Monash University

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The Australian special humanitarian program for the entry of Soviet Jews and Australian offshore refugee policy: 1972-1980

posted on 2017-01-30, 23:15 authored by Taft, Jessica Ruth
This thesis is a critical inquiry into the history of Australia’s Special Humanitarian Program (1980), and the implications of the development of the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) for Australia’s offshore refugee policy. This thesis investigates why the SHP was created, how the SHP was developed, and its historical significance for Australian refugee policy. The SHP was conceived in 1980 as a policy solution to facilitate the entry and resettlement of Jews from the Soviet Union. It was expanded into a Global SHP program in 1981 for all minorities overseas who were escaping human rights abuses in their home countries and had a connection to Australia. Critically, the SHP was for people in humanitarian need who were not classified as refugees under international law for technical legal reasons. They were de facto refugees: refugees in fact and circumstances but not in legal status. This thesis argues that the SHP was a substantial addition to and expansion of Australia’s offshore refugee policy and of Australia’s protection of de facto refugees. This thesis will show that the SHP was a concept of humanitarian entry that was substantially similar to Australia’s refugee entry even though the SHP formally appeared to have different processing requirements to the refugee program. Australia was not and is not legally obliged to admit into Australia refugees who are overseas, and moreover is not bound to admit people overseas who are de facto refugees. Australia did so and acted above its legal obligations, this thesis explains, largely in response to diplomatic pressures on handling Soviet Jewish migration and interdependence with US policy. Australia also was influenced by a strong ideological imperative on international human rights that galvanised in the 1970s; human rights discourses drove Australia to act consistently with international rights to freedom of movement and to protection. This thesis makes a related argument that international human rights generated compelling duties and obligations on Australia, through political pressure, to admit refugees and de facto refugees and create responsive entry policies. The SHP is an area of Australian refugee policy that has not received scholarly attention in either legal or historical disciplines. Moreover, there is no detailed history of the development of SHP as the de facto refugee component of Australia’s overseas humanitarian intake. This thesis addresses a gap in legal scholarship on the development of Australian refugee law and policy, and in historical scholarship on immigration and refugee policy. It also extends knowledge on Soviet Jewish immigration in the field of Australian Jewish history. The thesis is informed by legal examination of international law and practice with respect to refugees. The thesis is primarily based on archival research in the Australian government archives. It also utilises Hansard parliamentary debates, Jewish organisational papers, US Presidential and organisational archives from New York, Australian and US newspapers, Australian demographic data, and some interviews. 

Awards: Winner of the Mollie Holman Doctoral Medal for Excellence, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, 2014.


Principal supervisor

Andrew Barry Markus

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts