Australia’s migration policies: African dimensions

grey draft/not as finally published
Background paper for  AHRC African Australians Project as at March 2009

  1. 1. Introduction: African images in Australian society

If you surf Google as of May 2009, looking for information on Australia’s relationship with Africa, there are nearly 24,000,000 hits. Most refer to cricket or rugby matches with South Africa. To most Australians who are not of African origin,  Africa is a map composed of stereotypes – South Africa’s sportsmen, the civil wars of the Congo and Burundi, the dictatorships of Zimbabwe and Liberia, the famines of Ethiopia and Eritrea and the world action through “Live Aid”, the murderous rampages in Darfur in Sudan, “Black Hawk down” in Somalia, the ancient history of Egypt and the recent emergence of Islamist political movements. These momentary glimpses expose the lenses through which the Australian community has come to engage with the reality of modern Africa.  While many of Africa’s problems and conflicts derive from its colonial past, even more so today Africans are experiencing the continuing pressures of population, climate change,  resource shortages  and economic under-development. Africa of course is also and rather more than these glimpses allow, a continent of great complexity, diversity, history and civilizations.

Africans have arrived in Australia in recent times in different waves. Initially (before 1976)  the intake was primarily South African (42% of all African born by 2006)  (and White), from Mauritius (7.3% in 2006)  or Egyptian (13.5% in 2006)  (and Christian or Jewish). (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). By 2006 there were almost 250,000 people born in Africa living in Australia (5.4% of the overseas born population). Communities whose members mainly (90% or more) arrived after 1996 include people from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. Thus a “snap-shot” picture of African born residents would look very different in 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and in the present day. Recognising the waves of movement helps us understand the community capacities and the depth of established social networks available to support newcomers. (A detailed presentation of the demography of African communities is discussed by Prof Graeme Hugo in his paper for the African project).

People from the African continent are keen that t[m2] he Australian community understands their diversity. In 2000 Africa had 30 percent of the world’s oral languages (about 2000 out of 6800) but 13 percent of the world’s population. Populations from different regions and ethnicities have less in common with each other than do Europeans, being differentiated by physiognomy, language, history, religion and cultural practices. Australia’s relationship with Africa follows the contours of that diversity, beginning with the first Africans to arrive with the first European settlers in the late 18th century.

Members of the African diaspora entered colonial society at many points before Federation in 1900. Some people entering were African Americans, former slaves or escapees from the USA, or sent as convicts by the British (Pybus, 2006). Others were “seedies”, East African sailors who manned the windjammers, and later worked below decks on the steamers that ploughed the Africa to Asia to Australia routes (Ghosh & Goodall, 2009). While they did not arrive in great numbers they were sufficient to add to that perceived fear of non-whites that drove the political agenda for Federation and the White Australia Policy[m3] [m4] . (Rivett, 1962) Africans were specifically mentioned in the debates about immigration restriction and limitations of the franchise in the first years of the Commonwealth. The Constitution specifically allowed the government to make laws in regard to races of people, and if desired to discriminate against them (Williams, 2009) . The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was one of the first pieces of Commonwealth legislation following Federation, and represented the institutionalisation of ideologies of racial superiority widespread in colonial-settler societies of the day. (Jupp, 2007)

In the twentieth century the global spread of Garveyism as an ideology of black nationalism that reached Aboriginal Australians, came both from the USA carried by African Americans and their newspapers, and also from Africa via people like the Mauritian teacher Shadrach James Peersahib (later Shadrach James). James became very influential with the Aboriginal leaders who established the Australian Aborigines’ League in 1933 (Ghosh & Goodall, 2009).

On the White side [m5] Australian and South Africans had a close relationship, rather more important initially to Australia than to South Africa. Capetown was the revictualling stop for ships bound for Australia from England. South African miners came to Australia in the later gold rushes, and Australians went to South Africa when the rushes were on there. Australians fought in British colonial conflicts in Africa, starting with the Sudan campaign of 1885 against a Muslim uprising against British colonialism, and the Boer War. At least 12,000 Australians served in contingents raised by the six colonies or from 1901 by the new Australian Commonwealth, and many more joined British or South African colonial units in South Africa. Australians served mostly in mounted units formed in each colony, often known as mounted rifles, bushmen, or imperial bushmen. After the Boer War, many Australians were demobbed in South Africa and entered the mining industry (and introduced Australian Rules football to Johannesburg). They helped to form the South African Labour Party in 1907, which introduced militant Australian trade union perspectives into South African political life. The SALP would also be the first party to advocate a strongly racist social policy, mirroring union attitudes in Australia (Tothill, 2000).

There are other elements in Australia’s relationship with South Africa that demonstrate close contact and conversations. The ‘dictation test’ was developed in Natal province in 1897 as a device to exclude especially Indian immigrants (at first Natal had wanted to exclude all non-whites using the model of a NSW Bill but the Australian approach was seen as too overtly racist by the British government which refused to give its assent). When the Natal government bedded down the test (able to be administered in any European language to ensure they could find one that Indians would fail, as many spoke and some could read English) it was then offered by the British to Australia as a “non-racial” model that could be adopted as the process through which non-white immigrants could be excluded – it became the most powerful weapon in Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (Lake, 2004). The 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act (Clause 4) ensured that there could be no misunderstanding of what the implications of a “non-racial model” of citizenship would be. It said: “No aboriginal native of Australia Asia Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand shall be entitled to have his name placed on an Electoral Roll unless so entitled under section forty-one of the Constitution” [i.e. previously eligible in one of the states]. This exclusion lasted until 1961 when the Menzies government withdrew it as “objectionable and outmoded”, with all Aboriginal peoples being entitled but not required to vote in 1962 (Norberry & (with) Williams, 2002). The bar on African “native” immigration would remain in effect for at least another decade.

