How does the asylum seeker debate compare to attitudes of yesteryears?

By Christie-Anna Ozorio
KLAUS

Across the Seas | Black Inc

In his newest work, Klaus Neumann uses individual stories to illustrate the historical nexus between immigration policy on a macro level and its direct effect on refugees and asylum seekers.

He focuses on the movers and shakers in government policy, from federation to the 1970s, interspersing his commentary with references to modern political history, all the while illuminating the motives behind recent governments’ treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in this area; arguably it should be present on every high school history curriculum in Australia.

There is very little material written on Australia’s immigration history, and what mention given to Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers has always been in the context of certain political actors and always in passing.

Australia’s immigration history is, as Neumann states, intrinsic to its national identity, even though it is sorely undervalued as such. Neumann puts this down to a perceived lack of interest in Australia as an immigrant nation, and highlights the fact that non-Australians may perceive Australia as a nation defined by military conflicts and as a settler nation. This is an opinion reflected by popular interest rather than relevance, Neumann argues.

Across the Seas situates Australia in the broader, international historical context of refugee movements, and compares the Australian response to that of comparative governments such as Canada and New Zealand.

It would be hasty to assume that Neumann’s writing is specifically meant to add to the current debate raging across the country as to asylum seeker and refugee policy. In fact, Neumann covers a huge array of migrant movements, and does not, for example, focus specifically on those who arrive by boat, which is of course at the forefront of the moral dilemma in contemporary Australia.

However, he also clearly wishes to illuminate, as far as he can, how the Australian government and people have evolved and adapted in terms of policy and attitude since federation. This is an understated yet arguably crucial element of the debate.

The wide range of refugees and asylum seekers that Neumann canvasses in this work stretches from White Russians and Nauruans, to the well-known Vietnamese refugees of the ’70s and the Eastern Europe Jewish refugees, who were subject to immigration quotas and a tough, highly anti-Semitic selection process throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

To understand how the Australian government and people approach asylum seeker and refugee policy today, we must understand how it aligns or contrasts with policy and attitudes in the past. Neumann does this with skill and clarity. His writing throughout constantly links with past and future policies.

But this is not an oversimplification of an incredibly complex history. Neumann’s writing is scientific, but does not skimp on the human aspect. His meticulous and thorough research is reflected in the individuals’ stories that he includes as examples of specific policies, periods and populations of yesteryears. He does not shy away from stories that are not as controversial, such as the numerous Polish Catholic boys who were only successful in their applications for political asylum due to powerful lobby groups pressuring the Immigration Department on their behalf.

The wide range of refugees and asylum seekers that Neumann canvasses in this work stretches from White Russians and Nauruans, to the well-known Vietnamese refugees of the ’70s and the Eastern Europe Jewish refugees, who were subject to immigration quotas and a tough, highly anti-Semitic selection process throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

This book arrives at a time when the issue of refugees and asylum seekers entering Australia is arguably the most polarising topic in Australian politics and society at large. It is an essential guide to understanding Australian history as an immigrant nation (and not just a settler nation), and provides invaluable insight into global refugee movements, and Australia’s place and role within this attested act of people fleeing for the sake of their survival.

Across the Seas is available from Black Inc.

Originally from Hong Kong, Christieanna Ozorio is a Juris Doctor student at the Melbourne Law School.

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