‘Unwanted Australians’ Call for Official Acknowledgment

Migrants were treated as potential threats to Australia’s national security/Photo: SBS
‘Unwanted Australians’ Call for Official Acknowledgment
A group of elderly migrants is calling for official acknowledgment that they were unfairly treated by past governments after being refused citizenship on political grounds.

Waiting 43 years to gain Australian naturalization or being a “permanent resident” unable to temporarily leave the country for decades because you can’t get a re-entry visa to come back to your Australian family.

These are two cases of how authorities have dealt with migrants to Australia, uncovered in a major investigation by SBS.

Cancellation or denial of citizenship and passports, deportation, detention or restricted movements—they’re all measures taken or proposals put forward in Australia to deal with security suspects in the early 21st Century.

But the SBS investigation has revealed they’ve all been tried before—against migrants to Australia—not because of terrorism concerns, but because of their known or suspected political beliefs, mostly as Communists.

The SBS investigation shows that groups of migrants were treated as potential threats to Australia’s national security from the very beginning of the post-war migration program, which coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the Cold War.

SBS’ examination of thousands of pages of previously classified material now held by the National Archives of Australia has found that hundreds of people were given negative security records and subsequently refused citizenship, some for decades.

Most of those SBS has spoken to were first adversely recorded by ASIO and the Immigration Department not long after arriving in Australia, still aged in their early 20s.

They had joined politically active migrant groups, had links to the Communist Party of Australia, visited community clubs with connections to Communist countries abroad, or had become involved with trade unions with left-wing leaders.

None of the pages from Immigration Department and ASIO files mentions any official concerns about any criminal behavior, purely objection to the perceived political beliefs of individuals.

The investigation has shown official treatment of the “Unwanted Australians” has had extensive and in many cases severe detrimental effects on them.

Besides denial of citizenship and its associated rights, other effects have included job losses, inability to travel outside Australia even during family emergencies, relationship break-ups, family disputes, and social exclusion or ostracisation.

Their phones have been tapped, their social gatherings recorded and photographed, their mail censored, their bank account transactions inspected, their magazine and newspaper reading habits monitored and manipulated.

Individual migrants, refugees, and often whole community groups have been subjected to a huge network of surveillance involving ASIO, state police special branches, and Immigration Department officials—often using paid and unpaid informants within communities.

Information on individuals and their friends, families and associates in Australia has been obtained and traded with foreign intelligence agencies, with unknown consequences for those with families still living overseas.

Starting from a time when Communists were still being executed after a bitter civil war, Australia was feeding right-wing Greek governments with information about “troublesome” Greeks in Australia with known or suspected Communist links.

In the case of Italy in 1957, a declassified Immigration Department report show Australian Immigration staff overseas knew it was contrary to the country’s Constitution for government officials to share political information about their nationals with representatives of foreign governments, but still made arrangements with the Ministry of Interior officials to secure security details of prospective migrants.

“I’m not able to confirm that those things were in most cases at least intended as punitive, but that was their impact,” says Ian Cunliffe, the only lawyer on the Hope Royal Commission, which in the 1970s examined the work of ASIO since its creation in 1949.

‘Unwanted Australians’

The man thought to have waited the longest to become an Australian citizen was Steve Pappas. A migrant from Greece he first applied for Australian naturalisation in 1929, but was not approved until 43 years later. He’d worked and paid taxes for most of his life in Australia, and by then, was a 72-year-old who should have been on the pension.

“We were told we were coming to a free country,” Giovanni Sgro, from Italy, told SBS.

He had to cancel a trip to go and visit his dying mother in his homeland because he couldn’t get a re-entry permit. And he had to wait more than 20 years for citizenship, before going on to become a state Labor politician in Victoria.

Demetrius “Jimmy” Anastassiou from Cyprus, a trade union activist, managed to slip back into Australia unnoticed, despite an order banning his re-entry, and then faced a government bid to deport him. He also had to wait many years for his citizenship to be granted.

“It absolutely astounds me that the government went to so much trouble to keep one man out of the country,” says his daughter Marilena Anastassiou, “that he should engender such a degree of animosity and desire to get rid of him actually defies logic in many respects.”

Italian cane cutter and protest leader Gioacchino Saffigna almost had his citizenship taken away. In 1952 the Immigration Department sought legal advice on cancelling his citizenship and deporting him, but was told his activities had not been illegal.

Greek industrial chemist Denis Skiotis waited two decades to become an Australian citizen. He has long claimed that refusals of naturalization had a devastating impact on migrant communities, including discouraging members from participating in Australian political life. Back home in Greece his mother was questioned by police about his activities in Australia.

“My mother was bothered by the cops calling her a few times,” he told SBS. “‘What’s this about your son? What’s he doing over there?’”

George Zangalis from Greece became probably the best known of the “Unwanted Australians” and, perhaps, the most prominent migrant member of the Communist Party. His security records branded him “undesirable” and a “menace to society”.

One of his files describes him as the leading spirit and secretary of the pro-Communist Democritus League, a man “of extreme political opinions and activities”.

Another states: “From the security point of view, the subject can undoubtedly be classed as an undesirable alien,” and “it is accordingly suggested that he be recommended for deportation.”

Anti-Franco activist Claudio Villegas from Spain was warned by fellow migrants not to become politically active if he wanted to be naturalized. He disregarded the warning and, to this day, the Immigration Department is still refusing to declassify a file dealing with his naturalization requests.

“They said to me, ‘Claude, have you become an Australian citizen?’” he told SBS.

“No, no, no. ‘Do you know maybe they will refuse you?’”

