Australia and Refugees, 19012002: An Annotated Chronology Based on Official Sources

Chronologies ONline

Summary Version

Social Policy Group

Dr Barry York - Social Policy Group

Last updated 16 June 2003

This Chronology is issued electronically. It will be kept up-to-date online. The date of the latest update is noted clearly above.

Part 1 of 10

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Section 1: Australia and Refugees, 1901-1991

Scope and Methodology

From White Australia to Port Hedland




Australian International Development Assistance Bureau


Adult Migrant Education Program


Asylum Seekers Assistance Scheme


Bureau of Immigration and Population Research


Committee to Advise on Australia's Immigration Policies


Committee for the Allocation of Loan Funds to Refugees from Indo-China


Community Refugee Settlement Scheme


Comprehensive Plan of Action


Community Settlement Services Scheme


Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs


Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs


Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs


Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs


Determination of Refugee Status Committee


Displaced Person


Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission


Inter-governmental Committee for European Migration


International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights


International Refugee Organisation


Immigration Review Tribunal


Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Australia


Office of Multicultural Affairs


People's Republic of China


Royal Australian Air Force


Review of Migrant and Multicultural Programs and Services


Refugee Review Tribunal


Rescue at Sea Pool


Refugee Status Review Committee


Special Assistance Category


Special Humanitarian Program


United Nations


United Nations Mission in East Timor


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


In basing the chronology on official source material, the official terminology has been retained. The use of language has been important in recent debates over refugee policy and there is a need to make clear the meanings of the most significant terminologies.

Asylum seeker: any person who moves to another country for the purpose of claiming protection under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Boat people: A term that gained currency during the late 1970s as a description of asylum seekers who arrived in Australia without legal authority in boats not authorised by the Australian Government to land in Australia. The term was revived during the 1990s, as other unauthorised boats carrying passengers with no legal authority to enter Australia, came into Australian waters. The term has been used in official publications since 1977 when it first appeared in the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs' annual review, Review '77.

Country of first asylum: The first, usually neighbouring country to which a refugee flees. The world's refugee camps are in countries of first asylum.

Displaced persons: persons fleeing conflict, human-made or natural disasters either within their own country or across national boundaries. (National Population Council, Refugee Review, 1991, p. 220)

Illegal immigrants: persons who enter or remain in Australia without a valid visa or travel authority. The most common form of illegal immigration is visa over-staying. Asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants as they have invoked Australia's obligations under the 1951 UN Convention and 1967 Protocol. They become illegal when they are denied refugee status and avenues of review and appeal are exhausted.

Illegal migration racket (see: people smuggling)

Offshore visas: Where visas authorising entry into a country are issued to people in other countries, they are described as being issued 'offshore'.

Onshore visas: Where visas authorising stay in Australia are issued to people after they have already arrived, legally or illegally, in Australia, they are described as being issued 'onshore'.

People smuggling: defined by the United Nations' Global Program Against Trafficking in Human Beings as 'the procurement of illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national with the objective of making a profit'.

Prohibited immigrants: Under the Immigration (Restriction) Act 1901, a prohibited immigrant was any person who failed a dictation test in a European language. The Act was overhauled in 1958 and the dictation test provision replaced by a system of entry permits. The Migration Act 1958 defined a prohibited immigrant as someone who does not hold an entry permit that is in force.

Refugee: the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as any person who 'owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country'.

Third country: Where refugees move from their countries of first asylum to another country, such as Australia, that country is described as a third country (the first being the home country, and the second being the country of first asylum).

Unauthorised arrivals: Any person who arrives in Australia by air or sea without the correct documentation. (Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Protecting the border: immigration compliance, Canberra, 1999, p. 9.)

White Russians: The name given to Russians who left the Soviet Union in the early 1920s as defeated opponents of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In the 1950s, another wave of White Russians came to Australia, this time consisting of those who had escaped from Russia into China or Manchuria after 1917. The White Russians fleeing the Communist Government of China included many who were the children of the 1920s generation. (B. Christa, 'Russians', in J. Jupp (ed.), The Australian people: an encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 639640.)

(Note: The definitions of 'Country of first asylum', 'Offshore visas', 'Onshore visas' and 'Third country' are taken from the glossary in A. Millbank, The problem with the 1951 Refugee Convention, Research Paper No. 5, Department of the Parliamentary Library, 200001.)

Section 1: Australia and Refugees, 19011991

Scope and methodology

This chronology covers a long and complex period of Australian immigration and refugee experience: the years 1901 to 2002. It is arranged in two sections: 19011991 and 19922002. The chronology is presented in two parts because of the complexity of developments of the past decade. The Migration Reform Act 1992 may be seen as responding to a new period characterised by mandatory detention of asylum seekers in remote centres and by the rise of the organised crime known as 'people smuggling'.

