Early refugee settlement

The history of Australia’s refugee program can be traced back at least 170 years. The first easily identifiable group of refugees were Lutherans who began settling in South Australia from 1839 to escape restrictions on their right to worship within the state of Prussia. During the 19th century, other settlers included Hungarians, Italians and Poles leaving situations of religious and political persecution. After Federation, the new Australian nation continued to allow refugees to settle as unassisted migrants, as long as they met the restrictions imposed by the Immigration (Restriction) Act 1901, the cornerstone of the White Australia Policy. In the following three decades, small numbers of Russian, Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian, Assyrian and Jewish refugees were permitted to settle after proving they met Australia’s migration criteria. Between 1933 and 1939, more than 7,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were settled. In 1937, the Australian Jewish Welfare Society pioneered the first refugee settlement support services, with financial assistance from the Australian Government. This settlement program was cut short by the outbreak of World War II.

The post-war program

After the war, a much larger refugee program was commenced as Australia launched an ambitious immigration program to meet labour shortages in a growing economy. In July 1947, the Australian Government entered into an agreement with the new International Refugee Organisation to settle displaced people from camps in Europe. In the next seven years, Australia welcomed more than 170,000 refugees, the largest groups being from Poland, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. To meet the needs of the refugees and other migrants, ship-board English classes were established (the precursor of the modern Adult Migrant English Program), army camps were converted to migrant hostels for on-arrival accommodation and the Good Neighbour Council was established to foster and coordinate volunteer settlement support. In the following two decades, the overwhelming majority of refugees were Eastern Europeans fleeing persecution in Soviet Bloc countries. Numbers of humanitarian arrivals increased substantially after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Warsaw Pact countries’ invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the early 1970s, the refugee intake began to diversify. In 1972, 198 Asians expelled by Uganda’s President Idi Amin were settled. Humanitarian settlement from Chile commenced the following year after a military coup deposed the Allende Government. Cypriot refugees began arriving after the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974 and the 1975 war in East Timor brought 2,500 evacuees to Darwin, marking the beginning of a Timorese refugee diaspora in Australia.

The fall of the South Vietnamese Government in Saigon in April 1975 began a chain of events which prompted a rethinking and reorganisation of Australia’s refugee program. The mass flight of Vietnamese refugees into nearby countries prompted an international response to which Australia committed support. By late 1975, the first 400 Vietnamese refugees had been selected by Australia for resettlement from camps in Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. Over the next two decades, Australia was to resettle more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees from various Asian countries. Only a small proportion, around 2000, came directly to Australia by boat to seek asylum. The first to arrive were five Vietnamese refugees who reached Darwin Harbour in a 17 metre fishing vessel. Another 55 boats followed in the ensuing six years.

Even in the first few months after the fall of Saigon, the scale of the refugee crisis being created was apparent. This prompted the Australian Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence to begin an investigation of how Australia should respond. In 1976, the committee, in its report, Australia and the Refugee Problem, identified an urgent need for a new approach to refugee settlement. Citing the Department of Immigration’s failure to offer any additional assistance to newly arrived Vietnamese refugees, the report said this provided “irrefutable evidence of the complete lack of policy for the acceptance of people into Australia as refugees rather than as normal migrants”. The Senate committee made 44 recommendations about the development of a new refugee resettlement policy. This report marked the beginning of new thinking which transformed the national refugee program from the humanitarian element of a general migration program to a dedicated and planned humanitarian program supported by a sophisticated system of settlement support.

