In 1940, Prime Minister Robert Menzies received a letter from a woman in Western Australia:

I have heard on the wireless the news that Australia would be willing to receive internees from England. I beg to protest; we have enough of the scum here already, too many in fact. I am not a vindictive woman, these aliens are God's creatures just the same as we are. All the same I sincerely trust that a U-boat gets every one of them. [1]

The ‘aliens’ she was referring to included German and Austrian refugees, predominantly Jewish, who had escaped to Britain before the war and were interned there after the fall of Dunkirk. In an age-old colonialist tradition, the British government shipped some thousands of these unwanted men to detention in Australia and Canada. That they were European, white and with few exceptions anti-fascist made no difference: for this woman, and many others, non-British foreigners were aliens in more than just the legal sense. Two years earlier, the proprietor of the widely-read newspaper Truth had written ‘We do not want Jewish refugees!.. As a racial group they are a menace to our nationhood and standards’. [2]

When my father came to Australia from Poland in July 1938, seeking refuge for his small family from anti-Semitism, fascism and the threat of war, the population here was seven million. The vast majority were of Anglo-Celtic origin. Few people had travelled overseas, and when they did, they mostly visited ‘Home’ – the British Isles and Ireland. Information about the world was available chiefly from local newspapers and radio stations. This was a relatively isolated community, not highly educated, generally unaccustomed to foreigners with their unfamiliar languages and traditions. It is not surprising that an influx of aliens would cause anxiety.

The historian Klaus Neumann has documented an asymmetrical pattern in Australia’s treatment of refugees: sometimes compassionate and generous, at other times harsh and rejecting.[3] The country’s post-WWII immigration policy, which welcomed tens of thousands of Europeans, including thousands of Displaced Persons (refugees), is often cited as an example of Australia’s compassion and generosity towards those in need of refuge. That its purpose was largely to enhance Australia’s economic well-being – ‘populate or perish’ was the government’s favourite slogan – and that it firmly adhered to the White Australia policy which excluded Asians, is sometimes overlooked.

Mostly forgotten is the conflicted yet in some ways more remarkable response to refugees during WWII. Even when the Australian government was most reluctant to accept Jews trying to escape the Nazis in Germany and Austria in the late 1930s, the thousands who were permitted entry settled wherever they could find housing, work and support. When war broke out, some of these men were declared ‘enemy aliens’ and interned, housed in frugal comfort in camps in rural centres such as Hay in New South Wales and Tatura in Victoria. Organisations like the Student Christian Movement and the Council for Civil Liberties gave the majority of internees, who were clearly refugees, material and moral support. Most were ultimately released from internment and many served in the Australian military during the war.

An even more ‘alien’ group found shelter here during World War II. Chinese seamen whose boats were stranded in Australian ports because of the battles in the Pacific were part of a larger influx of approximately 3000 Chinese refugees. Despite the official White Australia policy, which determinedly excluded non-whites, these people were given certificates of exemption or protected on humanitarian grounds. They lived in the community. Some of the seamen were briefly interned locally before becoming members of the Australian Army’s 7th Employment Company and later working for the US Army.

After the war, the majority of these men – willing or unwilling – were shipped back to Hong Kong. It seemed the White Australia policy triumphed, but the protests against the deportation of the refugees marked the beginning of the long campaign to end a racially discriminatory immigration policy.

The past is a frame for the present. Australia, now with a population of more than 23 million, is the home of millions of non Anglo-Celts, including a significant minority from Asia and Africa. There are dozens of languages spoken here, and many religions practised. Compared with the 1930s and 40s, people are well educated and a large number are inveterate overseas travellers. Newspapers and radio now compete with television and the internet – citizens have easy access to knowledge of the rest of the world. Why, then, does this cosmopolitan society, which boasts of its multiculturalism, succumb so easily to false propaganda about the danger to our country of refugees arriving on boats? Why have we reverted to a harsh and negative policy when we’ve had decades of experience of the enrichment that refugees bring to this nation?

Old traits are given fresh energy in new circumstances. Now there is the ‘war on terror’. Once again certain groups – ethnic and religious – have been selected for opprobrium. Muslims are suspect because a few are violent international criminals. Black Africans have been maligned as making Australia less safe, when only a few commit crimes.[4] And unpopular governments, seeking diversions, are grateful for scapegoats. Who better than strangers on boats – nameless, undocumented, not in a ‘queue’?

June Factor is an Honorary Senior Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has been director of The Australian Children's Folklore Collection, and authored a number of books including Far Out, Brussel Sprout!: Australian Children's Chants and Rhymes. She is currently writing a book about the ‘aliens’ in the Australian Army during WWII. 

[1] Written by M. Gibbs, Shenton Park, Western Australia; cited by Alan Gill, ‘When friends were enemies’, SMH Good Weekend, p. 21, 1 September 1990

[2] Truth, 16 October 1938

[3] Klaus Neumann, Refugee Australia: Australia’s Humanitarian Record, UNSW Press, Sydney 2004; In the Interest of National Security: Civilian internment in Australia During World War II, National Achives of Australia, Canberra 2006

[4] Andrew Bolt, ‘Why bring in refugees who make Australians less safe?’Herald Sun, 10 June 2013