Writing Notes (1): What makes a migrant a refugee? 1938 and today

I’m trying (mostly failing) to write a longer piece on how and why different migrants have come to Australia. My favourite part so far is coming across bits that make you think critically about current policy.

Here is Klaus Neumann from “Refuge Australia” on decisions made by the Lyon’s Cabinet in 1938:

“Thus, although the government introduced a quota, its response did not take into account the different between refugees and other immigrants. In fact, it deliberately ignored this difference and decided that refugees would be admitted on the bases of their usefulness for Australia and suitability as settlers rather than any personal need”

(Klaus Neumann, ‘Refuge Australia’, page 20)

This historical record neatly highlights how the policy wheel turns.

In the most recent iteration of Australia’s asylum policy, the Abbott government introduced Safe Haven Enterprise Visas, the SHEV. A departmental website states: “The SHEV will encourage illegal arrivals to work and/or study in a regional area.”

The reference to “illegal arrivals” deliberately removes the distinction of refugees and other immigrants, as in 1938. Further, the intention to benefit Australia is central in both instances. The ‘suitability’ for their settlement, critical in 1938, is perhaps even more foundational in the SHEV as this is a visa that has been designed explicitly for this purpose with relation to regional Australia. This dovetails with the policy direction that SHEV visa holders will be able to apply for standard skilled visas, which exist to provide economic gain to Australia, but have no access to permanent protection visas, the traditional refugee visa.

Is the SHEV a new visa? Sometimes its hard to tell. Does it draw on past policy? Clearly the answer should be yes but there is zero reference in the public debate today about these historical matters. We are poorer for it while of course recognising the difficulty of integrating historical knowledge into current public policy debates.

Endnote: Klaus Neumann’s new book, ‘Across the Seas‘, is available from Monday and if you have any interest whatsoever in Australia’s asylum policies, you should read it.

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