White Australia Policy

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From the outset of federation, Australia immediately constructed what has been termed the ‘White Australia Policy’. This consisted of attempts to keep Australia’s image to the rest of the world as a white European society, devoid of any other colors and ethnicities. Those that were of non-European descent were forced to assimilate to the European mode or face being ostracized from society. Following World War 2, there was increased pressure from the international community for Australia to change its current migration policy. In 1966, the Liberal-Country party made its first attempts to dismantle the notion of a white Australia by permitting the immigration of ‘distinguished’ non-Europeans . Throughout the remainder of the 60s and into the 1980s, Australia continued to shed its ‘White Australia’ image and focused on promoting multiculturalism. This was partially accomplished through federal and state funded associations that focused on preserving the “language and heritage” of immigrants within the mainstream environment . The promotion of multiculturalism also resulted in an influx of immigration into Australia both legal and illegal. The growing number of illegal refugees became a cause for concern and in 1989, the government passed an amendment on the original Migration Act of 1958. Still to this day, the Australian government has taken an increasingly hard-line approach to its refugee policy. The impetus for its new policy is two-fold. The majority of the increased strictness in refugee policy has been a direct result of the increased influx in people seeking asylum in Australia. Many of these people arrive illegally, lacking proper passports and visas while attempting to enter the country by air or overseas. Many of them are smuggled and are seen as ‘jumping-the-queue’, taking valuable spots from potentially more deserving people. The second portion is a direct result of increased nativism amongst high-ranking officials in the Australian government. It is the combination of the two that has allowed anti-refugee policies to flourish since 1989.

Before the late 1980s, Australia was seen as a welcoming center for refugees from all areas of the globe. Even though the majority of asylum seekers tended to be from southeastern Asia, there were also large migrations of Middle Eastern refugees. According to the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, refugees are defined as people who: •are outside their country of nationality or their usual country of residence, and •are unable or unwilling to return or to seek the protection of that country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and •among other things, are not war criminals or people who have committed serious non-political crimes. The Convention does not however oblige countries to provide asylum to those who have left their country on the basis of “[…] War, famine, environmental collapse or in order to seek a better life for themselves or their family”. In 1989, the notion of Australia being a haven for asylum seekers rapidly changed.

During 1989, there were many international events that posed challenges to the Australian government in terms of monitoring migration. One of the most influential world events was Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. This event virtually alone caused a rapid influx of asylum seekers, raising the numbers from 1,260 in 1989 to 12,130 in 1990. Many of these applicants were Chinese students who had already been studying in Australia. As a result, the Australian government reformed the Migration Act of 1958 with the Migration Legislation Amendment Act of 1989. This new amendment imposed new regulations that would greatly reduce room for discretion amongst immigration officers and hence tighten control over the management of the immigration program. In addition, it also created a...
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