(Note: this essay dates back to 2019 but most of it is still relevant today.)

The Australian government has made us a welcoming country to refugees (sic), having taken in over 800,000 since the end of World War II. Many of these people have successfully assimilated and become valuable citizens of the country. However, the refugee intake was initially almost all European but since the mid-1970s far fewer Europeans have been included and the majority now come from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The fortunes of the refugees have also changed with many becoming more a liability than an asset and their integration into Australian society much more problematical.


Even in colonial times, Australia took in migrants who would now be considered refugees. Among the convicts sent to Australia were Irish political prisoners who had been involved in an anti-British rebellion in 1798. In 1838 shiploads of Lutherans who claimed to be suffering religious persecution in Prussia arrived in South Australia. There was no refugee or asylum seeker policy in those days and for that matter no need for such policies.

Before World War II White Russians and East-European Jews who, in many if not most cases could be considered refugees, entered Australia although at the time we had no official refugee intake. With the rise of the NSDP in Germany and the alleged persecution of Jews and others, there was a call to allow some to take refuge in Australia. Although there is some doubt about the exact number, a fair estimate of the number of refugees admitted from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia during the 1930s was probably about 10,000. During the war more immigrants who could be considered refugees arrived including those on the ships Dunera from Britain and the Kasima Maru from Japan.

The really big intake of refugees came after World War II when the victorious Allies were faced with the problem of millions of displaced people in Europe. In 1947 Australia became a signatory to the International Refugee Organisation’s constitution although this was understood not to include any obligation to take in refugees or displaced people as immigrants. Nevertheless, in July 1947, Australia’s immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, agreed to an intake of displaced persons. In August 1949, Australia welcomed its 50,000th, and nine months later welcomed its 100,000th displaced person.

Australia at the time seems to have had a firm control over who entered the country but things were to change. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights says in Article 14 (1) “that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. In 1951 Australia signed on to the United Nations Refugee Convention which defined who qualified as a refugee although Australia has allowed people in as refugees who would not qualify under the Convention. Revisions to refugee agreements were made in the 1967 Refugee Protocol although Australia did not accede to these until December 1973 under the Whitlam Labour Government. This government also acceded to conventions dating from 1954 and 1961 dealing with stateless people.

The outcome of these agreements was that Australia was losing control over whom we could let into the country anyone who claimed to be a refugee could turn up as an asylum seeker and it could be difficult to eject them if we could not disprove their story.


From 1947 to 1954 Australia took in 170,000 displaced Eastern Europeans and in the mid-1950s and 1960s we took in thousands more Europeans due to the Hungarian uprising and the Warsaw Pact military intervention in Czechoslovakia. However apart from the late 1990s when we took in many people from the former Yugoslavia, the intake of refugees has swung from those of European to those of non-European origin. For instance, we took in over 18,000 Lebanese displaced by the civil war in that country and since the late 1970s we took in over 90,000 refugees from the Middle East and South West Asia. Since the late 1980s, they have been joined by around 70,000 from the African region. In 2014-15 the main countries of origin for our Offshore Humanitarian program were Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iraq, Congo, Syria and Somalia.

In the 1970s, as the Vietnam War drew to an end, refugees and migrants started coming from South East Asia. While the Labour government that came to power under Gough Whitlam made a big deal about ending the White Australia Policy there was less enthusiasm about bringing in refugees from Vietnam and only 1,000 were accepted in 1975. The coalition government that came to power under Malcolm Fraser however decided on a more liberal policy and by 1982 over 70,000 Indochinese refugees had been settled in Australia, relative to our population the most generous intake in the world. Surprisingly only 2059 were boat people.


During the war in Lebanon (1975-76) a group of Maronite Lebanese-Australians approached the government intending to allow Lebanese-Christians to come to Australia. The government acceded to the request and hence so-called refugees from Lebanon were allowed to come here just by stating they were fleeing the civil war and had a relative here. As it happened the government lost control of the situation, most of those who came were not Christians, many were illiterate, and people were admitted without any regard to personal qualities or their capacity for successful settlement. In 1971 there were only 3,400 Lebanese-born in Australia but a decade later there were 15,600.

Years later, Muslims, including the descendants of refugees and other migrants born in Australia were noted for poor employment outcomes and poverty. A study released in 2006 revealed that half the Lebanese Muslims in Australia, aged between 25 and 64 were out of work and the income of Lebanese Muslims was half the national average. Other nationalities with a large Muslim component also exhibit serious problems. In 2011 a report found that 94% of Afghan refugee households received Centrelink payments, as did 93% of Iraqi households.


