Below are the biographical note, and abstract and introductory paragraphs of the contribution by Professor Kim Rubinstein and Jacqueline Field to the Australia21 publication Refugees and asylum seekers: finding a better way.
Who we are not is not who we are: Moving on from Australia’s exclusionary approach to citizenship
Kim Rubinstein and Jacqueline Field
Kim Rubinstein is Professor and Director of the Centre for International and Public Law at the Australian National University. She is an acknowledged expert on citizenship law. Jacqueline Field has been working with Professor Rubinstein on the Australian Research Council project: Small Mercies, Big Futures (ARC Linkage LP100200596) since 2012. She is currently based in Singapore, with an NGO that advocates migrant workers’ rights.
Contemporary Governments’ treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is symptomatic of an enduring focus on excluding outsiders in immigration and citizenship policy. Australia’s constitutional history illustrates that the process of defining the nation itself was grounded ina social and political climate of racism and exclusion. It is significant that in the years since Federation, immigration and citizenship legislation in Australia has largely been based on the Commonwealth’s power to make laws for ‘naturalisation and aliens’. The distinction between citizens and aliens is the foundation of Australian immigration law, which has led to the use of Australian citizenship as a political device of exclusion. But we, as Australians, should not let our history define us. We can engage with the question of what it means to be Australian. We can seek to address the missed opportunities of the past, and reclaim the politicised debates in the refugee and asylum seeker context.
In 2013, both major Australian political parties took radical steps to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from reaching and remaining on Australia’s shores. The treatment of asylum seekers and refugees by current Governments is symptomatic of an enduring focus on excluding outsiders in immigration and citizenship policy. Since the creation of Australia as a Federation, the exclusion of outsiders has been a fundamental policy attitude. This exclusionary focus is grounded in an Australian Constitution that defines its members not by who they are, but rather by who they are not. It reflects a history of Australian citizenship law that has created a community defined by those it excludes. From a constitutional and legal point of view, Australia has never really come to terms with who its members are. In order to move the discourse on asylum-seekers and refugees away from one of exclusion, we as Australian citizens must depart from our historical fixation on who we are not, and seek to define what it means to belong to the Australian community.
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