Through the twentieth century Australia and the African continent were related through trade, and through occasional wars – Australian troops were with the British in North Africa in both World Wars, and some served in British East African military groups. The Australian navy was engaged against the Germans off East Africa during the Great War. In the Second World War Australians grew to know the sites of Libya and Egypt, where battles such as those of Tobruk emblazoned themselves in popular memory. Most Australians though garnered what knowledge they had of Africa through the media – originally cinema (most infamously through the white hero Tarzan movies that flourished in the childhood imaginations of 1950s Australian children) and then through the funnelled realities of Western television.

The harsher political dimensions of Africa became more apparent to Australians, during decolonisation (eg in Kenya in 1964) and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  In the 1960s black African students began to arrive in small numbers in Australia, and helped build coalitions against apartheid and the white regime in Rhodesia (Rhodesia became the independent nation of Zimbabwe in 1980). The ending of the White Australia Policy in the decade after 1967 increased the flow quite significantly. The growth of the anti-apartheid movement in Australia foregrounded African race relations in Australia. Young Australians became increasingly aware of the issues of race in South Africa, a process that forced them to also reflect on the parallels between South Africa’s treatment of its indigenous peoples, and the experience of Aboriginal peoples under white Australian rule .  [m6]

Through the 1970s and 1980s Australia awareness of Africa increased further, both with the erosion of apartheid (ending in 1994) and the eruption of major environmental and political crises in northern and central Africa (including the Ethiopian Eritrean war, and civil wars in Somalia and the Sudan, and Rwanda and the D.R.Congo). [m7] For Africans forced to flee their homes, these were times of enormous trauma and suffering. Many millions were to spend years wandering in remote areas seeking refuge, or finding limited respite in under-resourced and often still very dangerous refugee camps. There were many consequences of these years for those who survived, and eventually came to Australia. They would have had broken or even non-existent experiences of education; they may have seen family and friends badly injured or killed. They themselves may have been brutalised and tortured, or forced into the armies of children that various warlords and factions used to prosecute their violent agendas.  Many would have been targeted by enemies on the grounds of their religious affiliations, tribal membership or clan identities.

Meanwhile, Australian troops were to serve again in peacekeeping roles in Africa. At the time of writing, Australians are serving in Sudan, and have served in Eritrea and Somalia. The new Australian government has indicated it intends to increase both foreign aid and a military training and support presence as part of conflict resolution priorities in Africa, reasserting a relationship that had faded under the Coalition.

With the growth of humanitarian immigration after about 1990 the presence of indigenous Africans has become more discernable in Australia’s towns and cities. Whereas they were few in numbers [m8] during the height of the European and Asian immigration from 1950 to about 1990, in the past two decades Africans have become very much part of mainstream settlement programs across the country[m9] , and are now part of Australian society.

  1. 2. Africa’s diversity

There are over fifty countries in Africa, running for thousands of kilometres from the Mahgreb of the southern Mediterranean littoral, across desert, mountain, plains and jungle societies to the far tip of the Cape of Good Hope. Most of these states are the consequence of European colonialism, and only rarely does state (political-institutional organizations) and nation (ethno-political formations) coalesce comfortably. Within states there can be many descendants of pre-colonial nations or ethnic societies, all with their own complex histories, divisions and contradictions. Much of recent political history in Africa reflects attempts to manage these longer-term difficulties with their ethno-political struggles over diminishing natural resources and sources of contemporary wealth.

The African countries with the largest resident populations in Australia are those with strong European colonial histories (as against those dominated by plantation or extractive economies managed by small minorities of Europeans) or are the primary source of humanitarian entrants. South Africa (104,000 in 2006) and Egypt (33,000) remain the two largest sources, followed by Zimbabwe, Sudan and Mauritius (18-20,000 each). Altogether 51 African nations are listed in the 2006 Census with half having more than 300 people resident in Australia (see table 1).  The gender balances need to be interpreted carefully[m10] , as there are many female-headed households among humanitarian and refugee groups, who may have numbers of male children.

Table 1[m11] : Country of birth in Africa at 2006 (gender and sex ratio) and 2001Census

2006 2001
M F T Proportion male T
South Africa 51,036 53,092 104,128 0.49 79425
Egypt 17,094 16,403 33,497 0.51 33432
Zimbabwe 9,967 10,190 20,157 0.49 11734
Sudan 10,318 8,731 19,049 0.54 4900
Mauritius 8,815 9,360 18,175 0.49 16962
Kenya 5,057 4,883 9,940 0.51 6870
Ethiopia 2,821 2,812 5,633 0.50 3544
Somalia 2,073 2,243 4,316 0.48 3713
Zambia 2,000 2,082 4,082 0.49 3070
Ghana 1,480 1,291 2,771 0.53 2040
Seychelles 1,147 1,361 2,508 0.46 2,448
Nigeria 1,480 1,016 2,496 0.59 1,738
Eritrea 991 1,025 2,016 0.49 1,599
Sierra Leone 912 897 1,809 0.50 363
Uganda 873 840 1,713 0.51 1,217
Liberia 714 812 1,526 0.47 124
Libya 810 706 1,516 0.53 1,442
Morocco 763 532 1,295 0.59 1,170
Botswana 508 355 863 0.59 709
Burundi 393 358 751 0.52 32
Namibia 344 358 702 0.49 437
Malawi 329 355 684 0.48 486
Mozambique 317 324 641 0.49 551
Congo, Democratic Republic of 321 297 618 0.52 267
Southern and East Africa, nfd 249 349 598 0.42 727
Congo 291 232 523 0.56 134
Tunisia 263 178 441 0.60 425
Guinea 175 155 330 0.53 31
Cote d’lvoire 134 116 250 0.54 75
Swaziland 113 118 231 0.49 208
Rwanda 85 117 202 0.42 46
Central and West Africa, nfd 82 117 199 0.41 178
Senegal 118 78 196 0.60 185
Madagascar 85 103 188 0.45 162
Cameroon 75 60 135 0.56 66
Gambia 76 56 132 0.58 59
Djibouti 46 51 97 0.47 71
Lesotho 41 38 79 0.52 53
Mali 33 27 60 0.55 26
North Africa and the Middle East, nfd 20 31 51 0.39 57
Togo 20 15 35 0.57 13
North Africa, nfd 18 15 33 0.55 129
Chad 14 18 32 0.44 36
Gabon 14 12 26 0.54 22
Burkina Faso 15 9 24 0.63 14
North Africa, nec 3 21 24 0.13 6
Benin 10 12 22 0.45 21
Cape Verde 12 6 18 0.67 22
Western Sahara 6 9 15 0.40 0
Mauritania 8 6 14 0.57 13
Niger 9 3 12 0.75 17
Guinea-Bissau 10 0 10 1.00 0
Central African Republic 3 6 9 0.33 0
Equatorial Guinea 6 3 9 0.67 0
Sub-Saharan Africa, nfd 5 0 5 1.00 0
Southern and East Africa 0 4 4 0.00 0