The central rationale of the chronology is that the past lives on in the present, and policy-makers can only benefit from understanding how things have developed and changed over time. Current debates often draw on generalised assessments of the past. For example, there is an assumption shared by supporters and opponents of refugee policy alike that Australia has a humanitarian tradition in such matters. (Readers may also be interested in the Parliamentary Library's audio-brief, Australia's humanitarian tradition in refugee intake: myth or reality?, produced in December 2002.) The chronology is not interpretative but rather presents the selected facts for others to analyse as they see fit.

The chronology is based on official sources such as Annual Reports, Ministerial Media Releases, reports of official inquiries and Year Books. It attempts to identify important events in the development of refugee policy and intake, and to track the trends and responses in official thinking, while placing them in the context of the wider Australian immigration program and international developments. The reliance on official sources is justified by the fact that they are the most authoritative for the purposes of the chronology. Limits of space also precluded any broadening of the methodology.

In basing the chronology on official source material, the terminology of different periods has been retained. The use of language has been important in recent debates over refugee policy. No historian worthy of the discipline can sanitise the past in the interests of current political considerations and this applies to language as much as anything else. But there is also a need to make clear the meanings of the most significant terminologies, such as 'prohibited immigrants', 'illegal entrants', 'unauthorised arrivals', 'boat people' and 'illegal migration'. A glossary is included to define such terms. The changing terminologies reflect developments in law and official attitudes. This principle also applies to the names of countries: for example, Australian governments used 'Kampuchea' from the late 1970s to the early 1980s but then adopted 'Cambodia'. This is reflected by the use of both in the chronology.

From White Australia to Port Hedland

It comes as a surprise to many that Australia did not have an explicit refugee policy, separate from its general immigration policy, until the late 1970s. Australia certainly received refugees prior to the 1970s but it was in response to the Indo-Chinese refugee crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s that a comprehensive, ongoing, approach was adopted.

From the beginning of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, the framers of immigration policy made it clear that Chinese and other 'non-whites' had to be stopped from permanently settling here. They did this chiefly through a 'dictation test', whereby anyone seeking admission could be tested in a European language. Failure of the test automatically imposed 'prohibited immigrant' status on the individual. The test was usually administered at the point of disembarkation and was applied selectively to Chinese and other 'non-whites'. It proved an effective mechanism of exclusion and deterrence.

It should be noted that prior to the formation of the League of Nations in 1919 governments around the world were not interested in formulating policy to deal specifically with refugees. Such interest developed through the League and the United Nations, with the usual driving force for refugees being wars and their aftermath rather than the classic 'persecution' criteria set up by the two international bodies. Australia was under no international obligation to take refugees until it ratified the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and then it still remained free to discriminate on racial grounds in its intake.

The White Australia Policy, embedded in the Immigration (Restriction) Act 1901, remained a guiding principle of Australian immigration until its gradual abolition between 1966 and 1973. In such a context, any Australian concern with responsibilities toward refugees was limited in its humanitarianism by the reality of racial exclusion. This point was illustrated by the treatment of Asian evacuees taken in during the Pacific War. More than 6000 were granted protection but as soon as the war was over, the government took action to repatriate them. About 900 refused to be repatriated and so the War-time Refugees Removal Act 1949 was passed. It mattered not that many had married Australians or established businesses hereand that all had been fleeing the common Japanese militarist enemy during World War Two. In the final analysis it was the colour of skin that mattered.

In addition to racism, Australian refugee policy was framed by decisive factors, such as the need for labour after the Second World War and the politically bipartisan desire to stand firmly against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The admission of more than 170 000 Displaced Persons from European camps between 1947 and 1954 was followed by large intakes of Hungarians from 1956 to 1958 and Czechs and Slovaks in 1968. Most were anti-Communist, and the Displaced Persons were recruited essentially because they were a convenient source of labour. It was not until 1973 that political refugees from an anti-Communist pro-Western regime would be admitted: the Chileans.

