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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

7 - Refugees

Summary

When he announced during the 2001 federal election campaign that ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’ (Australian Politics 2001), former Prime Minister John Howard signalled that asylum seekers had become a central part of national political debate. Against a background of increased terrorist activity directed towards Western nations, the prime minister's words suggested that Australia needed to prioritise the protection of its own borders, even if that meant turning its back on those fleeing persecution. The contrary view – that Australia had international obligations to assist refugees, regardless of how they arrived in Australia – had, with bipartisan support, held sway in Australia for decades. This chapter examines how the dramatic change in policy priorities came about in 2001, and considers the major policy changes that were introduced at that time. It also examines how those changes have been altered, and in some cases tempered, in the years since. Particular attention is paid to the debates that were waged in 2001 and subsequently about the consistency of Australia's policies with international law, as well as the extent to which national political priorities were able to override concerns about Australia meeting its international obligations.

More than just exploring the changes to refugee policy, this chapter will show that the treatment of asylum seekers – those people seeking recognition as refugees – in some ways exemplifies the limitations of Australia's system of rights protection.

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Cases
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Mabo v Queensland (No. 2) [1992] HCA 23.
Minister for Immigration v Teoh [1995] HCA 20.
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