Two new faculty projects on immigration granted by the Australian Research Council

6 July 2012

Academics from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences received funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) this week for projects on immigration and asylum worth a combined total of $1,120,000.

At a time when refugee issues are dominating the daily headlines in Australia, there is a need for further understanding of the complexity and history behind immigration in this country and abroad. The projects will ask what can early inscriptions of immigrants to Australia tell us about the history of quarantine in this country? And how do national government approaches to asylum seekers vary among nations, and what is the 'right' way to handle these applications?

A research project titled 'The archaeology and history of quarantine' received the largest linkage grant awarded to the University of Sydney this round, at $820,000.

The three-year project is a collaboration between Professor Alison Bashford (History) and Dr Annie Clarke (Archaeology), and partner organization the Mawland Quarantine Station Pty Ltd. The station, in Manly's North Head, holds around 1,200 inscriptions made by immigrants to Australia between 1835 to the 1970s.

Mawland Quarantine Station in Manly
A tiki inscription at the Mawland Quarantine Station in Manly.
Photographer Ursula Frederick

Many immigrants were quarantined at Mawland due to diseases like the plague, tuberculosis and dengue fever, and as a result many didn't make it out alive. But the inscriptions ensured that their history be made between would survive, a history that Dr. Annie Clarke believes says a lot about immigration.

"We plan to link the true stories of all the men, women and children inscribed in stone to the history of immigration and quarantine both nationally and internationally", she says.

Comparisons will the findings at the Mawland Quarantine Station and similar facilities on Angel Island in San Francisco, Ellis Island in New York, and Grose Ile on the coast of Montreal, that Dr Clarke believes will "uncover stories about people, place and passage that link Sydney to the global network of immigration and quarantine".

The inscriptions that Dr. Clarke and Professor Bashford will study hold both a record of the people that landed here and the ships that they arrived on. The engravings are in a wide variety of languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Greek, Hebrew and English, which paints a different view of early migration in Australia to what is commonly thought of.

" We hope to make public just how early the multi-cultural history of immigration is in Australia", says Dr. Clarke.

The second ARC grant received is titled 'Comparing immigration policy in the "group of five": developing an evidence base for evaluating the role of policy in international migration'. The project, which will be undertaken by Chief Investigators Dr Anna Boucher (Government and International Relations) and Stephen Castles (Sociology) with Professor Mary Crock (Law), received $320,000.

As Stephen Castles explains, "At present national policies on how best to handle asylum applications vary considerably, and there is no comparative analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the various approaches. Our research will lead to the compilation of a global database, which will allow us to identify best practice, and make recommendations to the Australian and other governments about how to improve asylum processes."

Mr Castles believes that each government develops asylum policies based on their own situations rather than looking at the broader international context, and that this results in "confusion and even desperation on the part of asylum seekers".

"We also expect to uncover instances of policy failure, where government measures prove hard to implement in practice." This can be seen in the recent parliamentary disagreements over what asylum policy to adapt in Australia.

The three year project is a partnership with Harvard University, The London School of Economics and Political Science, Department if Immigration and Citizenship, and Migration Institute of Australia.

Both recipient groups believe that ARC research projects are extremely valuable.

"The benefit of an ARC Linkage Grant is that we will be working with practitioners who have to use the findings of the research for their own work. This ensures that the project will address real-world questions and that the findings will be tested in future practice," said Mr Castles.

Dr. Annie Clarke adds, "ARC grants are essential. The linkages allow us to work beyond the walls of the academy and bring our humanities research to wider audiences".

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