The 1970s mark a watershed in the development of refugee policy for a number of reasons. Firstly, Australia abolished the White Australia Policy in 1973: race was no longer a criterion in immigration selection procedures. The principle was tested soon afterwards, with the Indo-China refugee crisis, following the defeat of United States-backed regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975. But the 1970s were also notable because Australia no longer required the old type of immigrant. No longer primarily seeking 'factory fodder', Australian governments during the 1970s became more interested in skills-based selection and family reunion. The policy towards refugees continued to be pragmatic but required sharper definition. Thus, on 24 May 1977, the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, the Hon. Michael Mackellar MP, articulated the basic principles, and enunciated a strategy and practical initiatives, for a comprehensive policy. It is worth noting the four key principles, as they have remained a formal basis of policy to the present day:

1. Australia fully recognises its humanitarian commitment and responsibility to admit refugees for resettlement.

2. The decision to accept refugees must always remain with the Government of Australia.

3. Special assistance will often need to be provided for the movement of refugees in designated situations or for their resettlement in Australia.

4. It may not be in the interest of some refugees to settle in Australia. Their interests may be better served by resettlement elsewhere. The Australian Government makes an annual contribution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which is the main body associated with such resettlement.(1)

The above statement is historically significant because it shows that Australia formally recognised that its commitment to refugees must be an ongoing one. Through the development of practical mechanisms for refugee policy implementation, refugees were recognised as a separate component of the wider immigration program, not just another migrant group. In these respects, it may be said that the 1977 Mackellar statement marked the beginning of an explicit refugee policy.

Also interesting about the principles is the idea that it may be best for some refugees to be resettled elsewhere. Mackellar's landmark statement was made at a time when Australia had to confront the reality of the massive displacement of Vietnamese people. By 1979, there were well over 300 000 Indo-Chinese refugees in camps in South-East Asia.

The establishment by the Australian Government in March 1978 of an inter-departmental Determination of Refugee Status Committee (DORS) was a response to the unauthorised arrival of boats carrying mainly Vietnamese refugees. As a signatory to the United Nations' 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and to the 1967 Protocol, Australia needed a mechanism for assessing refugee status onshore (i.e. on Australian territory).

The chronology encompasses the other 'watershed' year of 1989, when a new set of international events posed challenges to decision-makers and when unauthorised boat arrivals became an issue again. The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, and altered perceptions, particularly in Europe, of those who had previously been seen as refugees from Communism. Of more immediate importance to Australia, though, was the response of Australia's Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, to the action taken by the Government of the People's Republic of China against protestors occupying Tiananmen Square in June 1989. The number of asylum applications in Australia increased by over 10 000: from 1260 in 1989 to 12 130 in 1990 (and to 16 740 in 1991). The applicants were mainly Chinese students already in Australia.

In 1989, the Migration Act 1958itself a product of a fundamental overhaul of the Immigration Act 1901was reformed by the Migration Legislation Amendment Act 1989. The 1989 Act established immigration rules and criteria within the legislation with a view to ensuring accountable and consistent decisions. The new regulations, numbering about 200 in all, greatly reduced room for discretion by departmental officers and tightened control of the management of the immigration program. They also created a two-tier system for the review of migration decisions. In these ways, the Act sought to create a fairer processing system and, in doing so, sought to remove the need for unsuccessful onshore visa applicants to appeal to the judiciary. In the words of Senator the Hon. Robert Ray, the Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs in the Hawke Government, the Regulations 'sought to improve the ability to curb abuse of the immigration program by people seeking to come to Australia illegally'. Minister Ray made 'no apology for the toughness of the new law as far as illegal entrants are concerned'.(2) The 'toughness' included the introduction of mandatory deportation of 'illegal entrants' and the power to sell their possessions, with a view to recovering costs relating to detention and deportation.

As mentioned previously, 1989 saw the return of unauthorised boat arrivals in Australia, the first detected since 1981. In November 1989, a small boat carrying 26 people from Cambodia reached Broome, Western Australia, followed by two more boats carrying larger numbers in March and June of 1990. By 31 December 1991, 438 people had arrived in nine boats. The Government responded in the 19911992 Immigration Budget Statement by allocating additional funds for the expansion of staff and facilities related to onshore processing and detention of unauthorised arrivals. It also resolved to establish a new detention centre at Port Hedland in Western Australia. The first group of 'boat people' to be detained at Port Hedland consisted of 104 Indo-Chinese, transferred from Darwin in October 1991.

A new period in refugee policy, characterised by the detention of unauthorised arrivals in remote centres, had begun. The detention policy would be further developed during the 1990s, beginning with the Migration Reform Act 1992 which made detention mandatory for all unlawful non-citizens (i.e. non-citizens without a valid visa). At the same time, Australia maintained its planned program of refugee and humanitarian intakes at a rate of about 12 000 a year. The new period, 19922002, is covered later in this paper.


  1. Hon. Michael Mackellar, Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Statement, House of Representatives, Debate, 24 May 1977, p. 1714.
  2. Senator the Hon. Robert Ray, Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs, Media Release, MPS 88/89, 18 December 1989.

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