The history of Australian refugee policy has been shaped by the political priorities of successive national governments, developments in international refugee law and the evolving nature of forced migration around the world. This project examines Australia’s response to asylum seekers and refugees over the past four decades, including mechanisms for refugee status determination and humanitarian resettlement. 

The development of Australian refugee policy (Dr Claire Higgins)

In 1976, refugees from Vietnam sailed into Darwin Harbour, beginning the first sustained arrival of asylum seekers by boat to Australia. Their journeys inadvertently challenged the Fraser government to reject now-familiar policies such as turnbacks and detention, and to establish a formal procedure for refugee status determination. Drawing on archival records, oral history interviews and analysis of contemporary policy, this project traces how Australia originally responded to asylum seekers, and how over time a principled position was eroded by political exigencies, leading to today’s dramatically different approach to asylum seekers.

C. Higgins, Asylum by Boat: origins of Australia’s refugee policy, NewSouth (2017)
C. Higgins, ‘The (Un-)sustainability of Australia’s offshore processing and settlement policy’, V. Moreno-Lax and E. Papastravridis (eds.), Boat Refugees and Migrants at Sea: A Comprehensive Approach Integrating Maritime Security with Human Rights, Brill Publishing (2016) 303-326.

C. Higgins, ‘Status determination of Indochinese boat arrivals: a ‘balancing act’ in Australia’, Journal of Refugee Studies 30(1), 2017, 89-105


C. Higgins, ‘Australia’s little-known in-country programme in Latin America’, Refugee Survey Quarterly, 33(1), 2014, 8-2


Video: Asylum By Boat - Book launch with Dr Claire Higgins and journalist David Marr



The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.