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Australia: Land of Welcome? Kabul, Tampa and History Lessons

Posted on: September 28, 2021

In this blog Louise C. Johnson, Tanja Luckins and David Walker, authors of The Story of Australia , explores Australia's historical responses to Afghan refugees and considers how these issues can be discussed in the classroom.

As the world grapples with the fall of Kabul and the issue of Afghan refugees, Australians are reminded of an event that happened twenty years ago. In August 2001, a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, rescued over 400 asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, from a foundering wooden fishing boat off Christmas Island, an Australian territory.

‘Unauthorised’ arrivals

As we write in The Story of Australia: A new history of people and place, the then Prime Minister John Howard refused the MV Tampa entry to Australian territorial waters, famously declaring in the 2001 federal election, ‘We will decide who can come into this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ The so-called ‘Tampa Affair’ was an example of how fearful of invasion white Australia has been for most of its history since 1788, when the British invaded and colonised Australia. But at the same time, we have welcomed people escaping persecution (curiously, as those rescued by the MV Tampa were). Why does Australia have this doubled-headed history?

Boats and planes

It is curious that while European settlement of Australia began with the arrival of boats, much to the dismay of Indigenous peoples, the white Australian colonists themselves see boat arrivals as a menace to their survival as a nation.  While persecuted people like the German Lutherans were welcomed to South Australia in the 1830s and 1840s, the fear of invasion really kicked off in the 1880s fuelled by frightening stories about Asians coming down to invade Australia from the north. It was feared that ‘empty Australia’, a tempting prize, would soon be filled by Chinese or Japanese in the first instance.  Later, after 1950, the fear was that the arrivals would be Indonesians. After the end of the war in Vietnam in 1975, a very small number of ‘boat people’ braved the perilous journey to Australia, though most refugees flew to Australia from camps in south-east Asia. If Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban in 2021 make it to Australia in leaky boats, will they be welcome?

History lessons

The big question is - have Australians been manipulated by their leaders into seeing threats where few existed? Is this still the case today? Most illegal immigrants and over-stayers come to Australia by air. What is it about boats?

There are historical issues worth discussing:

  • Should Australia, as a nation of immigrants, be more welcoming to people who have fled places of human insecurity?
  • As Australia’s place in the world has changed with the retreat of the British Empire, decolonisation, and the rise of Asia, should the nation be more receptive to peoples in its region?

Most days there are items in the news dealing with migration and refugees. To understand any of these it is always useful to place them in a historical context, to draw connections with, for example the contested fate of the “Biloela family” and our mixed record towards “boat people” or our agonised consideration of Afghan interpreters and our exit from Vietnam. Placing the present into the continuities and debates around our past will inform but also energise students to confirm the importance of studying history.