The modern history of Australia’s refugee program – The development of coordinated responses to refugee resettlement

Australia’s modern approach to refugee settlement began with the Federal Government’s response to the 1976 Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence report Australia and the Refugee Problem. In May 1977, the then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Michael Mackellar, announced a new national refugee policy, including procedures for responding to designated refugee situations, a series of strategies to involve voluntary agencies in resettlement programs and plans to allow the settlement of people in humanitarian need who did not fall within the UNHCR mandate or Refugee Convention definitions. In the following year, Mr Mackellar tabled the landmark Galbally Report, Review of Post-Arrival Programs and Services for Migrants, committing $49.7 million over three years for the implementation of the report’s recommendations on language teaching, settlement services and other migrant services. The late 1970s also saw the establishment of the first Migrant Resource Centre in Melbourne (February 1977), a new loan scheme to assist refugees into home ownership (March 1979) and further expansion of the then Adult Migrant and Refugee Education Program. In December 1979, the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme commenced, involving community groups in providing newly-arrived refugees with on-arrival accommodation, social support and assistance with finding employment.

In the early 1980s, the refugee program expanded to an annual intake of up to 22,000, the largest annual intake in 30 years and a level not seen since. Vietnamese refugees settled from camps in Asia made up the bulk of new arrivals, with significant numbers of refugees also from Laos, Cambodia and Eastern Europe and smaller groups of Soviet Jews, Chileans, El Salvadorians, Cubans and members of ethnic minorities from Iraq (Assyrians, Armenians and Chaldeans).

The Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) was established in 1981, providing a settlement option to people who had suffered serious discrimination or human rights abuses, had fled their country of origin and had close ties with Australia. In 1984, the refugee program included 106 Ethiopians, the first significant group of Africans. The mid 1980s saw increases in the number of refugees and humanitarian entrants from Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania), the Middle East (Lebanon and Iran), Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Latin America (El Salvador and Chile), with continued, though declining, settlement of refugees from Indochina. Growing awareness of the psychosocial impacts of persecution and conflict led to the establishment in 1988 of the first torture and trauma services in Melbourne and Sydney. Similar services were established in other state and territory capitals in subsequent years, leading to the development of a national network of torture and trauma agencies.

In 1989, a special visa category within the refugee program was established to facilitate priority resettlement for refugee women at risk and their children. In the 20 years since then, Australia has resettled 8,800 refugee women and their children under this program. In 1991, the Special Assistance Category (SAC) visa was introduced to respond to crises in particular countries, permitting settlement of people in vulnerable circumstances and with connections in Australia. The SAC provided resettlement options for people from the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, East Timor, Lebanon, Sudan, Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Cambodia and members of the Ahmadi religious movement. However, the SAC was progressively phased out by the Howard Government, which expressed concern that it had, at least in part, become more of a family reunion program. Its preference was for humanitarian family reunion to be handled under the SHP, through the split family provisions it introduced from 1997.

The 1980s and 1990s brought significant changes to the delivery of settlement services, with the shift from migrant hostels to the On Arrival Accommodation program, from the old Grant-in-Aid Program to the Community Settlement Services Scheme and with the replacement of the Community Resettlement Settlement Scheme in 1997 by the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy. These and later changes in the delivery of settlement services were traced in more detail in our submission for the 2008-09 Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

In this decade, we have seen further changes to service provision and significant shifts in the regional composition of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program. A decade ago, half of the program was focused on resettlement from Europe. Now this makes up less 1% of the program. Resettlement from Africa increased from 16% a decade ago to 70% in 2003-04 and 2004-05, being reduced to a third of the program today. The continuing crisis in Iraq and the commencement of large-scale resettlement of Burmese from Thailand and Bhutanese from Nepal have seen the program shift to one evenly divided between Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

A milestone: 750,000 since Federation

According to the best estimates available, 2009-10 was the year in which Australia, since becoming an independent nation, passed the 750,000 mark in its intake of refugees and humanitarian entrants. From Federation in 1901 until 1948, no official statistics were kept of refugee settlement. However, research published by the Australian Parliamentary Library estimated that Australia received 20,000 refugees in this period. From July 1948 to June 1977, Australia received 269,266 assisted humanitarian arrivals, as well as another 33,000 unassisted humanitarian arrivals, according to DIAC estimates. Since the modern Refugee and Humanitarian Program began in 1977, Australia has received 392,538 offshore refugee and humanitarian entrants and has issued 42,714 onshore protection visas.