(From ABS data).

  1. 3. Background to Australian immigration policy

Immigration control was the first focus of the new Commonwealth of Australia following Federation in 1901. The future racial and cultural makeup of the nation drew together opponents who would on this issue be allies. Few (except those so badly affected[m12] through exclusion or forced repatriation – primarily Chinese and Pacific Islanders) disputed the imperial ideology of white supremacy, or the mix of religious, economic and scientific rationales that were used to advance its political power. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 effectively put an end to any legal non-white immigration from Africa, and so it was to remain for the best part of three generations.  The idea of race itself was carefully not part of the legislation; indeed even as the non-discriminatory approaches to immigration were building up strong public support in the 1970s, one well versed commentator of the day pointed out that “no law excludes non-Europeans from entering Australia, and no statute discriminates between intending immigrants on the ground of race” (Palfreeman, 1974). Be that as it may, in general there was no point in a non-white from Africa trying to enter Australia legally with any intent to stay for a long period – this even applied to people of Indian descent who at the time were able to enter Britain after the rise of exclusionary indigenous regimes in East Africa. The only Australian exceptions applied to some “coloured” people, who were of mixed European and Asian heritage and could “pass” as white. (Rivett, 1962) [m13] The informal and effective methods of exclusion from Australia lay in bureaucratic practice and the unquestioned assumptions that underpinned the consensus about the White Australia Policy and its application.

Australian immigration solidarity began to crumple in the late 1950s. Anti-colonial struggles were eroding the foothold of European metropolitan empires in the region. The Dutch had been thrown out of Indonesia; the French withdrew from Indochina and the British from the subcontinent and the Malayan peninsula and archipelago. In 1958 a revised Immigration Act abolished the dictation test (which had not been used for many years), and in 1959 “distinguished” non-Europeans were permitted to settle with ministerial approval.

Social movements for a non-racial immigration policy evolved in Victoria in particular, where the Australian Government Colombo Plan brought young adults from Asia to study at Australian universities. There they would mix with Australian middle-class students from the political elites, who discovered the visitors were not the threat that White Australia had claimed all Asians to be. [m14] At Melbourne University an Immigration Reform Group began to agitate for reform, publishing the ground-breaking “Immigration – control or colour bar?” as a pamphlet in 1960 and as a book in 1962 (Rivett, 1962; Tavan, 2001; Viviani, 1992). During the 1961 elections a young Labor candidate Moss Cass who was standing in Kooyong electorate against Prime Minister Robert Menzies, declared himself for a non-racial immigration policy. While this was not ALP policy at the time, Cass became part of a group in the labour movement that called on the party leadership to remove the White Australia  Policy plank from the ALP platform. By 1965 Don Dunstan, South Australian party leader, would successfully move the resolution at the ALP national conference, and had former Immigration Minister and ALP federal leader Arthur Calwell second it with “ashes in his mouth”.  As a signal of a broader climate of change, the government agreed in 1965 to allow non-Europeans to become Australian citizens (after fifteen years).

With Menzies retiring within a year, the Liberal Party too began to move more rapidly towards liberalisation. Under a new party leader and Prime Minister, former Immigration Minister and Melbourne progressive Harold Holt, and his Immigration minister Hubert Opperman, the old policies of assimilation (to which non-whites could only hope to aspire) were replaced by the new language of integration (which accommodated people irrespective of “colour”); non-Europeans were permitted to become citizens after five years. In 1966 Australia signed the United Nations international convention on the abolition of all forms of racial discrimination, and the basis for the traditional racially-based model of immigration control was further undermined.

Piece by piece the architecture of racism began to be dismantled, until in 1973 under the new ALP government led by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a fully non-racial policy was introduced by Immigration Minister Al Grassby. Grassby was defeated in the 1974 election by a targeted campaign in his rural Riverina seat by racist groups opposed to immigration reform, but the die was cast, and there could be no return to a discourse based on racial discrimination.  By 1975 both major political parties had adopted a non-racial approach, supporting the Racial Discrimination Act that was framed by Labor in 1975 and passed by the incoming Fraser coalition government in 1976.  The expectation remained however (given the arguments that had won the IRG its strong support) that the new non-white immigrants would for the most part be educated, Westernised and culturally attuned to Australian modernity. [m15]

It was at this point non-white immigration from Africa begins, reflecting the political and social changes that transformed the continent in the last quarter of the twentieth century (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008).  These changes were recognised in a mix of ways by the Australian government, both through the gradual opening up of immigration opportunities, and then the allocation of humanitarian places to internally displaced and refugee applicants in Africa.

