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Australia’s Message to Asylum Seekers: Go Away



On April 26, 1976, a leaky fishing boat chugged into Darwin Harbour carrying five asylum seekers from South Vietnam. Their original destination had been Guam, but they changed course after a chance encounter with an Aussie seafarer in Borneo who told them Australia was a “big country” with “friendly people.” After presenting themselves to authorities in Darwin, the crew was granted asylum and resettled in accordance with Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention.

Over the next quarter of a century, public opinion toward “boat people” ebbed and flowed as hundreds of half-starved Indo-Chinese annually turned up on Australia’s sunburned shores. But when a new and much larger wave of asylum seekers, predominantly from the Middle East, began arriving in 1999, attitudes hardened. Out of a fear the country would be “swamped,” draconian deterrents were put in place. These included indefinite detention in dusty outback camps…

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