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Protestors supporting asylum seekers and refugees

Setting things straight on our treatment of refugees

Should historians speak truth to power? And what role should academics play in challenging leaders and shaping the discourse on contemporary political debates, like Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers?

It’s a question that many scholars are forced to consider, says Rachel Stevens, research fellow and contemporary refugee historian with ACU’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences.

“When political leaders misrepresent the past, I think historians should definitely call them on that and hold them to account,” says Dr Stevens, co-editor of the open-access essay collection, Refugee Journeys: Resettlement, Representation and Resistance.

“At the same time, I think it needs to be a cautious intervention in the discourse, and that means being specific and measured, presenting the evidence to back up an argument, and not overselling or overshooting what you claim.” 

In recent years, Dr Stevens has played an active role in challenging historical distortions and omissions surrounding our treatment of refugees. 

Take, for example, the romanticised notion that the 1970s and early ‘80s was a “golden era” for Asian refugees who sought asylum in Australia. Far from it, says Dr Stevens, pointing out that the Whitlam and Fraser governments of the time were ambivalent about these new arrivals. 

“The story, reinforced by the media, that Vietnamese refugees were welcomed with open arms is an enticing narrative, tempting us to believe that this country has demonstrated a willingness to treat asylum seekers humanely and with compassion,” Dr Stevens wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2012. “But it is not the whole story.”

In reality, Australia’s policy and overall approach to boat arrivals was “anything but welcoming”, Dr Stevens says.  

Initially, the Fraser government resettled only a small number of Vietnamese refugees, with the then-prime minister even warning that “some Vietnamese [boat people] who landed in Australia might have to be deported”. 

This is similar to the pledge of more recent governments to “turn back the boats”.

“Malcolm Fraser was very reluctant, very ambivalent towards the arrival of Vietnamese refugees, especially those who arrived by boat, and in the discourse of the time there was a lot of open racism and anxiety about communism,” says Dr Stevens, who also authored the book, Immigration Policy from 1970s to the Present.

“What this shows us is that politicians are very quick to write the memoir first, to record the first version of history. And that’s where historians and other academics need to base their claims on the evidence, and not be influenced by popular opinion or sentimentality.” 

An academic’s ‘duty’ 

In Refugee Journeys: Resettlement, Representation and Resistance, a book of essays edited by Dr Stevens with fellow historian Dr Jordana Silverstein, it is declared that academics have a “duty”, alongside activists and refugees themselves, to “dissect the history and current state of affairs on refugees and asylum seekers”. 

The book was, in part, a direct response to Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani’s call to academics at the Academics for Refugees National Day of Action in 2018.  

In this statement, made while Mr Boochani was detained on Manus Island under Australia's offshore processing regime, the award-winning author said academics have “a really important role in researching this policy of exile and exposing it”.

“What I believe from living through this policy and experiencing this prison camp firsthand is that we are only able to understand it in a philosophical and historical way,” said Mr Boochani, who was later granted asylum in New Zealand.   

“It’s the duty of academics to understand and challenge this dark historical period, and teach the new generations to prevent this kind of policy in future.” 

Stevens and Silverstein responded with a collection of essays from various authors that draw on a diverse range of research into the history of resettlement, representation and resistance of refugees in Australia. 

While the brief detention of tennis star Novak Djokovic in a Melbourne hotel in early 2022 brought global attention to Australia’s harsh immigration policies, many asylum seekers remain in indefinite detention, facing an uncertain future.  

The continued bipartisan support for many of the key policies that affect those seeking asylum is disappointing, says Dr Stevens, because it leaves these refugees in limbo. 

“In this context, it can be very easy for academics, activists, refugee advocate groups and support networks to become despondent,” she says. 

Against this singular narrative, she adds, there is an urgent need for diverse interpretations. 

“Our aim with the edited book is to present a variety of perspectives in this era of tight government, to open a new space to think about refugee history, the present, and possible futures for asylum seekers in this country.” 

A chequered history

While our nation undoubtedly has a chequered history in its treatment of refugees, there are cases where Australians have shown a sense of humanity and compassion towards displaced people.  

In one of the ten essays presented in Refugee Journeys, Dr Stevens writes about the other Asian refugees of the 1970s: the 10 million Bangladeshis who fled to India to escape violence in their home country. 

Her research on this issue, which will be the topic of a forthcoming book, explores the ways that Australians engaged with the unfolding crisis and sought to provide relief to Bengali refugees languishing in camps in India. 

While the official Australian government policy was to remain neutral and provide as little aid as possible, it ended up being a leading donor nation, thanks partly to grassroots activism from Christian groups, diplomats and philanthropists.

“This was really a case of people power,” says Dr Stevens, who points out that, while the Bangladeshi refugee crisis of 1971 has been largely forgotten in public memory outside of South Asian communities, it received worldwide media coverage at the time. 

Much of the coverage of the conflict was uncensored, with graphic imagery of the destruction and loss of human life. 

“It was labelled as ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’, which are very evocative terms, and I think that helped to galvanise people to act,” she says. 

“There was a groundswell of popular support from a range of different people and groups in Australian society, and the backing that these Bangladeshi refugees received from the Australian public is in some ways counterintuitive.”  

Part of the reason why certain groups of refugees don’t receive this level of support is that the public lacks a genuine understanding of the factors that force people to flee their homelands, Dr Stevens says.

“I wouldn’t call it ignorance, because that’s too strong – it’s more obliviousness to the degree of unrest or civil strife that happens throughout the world,” she says. 

“I think there is something innately human about that wariness of the ‘other’, whatever the ‘other’ may be. And maybe it’s okay to have that kneejerk reaction, but we need to then delve further into these complex problems with compassion, and see that it’s not as simple as ‘let them all in’ or ‘turn back the boats’.”

Politicians often claim that our immigration policies, however tough, are necessary because they secure our borders and save lives by stopping people drowning at sea. 

Governments also point to our nation’s humanitarian record, with some 800,000 refugees and displaced persons resettled here since 1945. 

Despite this history of refugee resettlement, Refugee Journeys presents the evidence to show that opposition to people seeking asylum has long existed here, and has often been the dominant discourse. 
Dr Stevens and her co-authors do, however, acknowledge that immigration policy is both complex and divisive, with many competing factors and interests at play. 

They hope their contribution helps to open new discussions on our treatment of displaced people, facilitating conversations that challenge popular opinion, and promote a more nuanced and humane approach. 

“We need to approach these complex problems with compassion, and have more robust, respectful conversations about what’s going on in the world,” she says.  

“We want to encourage people to challenge politicians’ use of asylum seekers as scapegoats for whatever fears and anxieties the public might have, and to imagine a future where leaders play a positive role that goes beyond division, and moves away from the intolerance of those who are forced to migrate to countries like ours.” 

Dr Rachel Stevens is a research fellow and contemporary refugee historian at ACU’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences. Her forthcoming book is on international humanitarianism during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

Dr Rachel Stevens

Learn more about ACU.

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2022 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G