  1. 4. Immigration from Africa[m16]

In its discussion of Australia’s renewed aid engagement with Africa, the Lowy Institute (Negin & Denning, 2008) gives immigration from Africa as one important rationale.

There are also an increasing number of people in Australia of African descent, bringing with them potentially valuable cultural, social and economic ties to the region. The 2006 census reveals that there are more than 100,000 South African-born people in Australia along with more than 20,000 Zimbabweans, 19,000 Sudanese, 18,000 from Mauritius and almost 10,000 Kenyans. In 2005-06 permanent settler arrivals to Australia included 4,000 South Africans and 3,800 Sudanese, constituting the sixth and seventh largest sources of migrants  respectively….  Africa contributes significantly to Australia’s skilled workforce. Based on the 2006 census, there are just under 3,000 medical doctors and over 4,100 nurses working in Australia who are African-born.  This represents 5.4% of medical doctors working in Australia. Given that only 1.5% of all working people in Australia are African-born, the over-representation in skilled positions is remarkable.

This immigration points to very different groups of immigrants born in Africa (table 2). Many are professionals or managers, highly skilled and educated, having come mainly but not only from South Africa and Egypt, until recently mostly but not only European by descent, and with long immigration histories. Many of the professionals come from the educated indigenous (and in some cases Asian) middle classes of Ghana and Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia and Tanzania – whose governments have often decried this “brain drain” to the West.  Not surprisingly the countries of birth with the highest rates of employment as labourers are the ones with the most difficult recent histories, especially in relation to access to education – Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Eritrea and Botswana.

While the majority of immigration from Africa is through skilled or family categories (many of these are nominees by earlier humanitarian arrivals), [m17] a significant element is composed of refugees or other humanitarian groups[m18] . A refugee is someone who fits the Refugee Convention definition, and is brought to Australia through an arrangement with the UNHCR or a similar body.

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (and its 1967 Protocol), to which Australia is a signatory, defines a refugee as:

Any person who owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.

A Special Humanitarian Program entrant may experience similar threats and dangers as a refugee, but normally is sponsored by an Australian resident or organisation. The Special Assistance category is used in defined situations; again the entrant would normally have pre-existing links to Australia.   Australia has had global figure of 13,000 humanitarian entrants for some years (rising from about 7000 at the beginning of the decade), with about 10% allocated to the women at risk segment. The Women at Risk program is aimed at women who do not have the protection of a male relative and are in danger of victimisation and serious abuse because of their gender.  Australia introduced the Women at Risk visa class in 1989 in recognition of the priority given by UNHCR to the protection of refugee women in particularly vulnerable situations. Australia had taken in over 8800 women and their children[m19] under the program by 2008 (in that year the allocation rose to about 14% of the total humanitarian entrants).

Table 2[m20] : Country of birth by Occupational Group, ranked by percentage of managers and professionals.

COUNTRY OF BIRTH (BPLP150) Total number in all identified  occupations % Professional or managerial % Labourers
UGANDA 975 59 3
TANZANIA 1265 56 7
NIGERIA 1634 53 9
MALAWI 448 52 7
SOUTH AFRICA 63900 51 5
ZAMBIA 3003 51 9
CONGO 161 50 11
KENYA 5659 50 7
NAMIBIA 432 50 8
ZIMBABWE 13413 46 7
EGYPT 14200 43 8
LIBYA 683 43 9
ALGERIA 458 40 7
BURUNDI 86 37 37
GHANA 1635 36 13
BOTSWANA 288 32 30
TUNISIA 183 32 13
MAURITIUS 10472 29 12
ANGOLA 267 28 18
SUDAN 3566 21 30
ERITREA 840 20 26
SOMALIA 967 17 16
SIERRA LEONE 716 17 29
LIBERIA 457 14 39

(From ABS cross tabulations made available by DIAC[m21] : missing data covers those not in workforce (female care givers, children and retirees) or not given. These are current occupations and do not reflect occupations in country of origin).

  1. Southern Africa

Significant immigration from Southern Africa accelerated in the 1980s. There had been some immigration during the height of apartheid by opponents of the South African regime, and Perth had received a regular inflow of white Africans especially from Rhodesia leading up to and after the end of white rule there in 1979.  Most early immigration from the region had been by people of European or “coloured” descent.  By 1987 Australia commentators were noting that: “The South Africans who have been admitted under business migration, family migration and labour shortage categories are more likely to have been white South Africans. The government should develop a special humanitarian program for black South Africans who wish to migrate to Australia.” (Anon., 1987)

Black immigration from South Africa became a topic of political controversy in 1987 when the then Returned Services League president Bruce Ruxton, a key opponent of non-white immigration, abused South African black Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, describing him as “a witch doctor…breathing hatred” (Australian League of Rights, 1987).  There were clear signs then of the links between extremist right wing Australian organisations and some of the white nationalist refugees from South Africa.

An African Australian commenting on settlement in Australia from 1992 notes that:

Compared to almost any other region, Africa has very few immigrants in Australia. It is the second largest continent and has a population of 160 million. Yet Africans make up only 0.6 per cent of the Australian population. There were 3,728 members of the African community in Australia [sic: refers to 1986 Census]. Of this number about two-thirds were from South Africa. Presumably most of the South Africans in Australia were white. One reason for the low representation of people from other parts of Africa is the almost complete absence of diplomatic and immigration posts. Apart from South Africa, there are immigration posts in only two African countries, Kenya and Zimbabwe. (Kwakwa, 1992)

The author could well have made the same point about the exodus from Kenya and Zimbabwe, where it appears that the immigration posts were established primarily to service the emigration of whites leaving after independence, and the establishment in those countries of majority rule; Nairobi also later became the central point for processing refugees from Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Since the 1990s there has been a large influx of South Africans (a significant number of whom are Jewish and are the descendants of the 1920s migration of Lithuanian Jewry to South Africa). There was also an earlier immigration of Jewish Egyptians in the 1950s and 1960s, after the rise of more nationalist regimes and the war between Egypt and Israel in 1956 (and again in 1967).

