Syrian refugees queue while waiting to be registered at a camp in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Government immigration policies are always shaped by successive governments’ determination that they will “decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

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Tony Abbott’s last big policy announcement as prime minister that Australia would accept 12,000 refugees from camps on the border of Syria has similarities to earlier international crises. There was the intake of Vietnamese refugees in the ’70s and ’80s, and the Cambodians and the Kosovars in 1999.

The response in each case was differently shaped by the politics of the day. But equally, each instance also reveals how Australia’s “humanitarian” response has been qualified and always subordinated to the government policy and narrow considerations of the national interest — none more so than the Abbott government’s announcement about the Syrians.

In the case of the Vietnamese, Malcolm Fraser could not ignore Australia’s particular responsibility for the refugees because of Australia’s alliance with the United States in the imperialist war. But even in the face of such a moral imperative, Fraser’s willingness to take around 80,000 Vietnamese over 10 years was predicated on the basis of preventing asylum boats reaching Australian shores.

The regional resettlement arrangements established foetid camps and relied on the co-operation of regional governments to prevent asylum boats arriving directly on Australia’s shores. And if that wasn’t enough, Australian immigration officials were on hand to directly sabotage asylum boats.

Fraser introduced the first legislation to criminalise people smuggling in his attempt to stop the boats. Fraser’s suite of policies laid the basis of refugee deterrence that would frame the anti-refugee policies of future governments.

The Fraser government even considered using deterrence measures as denying resettlement to refugees who had paid for their passages to safety — although special mention has to go to the Hawke Labor government introducing mandatory detention legislation in 1992 when faced with a Federal Court challenge to its policy of locking up Cambodian asylum seekers.

There are similarities between the response of the Howard government to the Kosovars and Abbott’s response to the Syrians. In both cases, despite international publicity and a public outcry, initially the government refused to budge. Then as public disquiet grew, the question became, “how to respond?”

The Howard government could hardly offer permanent protection, given that it was already actively considering the introduction of Hansonite policy of temporary protection visas, effectively in place by August 1999, as a deterrent to all boat arrivals. While Canada offered permanent protection for 5000 Kosovars, the Australian government took 4000 Kosovars and created temporary safe haven visas (TSHV), valid initially for a period of three months.

Kosovar refugees were held in squalid conditions, with no right to work or access to Medicare, and when the UNHCR declared in July 1999 that it was safe to return, Australia immediately began arrangements to repatriate all of the Kosovars.

Initially, Abbott responded to the Syrians in the same “nope, nope, nope” way he did to the crisis of the Rohingya boats to our north in July.

Two days later, however, while still ruling out any increase in the annual humanitarian intake, Abbott had relented a little, saying that places for Syrians would be considered but only within the existing intake. It took another three days, and vigils of tens of thousands calling for action, before Abbott finally announced that an extra 12,000 places would be offered.

It is still not known how long the new Turnbull government will take to resettle the 12,000, but ministers have suggested that it could be more than two years. The annual humanitarian intake will remain at 13,750, although it is slated to increase to 18,750 in 2018. This is still less than the 20,000 it was before the Coalition cut the intake in 2013.

Abbott said of the policy, “It is a generous, prudent and proportionate response by a decent and compassionate nation.” But the numbers say otherwise.

Unlike the Kosovars, the refugees brought from camps on Syria’s border will be granted permanent protection. But a close look at the agreement shows any humanitarian consideration is similarly conditioned by narrow domestic policy interest.

Most strikingly, the government is reintroducing discriminatory selection criteria into the humanitarian program. Greens leader Richard Di Natale said there was “more than a whiff of White Australia” about the policy, and he is on the money.

While Christopher Pyne said that the government was “colour-blind” on humanitarian policy, other government minsters made it clear that “persecuted minorities” meant giving priority to Christians. Social Services Minister Scott Morrison stated explicitly that “Christian Syrians would make up the bulk of the intake”.

If that weren’t a clear enough dog whistle to Islamophobia, only families, women and children will be selected — i.e. no single Muslim men.

Finally, on the same day as the announcement of the measure to select 12,000, Abbott declared that no consideration would be given to granting asylum to Syrians (or anyone else) held in detention offshore or on mainland Australia.

Compassion for those fleeing persecution and war, ends at the boundaries of Fortress Australia. No UNHCR refugees will be accepted from Indonesia, and no one will be accepted from Manus or Nauru.

As always, humanitarian policy remains hostage to domestic politics.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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