For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share

These welcoming words come from the second verse of our national anthem, and until recently have reflected Australia’s approach to immigration, enabling millions of people to find a new home in our wide brown land.

Even though Australia’s post-World-War-II migration policy caused some initial resentment, time and familiarity has smoothed over most of those concerns. Indeed Australia is now known around the world as a highly successful multicultural country. Waves of migrants have greatly altered our ethnic mix, strengthened our ‘fair go’ attitude and expanded our choice of cuisines.

For decades the federal government successfully managed the flow of migrants into Australian communities. However, disgracefully, since 1996 successive federal governments have fanned a streak of xenophobic racism within the populace, enabling anti-refugee policies to be enacted into law. Most action has been directed towards thwarting asylum seekers who try to come to Australia by boat. Detention off shore and turning back boats being the measures employed.

The recent death of Malcolm Fraser AC provoked numerous tributes about his contributions to public life. One group who warmly praised Fraser had been Vietnamese asylum seekers (see full page, The Age, 27 March).

Fraser as Prime Minister facilitated the migration of thousands of South Vietnamese, who had sided with the US and Australian forces against the Viet Cong. They were on the losing side in a war neither Australia nor the US ought to have been involved in. Fraser rightly understood Australia had a moral duty to help these desperate people. Many of them made dangerous sea voyages to reach Australia. They were boat people, not dissimilar to the more recent boat people from war-torn Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, whom Australia has been incarcerating or sending back to face almost certain persecution.

Australia is not the only country to have hardened its policies on asylum seekers. Many European countries are now turning asylum seekers away rather than welcoming them. More concerning, politicians are even suggesting the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees is ‘no longer suited to current patterns of migration’.1

What has shocked many Australians is the abuse – sexual and physical – meted out to asylum seekers held in off-shore detention centres, as confirmed in the Moss Report. Humanists have spoken out on the inhumane policies that have led to this situation, and we need to continue to do so.

What Australia urgently needs is a different, more humane, set of policies on asylum seekers. And we need leaders with better moral compasses such as we saw with Malcolm Fraser.

  1. Jack Straw, UK Home Secretary, 2001.

 Rosslyn Ives

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