Religious identification gives a greater sense of the diversity of the African born population. South African born residents in 2006 comprised 15000 Anglicans, 14000 Catholics, 11000 Jews, 7000 Uniting Church, 3500 Presbyterians, 3000 Hindus and 2000 Muslims (the latter two groups descendants of earlier Indian immigrants) (ABS Census 2006- figures provided by DIAC. [m22]

  1. Northern Africa

The Australian government has tended to lump the non-European Mediterranean littoral states, possibly due to their Ottoman Empire and Muslim histories, into one category. While it is possible to disaggregate them, the concept that appears to underpin the category still draws a potent dividing line in official documents. Thus Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt – with the Middle East across to the Arabian Gulf – tends to be viewed as “not Africa”, while the north east Horn of Africa and the countries to the south are somehow “more African”. One suspects this distinction owes more to European history than to African, but it is worth encapsulating their histories of immigration to Australia, if only briefly.

The most significant participant has of course been Egypt, and it encapsulates many of the more general issues affecting immigration and settlement policies in relation to Africa.  Egypt is a multicultural country bearing the effects of waves of imperial expansion; it is a majority Muslim country, with a strong Christian Coptic minority. It has been occupied or at least administered by the Ottomans, the French and the British. It was a vanguard in developing a nationalist government which was secular, which had overthrown a royalist government, and which confronted European power in the post-war decade. Egypt was the birthplace of Muslim nationalism, and the point of origination for the Muslim Brotherhood; it has a youthful population, which is quite well-educated but lacks occupational opportunities. At various stages political unrest, religious conflict and economic crisis have driven people to emigrate.

At the 2006 Census Egyptians comprised 9700 Coptic Christians, 8000 Catholics, 5000 Greek Orthodox, 3000 Muslims and 500 Jews among 33000 residents.  It is also a well educated and professional community, though it has a high proportion of retirees – less than half are in the labour market.  It has a long history of political and ethno-religious triggered emigration to Australia, and the community in Australia has a very different profile to the country of origin.

Sudan has become a controversial source of immigration from Africa, partly due to the rapid growth in numbers of immigrants, and partly because in 2007 the then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews singled Sudanese out for attention as allegedly having shown a poor history of integration. Sudan is located between Egypt and the Horn of Africa. Physically the largest country on the continent, Sudan has a long history of struggle between Arab and indigenous African influences, and a varying reaction to colonial intrusions. Australian troops fought there in the 1880s, in support of the British. Over the past two generations the country has been embroiled in wars and inter-ethnic conflicts[m23] , with Muslim militias attacking the Christians and Animists of the south. A major location for this conflict is the south western region of Darfur, where there have been regular reports of massacres in refugee camps, and sustained attacks against civilians.  The Sudanese population in Australia was slightly less than 5000 in 2001, already made up mainly of refugees. By 2006 the numbers had grown to just under 20000, a rapidity of growth [m24] that put enormous pressures on the fragile community structures established by earlier arrivals. The limited capacity of community organizations to “scale up” to respond to the needs of large numbers of “damaged” people has meant that many newly arrived refugees or humanitarian entrants have very few primary group members for support, and little in the way of local knowledge to ease them into their new environment. The peak year for immigration was 2004-5, when just under 6000 arrived. The community is heavily male (54%), most of whom are young and many of whom are the remnants of the so-called Lost Boys, fleeing Sudan to camps in Chad and other bordering countries. About three quarters were sponsored to Australia under the Special Humanitarian Program, and thus joined pre-existing communities. The vast majority are Christians (80%) with a smaller (12%) group of Muslims, which may have influenced the initial decision by government to accept significant numbers of Sudanese. The largest settlement is in Melbourne, followed by Sydney, and clusters in the Darling Downs in southern Queensland, and the Hunter around Newcastle (Australia Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 2006e).

  1. North East – the Horn

The Horn of Africa encompasses a region of diversity, environmental stress, and political conflict. Three countries stand out for our purposes – Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Ethno-national communities live within and across state borders, and war and environmental stress may drive them further afield, as internally displaced people or as refugees. Australia has taken an active humanitarian role in the region working with UNHCR officials.

Ethiopians have had over thirty years of disruption with refugee communities scattered through Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, and Kenya. Ethiopia is the largest Horn of Africa country with a population of 85 million. By 2001 Australia had about 3600 Ethiopians, with most settled in Victoria. In part this reflected the very different views of the state governments, with Victoria in general welcoming the settlers, while the NSW government was seeking to dissuade immigrant settlement where it could. In the period 2000-2005 about 3000 people arrived, so that by the 2006 Census the total had risen to about 5000, with 60% in Victoria. The vast majority came in under humanitarian schemes or family reunion, with a significant group of 350 in 2004 made up of Christian women with children at risk, from the Abu Rakham camp in Sudan (Australia Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 2006c).

Eritreans form a smaller group, and come from a society with at least nine ethno-linguistic groups. By 2001 Australia had about 1600 Eritreans, with most settled in Victoria, their number growing to about 2000 by 2006. Eritrea had a complicated history in relation to Ethiopia, being amalgamated under the Italians in the 1930s, then seeking its independence in a series of wars through until the 1990s. Almost all Eritreans are either humanitarian or family entrants, and over half identify as Muslim, with a smaller number Coptic and Eastern Orthodox (Australia Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 2006b).

