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Global events cause new waves

AUSTRALIA HAS been opening its doors to a wide range of people for a very long time.

The social, cultural and economic life of our nation has benefited immeasurably from those who have arrived here to make a new life for themselves after fleeing persecution in their own countries.

Despite World War I’s creation of a massive refugee problem in Europe, Australia admitted only small numbers of refugees from 1901 to 1921 under the general immigration program.

In the 1930s Australia conceded to admit 7000 European Jews fleeing Hitler’s persecution. This may have been Australia’s first significant refugee intake.

Since 1945 more than 170,000 refugees have been admitted to Australia, mainly under the International Refugee Organisation’s Displaced Persons’ scheme.

About 6000 Czech and Slovak refugees arrived following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The first non-white refugees admitted were 198 people expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin’s regime in 1972.

In 1973 the Whitlam Government abolished The White Australia Policy.

A refugee crises in East Timor and Vietnam in 1975 saw 400 Vietnamese refugees selected for Australian settlement from camps in Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

Violent civil war in East Timor in August 1975 sent about 2500 evacuees to Darwin.

Lebanon’s 1976 civil war resulted in 800 Lebanese people coming to Australia, a number that continued to rise with the worsening war.

From 1975 to 1976 Australia admitted 4431 refugees of whom 1037 were Indo-Chinese.

The late 1970s saw the arrival of the largest ever numbers of unauthorised “boat people”: from 1977 to 1978, 1430 people travelled in 37 small boats, mainly from Vietnam.

An oft-quoted concern is for the need to stop people smugglers. While that seems perfectly reasonable it leaves me with two questions.

What happens to those people who resort to people smugglers due to their appalling and dangerous circumstances?

And is the concern about people smugglers a thinly disguised dislike to admitting others into ‘our’ country?

While refugee status is a twentieth century invention, the institution of political asylum is at least 2500 thousand years old: the Greek city states knew about and respected it.

Historically a nation’s capacity to grant asylum was a mark of its international standing.

Apart from the Indigenous custodians of this vast land, all of us have come (ourselves or our ancestors) from somewhere else.

Within this ever-expanding scenario there has, and will, always been those who have chosen to come and those who had no choice.