150,000 people from Indo China – most of them refugees – settled in Australia.

The Fraser Government showed that Australia could meet its humanitarian obligations to provide refuge to people fleeing political persecution and safeguard national interests at the same time. This banner at Malcolm Fraser’s funeral last year shows the high regard held for Malcolm Fraser in the Vietnamese community.

9. Fraser tribute

For more than forty years since World War 2 there had been a bi-partisan approach from the Coalition and the Labor Party to immigration and settlement of refugees. In 2001 the terrorist attacks of September 11 coinciding with increase numbers of asylum seekers seeking to come to Australia by boat.

In August 2001 the Norwegian tanker MV Tampa picked up more than 400 asylum seekers from a sinking boat. When the vessel’s captain tried to enter Australian waters to unload his passengers, the Howard Government refused permission and ended up sending commandos to take charge of the vessel.


Howard’s actions earned him local electoral support but universal international condemnation. In the 2001 election campaign successfully exploited the concern in the Australian community about immigration to win victory in what previously had seemed to be an unwinnable election. It was at the launch of the 2001 campaign that he came up with his famous line – “we will decide who comes into Australia and the circumstances under which they come”.

16. John Howard

Since the 2001 both the Coalition and the Labor Party have maintained policies that have placed border protection above the human rights of people coming to Australia seeking refuge. In 2013 the Rudd Labor Government re-opened the Manus Island detention centre in 2013 – six years after it had been closed in 2007.

19. refugees welcome
(Photo taken at 2017 Walk for Justice for refugees in Townsville attended by 250 people)

But there are sign of hope. More and more Australians are realising that there are humane alternatives to current policies. In April this year thousands of Australians attended Palm Sunday rallies calling for compassionate and humane treatment of asylum seekers. In time we will come to see the past 15 or so years of inhumane policies towards refugees as an aberration from our country’s proud record of welcoming the stranger.

Follow this link to the pechakucha presentation.



About peterhanley1

Peter Hanley has lived in North Queensland for more than 30 years. His interests include human rights, social justice, sustainability and community development. True North explores issues in these areas.
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1 Response to What happened to the boundless plains? What happened to sharing?

  1. Great post. Thank you.

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