Somalis were some of the first refugees from Africa to be accepted in Australia. They began arriving in the 1980s and established community organisations early on. Most gravitated towards Melbourne, where the Somali Relief Association opened in the mid 1980s, Somali Community Association opened in 1988,and the Somali Cultural Association in 1995. By 1996 there were 2061 Somalis, growing to 3713 by 2001, most of whom arrived in the peak years 1994 to 1998. The numbers barely grew after that (4316 by 2006).  Most Somalis are Sunni Muslims and religious practices meant there were early links with other Muslim communities. Somalia was an attempted amalgam of former British and Italian colonial territories, and has experienced constant civil war and tension, characterised by the collapse of central authority and government. Australian troops served as part of a failed peacekeeping exercise between 1991 and 1993 (the period in which the US film “Black Hawk Down” was set) (Jupp, 2001).  Refugees to Australia were processed through Nairobi in Kenya. Somalis are less likely to identify as “African”, often preferring ethnic, religious or other identities. The established Somali community was somewhat shaken during the anti-African outbursts of 2007, which they felt inappropriately included them in the criticisms of the Sudanese and other “black” Africans (discussion with author, young Somalis, Melbourne, February 2009).

  1. Sub-Saharan Africa

In mid 2006 the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs began to issue a series of booklets on African refugees, their backgrounds and issues associated with settlement – especially relating to the refugee experience[m25] . The booklets were targeted to the Australian community to raise awareness and increase understanding of African refugees.  Among them were a collection on sub-Saharan Africans, at that stage a fairly small part of the intake compared to the Horn and Sudan. The countries included Togo, the Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. There was a signal here of some Departmental expectation as to the future pattern and source of African refugee and humanitarian intake. Settlement in Australia was going to require information to enhance empathy and improve the depth of understanding among the Australian community for people from countries that were not part of Australia’s immigration history. The booklets addressed what could be seen as the general ignorance of most Australians about the situation for Africans, and also the very different national and cultural expectations that the new arrivals brought with them – different among the various ethno-tribal groups, and different from the wide spread of earlier immigrant arrivals and the Australian born population.

We briefly review here the four countries chosen by the Department as priorities for the publishing of their profiles – in the event, no further publications appeared for other sub-Saharan communities.  The groups were apparently chosen because of the rapid increase in their numbers – usually from a low base. Thus Liberians increased from 124 to 1526 in the five years 2001-2006, Congolese from both Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) from 400 to about 1100, and those from Sierra Leone from 360 to about 1800 (Australia Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 2006a, 2006d, 2006f, 2007). These groups usually arrived after an experience of significant trauma, warfare, horrendous violence, and years of surviving either in camps or in urban poverty as refugees in other African countries. They were overwhelmingly young, with little educational experience and limited levels of English language skills. For the Congolese, French was more likely to be spoken than English.

Unlike the Horn of Africa communities most of the sub-Saharan communities are Christian. They have often been sponsored by church organizations and are often firmly linked to religious identities – especially among the Congolese where there are over 250 ethnic groups. Refugees and humanitarian entrants of D R Congo nationality may have spent most of their lives in a neighbouring society, and will usually have lost significant numbers of their family members in violence – some may have escaped from early forced recruitment as child soldiers.

Unlike the predominant proportion of children among Congolese, the Liberians were essentially young adults, often women with young families (21% of arrivals were women at risk) while 73% were refugees (rather than sponsored humanitarian arrivals). Few Liberians would have experienced urban life or have urban survival skills – though most had some experience of schooling, albeit limited. Most have experienced trauma and torture. They are drawn from some thirty different ethno-linguistic groups or tribes.

Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain in 1961; thus unlike many other African countries English is spoken (about one third) and there is also a widely spoken Creole (Krio). Most have arrived as refugees or sponsored humanitarian arrivals; about half have settled in NSW, and the religious makeup is about two thirds Christian and one third Muslim.  The population on arrival was made up of young adults and children.

It is likely that the inflow from central Africa will further diminish, except through family and humanitarian sponsorship. However Australia’s stated policy of greater engagement with peace-making and security in Africa may increase the call on Australia as a country of first refuge from ongoing as yet unresolved conflicts.

  1. 5. A Decade of Australia’s Immigration policies [m26] in relation to Africa

Immigration from Africa from the mid 1990s reflects the broad mix of policy streams that have evolved in response to economic, social and humanitarian priorities.  The “streams” are usually described as “humanitarian”, “family” and “skill”. In addition there are medium term entrants under the 457 visa class (fixed term sponsored skilled workers) who are not classed as settlers but who are still very much part of Australian society.  In the decade 1997-2007, about 136,000 people migrated from Africa to Australia – Humanitarian  30%, Family 15% and Skill 55%.  .   Those who came under the Skilled category were heavily concentrated in a few countries – South Africa (70% of skilled entrants, 86% of all South Africans), Zimbabwe (14.5%; 88%), Mauritius (  3%  ;76%) and Kenya (4%; 55%) .

Immigration of humanitarian category African arrivals to Australia cannot be easily separated from the wider political debates about Australia’s refugee program and its response to asylum seekers. While the majority of African humanitarian entrants have been “lawful” arrivals processed off-shore in conjunction with UNHCR, a minority have entered the very rough terrain of being defined as an “unlawful” arrival. Beginning in 1999 the federal government through then Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock initiated a major campaign against unlawful arrivals, who used “people smugglers” to get them into Australia. The aim was to detect, deter and detain any such arrivals (Australian Customs Service, 1999) (Jakubowicz, 1999) (Wills, 2002). The program was soon having its desired effect, and numbers began to decline. While on-shore and boat arrival applicants for asylum had been held in Australian detention centres since 1992 under the Hawke/Keating government, the Howard government moved in 2001 to develop the so-called “Pacific Strategy” (or “Solution”), incarcerating intercepted asylum seekers for processing on a number of Pacific Ocean islands such as Nauru.

