Aliens, asylum seekers and human rights 115 years on

Aug 9, 2021

The Australian Government “Public Sector Guidance Sheet” concerning the “Expulsion of Aliens” proudly notes that “Australia is a party to seven core international human rights treaties.”  But when John Howard famously said, in his 1999 election speech, that “…we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” what he was really saying was “We will decide who is entitled to Human Rights.” Apparently being human is not a sufficient qualification.

In 1905 Edgar Wallace published “The Four Just Men”, a story about a group of international vigilantes who were threatening the British Foreign Affairs Minister over a proposed bill.

That bill was The Alien Extradition Bill. In Wallace’s words the bill was “calculated to hand over to a corrupt and vengeful Government men who now in England find an asylum from the persecutions of despots and tyrants.” The following is part of an abstract summarising Britain’s 1905 Aliens Act. Note the spin that coined the overall catchphrase “undesirable immigrants”. What is “undesirable”? What is a “human right”?

“From the 1880s, states … began introducing laws to regulate the entry of newly defined ‘undesirable immigrants.’ This was a trend that intensified exclusionary powers originally passed in the 1850s to regulate Chinese migration, initially in the context of the gold rushes in California and the self-governing colony of Victoria in Australia… .Britain followed this legal trend with the introduction of the 1905 Aliens Act, although it was a latecomer when situated in the global context, and certainly within the context of its own Empire. The Aliens Act was passed in response to the persecution of Eastern European Jews and their forced migration, mainly from the Russian Empire into Britain. It defined for the first time in British law the notion of the ‘undesirable immigrant,’ criteria to exclude would-be immigrants, and exemptions from those exclusions. The Aliens Act has been analysed by historians and legal scholars as an aspect of the history of British immigration law on the one hand, and of British Jewry and British anti-Semitism on the other. Exclusion based on ethnic and religious grounds has dominated both analyses. Thus, the Act has been framed as the major antecedent to Britain’s more substantial and enduring legislative moves in the 1960s to restrict entry, regulate borders, and nominate and identify ‘undesirable’ entrants effectively (if not explicitly) on racial grounds.”

So now, Dutton and Morrison.

Haven’t we come a long way in 115 years?

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