While the media are happy to give us stories about refugee successes, problems like unemployment, crime and other anti-social behaviour would appear to be the norm, and not just among Muslims and Asian and other Middle Eastern people. Most of the Sudanese who have come to Australia are Christians from what is now the new country of South Sudan, and most came as refugees. Figures from the 2011 Census show that for people born in Australia, the unemployment rate was 5.3%, for those born overseas it was 6.5%, but for those from Sudan, it was 25.4%. The median weekly income for a person born in Australia was $597 but for those born in Sudan, it was less than half this, at $294.

A prisoner census for 2015 shows that Australia had an imprisonment rate of 196 per 100,000 adult population. For those born in Sudan, the rate jumps to 767.7 per 100,000.


Generally, unemployment rates are higher among those who came to Australia as refugees when compared to other migrants who came from the same area. Based on figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on the labour force status of those from the ten top countries by birth unemployment rates for the following refugee nationalities have been calculated. Note that these figures do not take into account participation rates which vary widely but tend to be lowest in refugees from Muslim areas.


Bosnia Herzegovina                         7.24%

Croatia                                              7.48%

Sri Lanka                                13.2%

Sierra Leone                                     15.05%

Ethiopia                                  18.39%

Myanmar                                 19.28%

Iraq                                          23.00%

Iran                                         24.10%

Afghanistan                             24.20%

Sudan                                                28.60%

Of a total of 109,867 refugees, 44,419 were considered to be in the workforce of which 9,551, or 21.50% were unemployed. Those not in the workforce were 61,762.


While the number of people arriving from Indochina fell, the problem of boat people—those unauthorised who tried to jump the queue and enter Australia by boat and claim asylum—tended to rise. The coalition government under John Howard did make some attempt to stem the flow but when a Labor government under Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007 these efforts were largely unravelled. A consequence of this was the large number of illegals, thought to be 1,200, who drowned when unseaworthy boats sank.

When a coalition government, this time under Tony Abbott, came to power in 2013 a ‘stop the boats’ policy was effected and seems to be largely successful in that shortly the arrival of illegals on our shores virtually stopped. While lives were no doubt saved the financial cost of these policies was enormous. One estimate of the price of stopping the boats from 2013 to 2016 was $9.6 billion and another $5.7 billion over the next four years. The cost of keeping just one asylum seeker on Manus Island or Nauru was said to be $400,000 in 2016 and at the time there were 2,000 of them.


Most migrants must reside in Australia for two years before they can access welfare benefits but anyone given a refugee visa is entitled to benefits as soon as they arrive here. Those who arrived on refugee or humanitarian visas can immediately access Austudy, Carer Payment, Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, Newstart, now known as Jobseeker (i.e., unemployment) Allowance, Sickness Allowance and Youth Allowance. The Australian Government also helps refugees through the Humanitarian Settlement Services program which helps out with on-arrival reception, orientation, providing information and referral to agencies, and assistance with locating short-term and long-term accommodation.


As if we don’t have enough problems already the government increased our refugee intake. In the financial year 2016-17, a minimum of 13,750 places was set but this increased to a minimum of 18,750 places in 2018-19.


Australia’s refugee program is already causing serious financial and social problems. It involves the expenditure of billions of dollars that could be better spent on roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. The days when easily assimilated Europeans dominated our refugee intake are long gone. What we have now are too many from cultural backgrounds that are vastly different from the mainstream Australian culture and this makes it more difficult for them to be integrated. To make things worse the intelligence level in many of the source countries, as measured by national IQ, is much lower than that of white Australians. For instance, the mean IQ in Iraq is about 87, in Syria it is 83 and in Sudan it is 77.5. This will add to the problems like crime, poor employability and social integration.

We live in an unstable world and with poverty, corruption and high birth rates in the most backward nations of the world, things are likely to get much worse. The number of refugees, those genuinely oppressed and economic refugees, will almost certainly increase. If Australia continues with its current policies, we will have increasing problems with poorly adaptable minorities who need expensive support and who will make a minimal contribution to society.

What to do? Firstly, Australia must withdraw from any treaties such as the UN Refugee Convention which force us to at least look at the claims for asylum of anyone arriving on our shores and claiming to be a refugee. These treaties are an affront to national sovereignty and have cost lives as well as billions of dollars. We could, if we like, still have a humanitarian program, although if we want to avoid serious social and financial problems the numbers should be very restricted.

Loyal Australians must look seriously at these problems.

Postscript: More recent figures, from 2020, show that 77% of refugees remain unemployed 12 months after they arrive in Australia. After three years it was 38% and after a decade it was 22%.