Refugee status is not always through war or conflict, but historically there is a significant overlap between refugee intake and homeland conflict.
The 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees is the key international legal document defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of countries that are signatories to it, which includes Australia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recommends or refers people for resettlement, but the ultimate decision to grant a visa rests with recipient countries.
Refugee migration to Australia can be traced to a century before the establishment of the UN convention. After Federation, refugees were allowed to settle as unassisted migrants as long as they met terms imposed by the Immigration (Restriction) Act 1901; the cornerstone of the now abandoned White Australia Policy.
Between 1933 and 1939, more than 7,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were settled.
“Populate or perish”
After the WWII, with a sense of vulnerability to future military attack still prevailing, Australia launched a much larger refugee program, as part of an ambitious immigration program to meet labour shortages in a growing economy. Whilst this up-surge was not confined to displaced persons and British migration was still the preference, over the next seven years we welcomed more than 170,000 refugees.
Many international agreements were struck to further boost the post-war immigration boom from countries of Australia’s selection. A large and growing number of arrivals included those on government-assisted passage. The term “Ten Pound Pom” was coined at this time; a reference to those from Britain who had been required to contribute a mere £10 towards their passage to their new life in Australia.
The agreements, which are no longer in force, included settlement of at least 12 000 displaced people a year from camps in Europe and formal and informal migration agreements with many countries that had experienced the ravages of war.
The fall of Saigon in April 1975 and the end of the Vietnam War spawned a refugee crisis of a scale previously not experienced in our region and a chain of events which prompted a rethinking and reorganisation of Australia’s refugee program. Over the next two decades, our country re-settled more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees; the bulk of whom came from camps in Asia.
Our immigration mix
Migration levels and ethnicity evokes contentious public debate and often polarizes opinion within recipient countries around the world.
Internationally, the annual number of displaced people due to wars, civil unrest and ethnic persecution is staggering and UNHCR re-settlement efforts from refugee camps are a modern constant. However, media focus on refugee intake sometimes masks our reality: the number of refugees who have been resettled in Australia since the mid-1990’s represents less than six per cent of our migration program.
The last decade of the 20th century and the early decades of the 21st saw increased displacement of people from African countries. Humanitarian crises often born of war – some of which we have been involved in – have also significantly increased those seeking refuge and re-settlement from both the Middle-East and Asian regions.
Australia’s way of life is undoubtedly richer as a result of immigration, whether derived from refugee/humanitarian intake or the migration program for skilled and family migrants. Our leaders speak with justifiable pride of the positive contribution of migrants to the cultural and economic prosperity of our country.
Conflicts overseas and the human dislocation that follows will continue to influence our future cultural make-up and further periods of adjustment for both migrant and recipient populations are likely as those unfamiliar with Australia adapt to a new life. However, our history reveals a national capacity to empathise, understand, find common purpose and eventually celebrate our diversity, born of welcoming “those who come across the seas”.
Australian Parliament House
Refugee Council of Australia
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