MANY of the far-right political parties in Europe that are riding a wave of misguided anti-refugee sentiment are inclined to view Australia as a role model. They look across the sea and fawn upon a nation whose navy turns back rickety vessels overflowing with desperate asylum-seekers. They see a nation that has decreed that no one who reaches its shores by boat will ever find refuge in a country whose national anthem declares: “For those who’ve come across the seas/ We’ve boundless plains to share.”
Those boundless plains are still there, but Australia has become far more circumspect about sharing them. Once upon a time, colonial Australia was a repository for convicted criminals from Britain. After it became an ostensibly independent country at the turn of the 20th century, it instituted a White Australia policy that remained in place until 50 years ago.
Since then it has absorbed a great many immigrants of various origins. The first to be described as boat people were probably the Vietnamese fleeing the communist-led reunification of their country in the 1970s. In recent decades, Islam has replaced communism as a major concern for many. Yet beleaguered asylum-seekers from Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq tend to be frowned upon as if they were invaders rather than refugees.