As the regime became more stringent and coastal patrols strengthened, the government advertised widely including in Africa, that there was a certainty of detection for unlawful entrants, and a high and expensive likelihood of return to their point of origin. A media report of the time noted: “Immigration minister Philip Ruddock believes that deporting illegal arrivals as soon as possible will help discourage smuggling. When 2,000 Africans boarding ships in Somalia for Australia learned from radio reports that the Australian government was not going to allow their entry, the passengers turned on the smugglers and the $4 million scheme was thwarted” (Anon., 1999). The tougher line also generated a wave of appeals from negative Refugee Review Tribunal decisions to the Federal Court.

One government tactic appears to have been to make the detention centres so unpleasant that only those in “real fear” of return would voluntarily remain. In September 2000 during the Olympics this policy was brought to global public attention when three Somali men reportedly requested Australian officials to send them back to Somalia, claiming “they prefer possible death and torture in Somalia to enduring the harsh conditions in Australia’s immigration detention centres.” They had been held in detention at Port Hedland in Western Australia since November 1997. “ ‘In their letter they wrote: “Because of the depression, trauma and anxiety and mental pressure, we are afraid to commit suicide or lose our mind. Therefore, we do prefer to go back to Somalia and die as innocent victims.’ An Australian church says the three have already lost members of their families to violence in Somalia and face persecution and death if they return”. (BBC online news 27 September 2000

Racist perceptions of Africans still remain and are a cause of legitimate concern for African communities and the wider society. A low level rumble of extremist opposition to black African immigration began to make its way into the public arena during the mid years of the current decade. When Macquarie Law academic Andrew Fraser engaged in a string of insulting criticisms of African immigrants on the basis of his prejudices regarding racial hierarchy, African communities became active in their own defence and in collaboration with many Australian community organisations (Queensland. Department of Communities, 2008). Fraser’s comments, that, “an expanding black population is a sure-fire recipe for increases in crime, violence and a wide range of other social problems” (Dick, 2005) were prompted by a Parramatta Sun story celebrating the success of a young Sudanese girl in becoming part of the Australian community, and her parents acceptance of the responsibilities of Australian citizenship. While Fraser ultimately apologised for his comments, there were continuing outbreaks of anti-African agitation especially in Queensland, leading to a significant government initiative focussing on enhancing self-esteem and dealing with confronting social issues (Queensland. Department of Communities, 2008).

One of the more controversial dimensions of the humanitarian scheme remains its vulnerability to political interference by the Minister of the day[m27] , the most dramatic[m28] example of which occurred in early October 2007. The then Coalition Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, publicly declared [m29] his concern about the slow integration of African humanitarian arrivals. He was particularly concerned with the apparent violent behaviour[m30] of young Sudanese men, one of whom was found dead in a Melbourne street after a bashing, a week after Andrews’ statement. His attackers, non-Africans, were charged with his murder. The victim’s mother told a crowd at his funeral that her son was not a refugee, but an Australian citizen who had arrived in 2000 (Collins, 2007). In a doorstop interview (a few weeks before the 2007 Federal election and a week before the murder) Andrews had said: “we do have a responsibility to the Australian community to ensure that when people come to Australia they’re able to adequately settle in this country. And we have detected that there have been additional challenges in relation to some of the people that have come from Africa over the last few years[m31] .” He went on to note that: “Now, there is a need obviously in Africa, and Australia has been very responsive to the need in Africa. We took the proportion of our refugee intake from, I think, about 23 per cent coming from Africa, I think, six years ago up to 33 per cent. We then took it up to, as I recall, 50 per cent. Then for two years it was 70 per cent of the total intake, it was 50 per cent last year and it’s still 30 percent, that is three out of every 10 refugee and humanitarian entrants that come to Australia this year will come from Africa” (Andrews, 2007). A month before his remarks there had been public notice of the changes in direction, without significant outcry. The orientation had already been shifted away from Africa towards new hot spots in Asia (especially Burma), though there were no moves in fact to reduce African immigration any further than had already occurred – the announced halt reflected an early filling of the annual quota.

Andrews’ comments were widely reported and may have signaled to some  (as a dog whistle does to those who can hear its frequency (Fear, 2007)) that Africans were unacceptable and dangerous – and that assaults on them could be defended as expressions of righteous nationalism.  There are other indications that Andrews’ comments had political intent on a wider scale, or at least political effect, which fitted in with government policy. Katherine Betts in her discussion of the 2007 Federal Election notes that, whereas Victoria had in 2004 and previously been 4-5% more “positive” towards immigration than the national average, in the 2007 election the support dropped back to that of other states (Betts, 2008). Andrews’ comments just before the election may well have played a part in that shift in opinion.

The Refugee Council said [m32] of the events, “The nature of the public criticism was unprecedented for an Immigration Minister in the 30 years of the Government’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program – never had a Minister been so critical of the program for which he or she was responsible. The criticism was extraordinary [m33] because the Minister did not alter the program in any way[m34] . The 2007-08 program continued to operate in the way the Minister announced in August 2007” , It was in fact a reduction from 70% of the Humanitarian intake in  2004-5, to 30% for 2007-8 The Council continued, “Mr Andrews has linked ability to settle in Australia to a person’s race, rather than his or her individual circumstances,” Mr Power said. “Such a sweeping generalisation about an entire racial or national group is unjustifiable – and far more dangerous than the Minister realises.”

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission argued at the time, “The government’s decision to cut African refugee numbers because they are not settling and adjusting to the Australian way of life is at odds with the primary concern of the Refugee Convention, that is, providing a safe haven for people who are fleeing persecution in their country of origin.” The introduction of the idea that integration capacity should be used as a filter to select refugee applicants would have produced a major change to the universal rights associated with proven refugee status. Andrews’ argument was the first fundamental challenge by the Australian government to the world community’s approach to the definition of refugee rights.

The Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy reports provide useful trends in priorities adopted by the Government and its collaborating civil society settlement organizations. In 2001-2, the IHSS assisted about 8000 people, of whom just under 2000 (25%) came from Africa. In 2002-3 the total increased to 10000, with 4000 (40% from Africa), while in 2003-4 with a total still of 10000, 6500 were from Africa (65%). Over that same period on-shore arrivals (defined as Temporary Protection Visas, Temporary Humanitarian Visas, and Permanent  Protection Visa [m35] holders) declined from 2000 (about 25%) to a bare 46 – demonstrating the dramatic impact of the Deter, Detect, Detain [m36] approach and the Pacific solution (which was still processing people held in the island detention centres).  In 2005-6 the African component began its decline, stimulated in particular by the rapid rise in refugees generated by the “coalition of the willing” attack on Iraq, and the anti-Taliban intervention in Afghanistan.

In 2006-7 the total grew to over 12,000, rising again to 13000 in 2007-8, but on-shore visas also increased as a proportion to 17%. In 2008 Africans made up about 30% of the off-shore total, a significant decline since 2004, and an indication of Andrews’ claim that an inter-departmental committee had already embedded the changes as a result of reported concerns about the numbers of Africans coming in, and the pressure from the immediate region for help in their own crises.  The publicity for Andrews’ remarks did have another effect that the Department recognised in its 2008 Annual Report. The Report noted the decline in applications, the tightening up of selection criteria, and “publicity regarding the availability of places” (Australia Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2008).

The most recent figures demonstrate the current characteristics of the African humanitarian situation as it is perceived and acted on by Australian government agencies. In general the focus on recruiting new applicants from Africa has been reduced, and resources increased in relation to settlement services. The “scare” of October 2007 seems to have done its work, which was to sufficiently alarm the Australian population that there would not be any widespread reaction against the decline in arrivals, and to warn off people in the camps in Africa from seeking refuge in Australia[m37] . (Australia Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2008) At the same time priority was increased in relation to women at risk, thus to some extent meeting any public concerns about a reduction in humanitarian compassion for the victims of African crises.

Humanitarian Program Woman at Risk grants 2007–08—top five countries of birth

DIAC Annual Report  2007-8 Fig.20[m38]

Humanitarian Program visa grants offshore—regional trend

From DIAC Annual Report 2007-8  Fig.22[m39]


Australian immigration history long handled African immigration through the lens of race, accepting “whites” and rejecting “blacks”. From the 1960s the loosening of  the White Australia Policy, while driven by priorities in Australia’s immediate region, opened up opportunities for immigration by non-Europeans from Africa. In Africa the drivers towards emigration began to explode in the aftermath of decolonisation, fed by the conflicts and instability generated by under-resourced newly-born states seeking to hold together political entities previously created by the imperial powers to suit their now superseded interests.

In addition economic under-development could not meet the needs of growing populations, and the expectations generated by the inroads of Western societies and communications. Corruption and poverty drove horrific conflicts, which wrecked the social basis of many communities and forced millions to flee. In other parts of Africa expanding education created new classes of technicians and professionals whose expectations also could not be satisfied in the contradictions of their home societies.

Many of these issues came to a head in the immigration crisis of 2006-7, where the then Federal Government’s[m40] anxiety to recruit highly skilled immigrants, especially for the burgeoning mining industry, turned it ever more away from dealing with the humanitarian problems of Africa. The then-Federal Government had long noted that the Australian population’s support for increasing immigration levels (the second half of the Howard government period saw immigration rise dramatically) was directly related to its sense that the immigrants would not threaten social cohesion, and would add to economic prosperity.  Then-Minister for Immigration’s public comments and Sudanese violence narrative of 2007 was apparently framed by the government’s apprehension about dwindling public support for the expanding immigration program, not dissimilar (though on a much smaller scale) to the “unlawful arrivals” prelude to the Pacific Solution of 2001.  In retrospect the government’s comments and action may have accelerated the decline in supportive public sentiment.

The diverse African-origin immigrants to Australia now play their roles as citizens and productive members of society. They bring human capital that has proved of immense value to Australia, adding their wealth of ideas and experience to the broad multicultural society that they have entered. While some African-born Australians still struggle with the challenges of re-orienting to a new life having been granted refugee or humanitarian status, others have found opportunities to develop their careers, create new homes and contribute to community organizations that now support more recent arrivals.

Yet as so many immigrants have found before, there are some Australians who react with anger and suspicion to cultural and physical difference, and offer violence instead of welcome. While these problems can be identified and the perpetrators dealt with by the legal processes where necessary, there still remain some fundamental structural impediments to full racial equality.  These include the Constitutional power to make laws based on race (and make them in ways which can harm members of a “race”), and the power to over-rule the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 should the Government wish.

Until these questions are ultimately resolved, possibly through a Human Rights Act that ensures cultural difference is not an acceptable basis of discrimination and persecution, the immigration program is likely to provide a continuing challenge for African immigrants.  While many African immigrants have found Australia a welcoming society, with an open opportunity structure, others have not. The door that Australia opened a generation ago to the survivors of the Somali and Ethiopian/ Eritrean tragedies has swung more widely and more narrowly as Australian political winds have blown.  Every change in the breeze has profound effects on the less powerful and more vulnerable individuals and groups.


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3 thoughts on “Australia’s migration policies: African dimensions


  2. The basis of this article is very sound and overall many White Australians in Particular will be shown a new perspective on the other side of Australians of African Origin.

    The doors must be open to all and though the Liberals and the labour Party have different policies Unlike the Conservatives of Britaian and Ireland.

    The evidence shows that Africans who migrate to Australia are contributing in many ways like Finance Entertainment Medecine Law Journalism Education Maritime Work Mechanical Engineering Civil Engineering and Electrical Engineering.

    I will say that this essay is the grandest work laid down by Mr Jakubwicz and he has arrived plainly on the Scene of endeavours and I will dash him the Noble Prize in Sociology for his amazing work of endeavour.

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