A symbol of inhumanity: asylum seeker policy in Australia

If you had been told thirty years ago that Australia would create the least asylum seeker friendly institutional arrangements in the world, you would not have been believed.

In 1992 we introduced a system of indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Since that time, we have accepted the idea that certain categories of refugees and asylum seekers can be imprisoned indefinitely; that those who are intercepted by our navy should be forcibly returned to the point of departure; that those who haven’t been able to be forcibly returned should be imprisoned indefinitely on remote Pacific Islands; and that those marooned on these island camps should never be allowed to settle in Australia even after several years.

How then has this come to pass? There are two main ways of explaining this.

The first is what can be called analytical narrative: the creation of an historical account that shows the circumstances in which the decisions were made and how one thing led to another.

I have tried my hand at several of these.

The second way is to look at more general lines of explanation. I want to suggest five possibilities.

These general lines of explanation are not alternatives to each other but complementary. Nor do they constitute an alternative to explanation by way of analytical narrative.

Rather, they attempt to illuminate some of the general reasons the story took the shape it did.

Immigration absolutism
It is very common to explain the creation of Australia’s uniquely harsh anti-asylum seeker system of border control as a partially disguised return of the old racism of the White Australia Policy.

This now seems to me mistaken.

Even though there have been occasional political hiccups – I think of Blainey in 1984, Howard in 1988, Hanson 1.0 in 1996 and Hanson 2.0 in 2016 – one of the more remarkable achievements of Australian history has been the seamless transformation of white Australia to a multiracial and multicultural society since the early 1970s. Continue reading

  • Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University.
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