Severyn Pejsachowicz, a Polish-born Jew whose first wife and child were killed in Nazi German internment in the Soviet Union, was denied citizenship and listed for potential internment himself in Australia.

Born in the Greek community in Sudan, George Sarantis was deprived of some of the benefits enjoyed by other war veterans despite having fought with the Allied Forces during WW2. Never actually a member of the Communist Party, at one point he and his Australian wife and daughters almost gave up hope of him becoming an Australian citizen. Now deceased, throughout his life he carried the pain of being refused naturalization for so long.

“No explanation. No matter what you did, they never told you why. I said, ‘Why? What’s the reason?’ It was legal for the government not to give you any reasons. So, I never got any reasons why.”

Former Chinese seaman Boon Juat Lee served in both the Australian and U.S. armies in Australia in WW2 and was given Australian residency—but he was refused citizenship despite having an Australian-born wife and two Australian-born children. He was also initially refused a re-entry permit, and when he was finally able to visit, just missed seeing his mother before she died.

“That was the beginning of three days of mourning,” remembers his daughter Marlene Lee, “It was so hard because my Dad had all of these gifts for his mother that he hadn’t seen for 40 years.”

Egyptian-born Greek Stella Voyazopoulos became one of the few leading migrant women activists in Sydney during the 1960s. Her health deteriorated as she submitted one citizenship application after another, eventually successfully pleading in 1973 to the new Labor government to “end the discrimination” against her.

“The police presence was always very strong and they always tried to intimidate the people. Stella always replied, ‘Leave us alone, we have the right to be here,’” recalls trade unionist Steve Mavrantonis, a fellow member of the Atlas Greek Workers Club in Sydney.

Dutchman Johannes Vorstman tried to get the United Nations to launch a breach of human rights investigation into Australia over its decision to deny his citizenship application. He also claimed to have been told his application would be treated more favourably if he agreed to be an ASIO informer.

“That’s the proposition they put to me, if I wanted to become an Australian citizen they would like in return that I help them expose trade union and Communist Party members,” he asserts.

The ‘Special Alien Index’

The investigation by SBS has shown that these and many other “Unwanted Australians” were all on a secret index of migrants that contained thousands of names as it was maintained for years.

Those on the list—who faced potential internment or other restrictions should an emergency arise—included many migrants and refugees recently lured to Australia by promises of a safe, new life away from war-torn Europe.

The Special Alien Index, as it came to be known, was maintained in great secrecy well into the 1970s, with evidence showing it caused strain on the Immigration Department and, at times, tension between ASIO and senior Immigration figures.

At what’s thought to be its peak, declassified ASIO documents reveal, it contained over 16,500 names, including British subjects—more people than Australia had interned during both World Wars.

A high proportion of the names on the secret index were of people believed to be at least supportive of Communism.

Some were openly CPA members, it being a perfectly legal activity—endorsed by the Australian people when they rejected a federal government bid to ban the party at a referendum in 1951.

The SBS investigation details how for decades after the referendum, both ASIO and the Immigration Department vigorously sought out any information that linked migrants to the CPA. And this information could, and often was, then used against them.

Category “C” was reserved for people who had migrated to Australia from non-enemy states but had been adversely recorded on security grounds—the “Unwanted Australians”.

Declassified correspondence reveals ASIO Director General Charles Spry admitted some years after the index was created that it had been the policy to include in this section “aliens with comparatively slight traces”.

‘A Broader Question of National Reconciliation’

The denial of citizenship and other official measures were seen by many of the “Unwanted Australians” that SBS has spoken to not just as a response to their political leanings, but also as an attempt to curb their activism.

Some were at the forefront in battles for better treatment of migrants—particularly improved working conditions—and took part in rallies, for example, against military rule in Greece, and in favour of self-determination for Cyprus.

Others publicly opposed an Australian government move to include non-citizens among the young men being conscripted into the military to fight in the Vietnam War.

Even those “Unwanted Australians” who had a public profile were often unaware of the full extent of the measures taken against them—indeed some still have closed files—and few have ever spoken publicly of their negative experiences.

And even today, there is deep bitterness among some of them about the way the way they were treated.

Material uncovered by the SBS investigation also reveals how questions have been raised in the past over the legal validity on which citizenship was denied to the “Unwanted Australians”.

The Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security in the early 1970s wanted to know what criteria the Immigration Minister had been using to reject citizenship applications on security grounds.

After considerable dithering, declassified correspondence reveals, the Immigration Department admitted that a document from a senior legal officer was the only written legal opinion supporting the validity of the Ministerial discretionary power being exercised over security cases under the Citizenship Act.

One recommendation from Commissioner Justice Robert Hope adopted by the federal government was for tribunals that could hear security appeals in future cases, including the rejection of citizenship on security grounds.

Another recommendation, not adopted, was for the federal government to consider compensation for individuals found to have been particularly wronged.

Former Labor Attorney-General Kep Enderby told SBS before his death in 2015: “ That’s one of the jobs the Hope Royal Commission was given; to improve ASIO, create a system of appeals for not only Australian-born citizens, but also for migrants, and with retrospectivity.”

Despite Justice Hope’s recommendation, the appeals tribunal was not allowed to examine security cases dating back to ASIO’s foundation in 1949.

Most of the now elderly migrants who SBS spoke to and who were “Unwanted Australians” would at least like an official apology, if not compensation, from the federal government.

“It’s the least they can do,” declares Costa Rorris. “When I have to tell my children or grandchildren that story, and I haven’t told them, I feel ashamed.”

The Sydneysider was forced out of the public service because of an adverse security record, which he attributes to trade-union involvement in his youth.

“An apology would mean a restitution for an injustice that was done under difficult circumstances.”

Some who’ve known them want their history to be rewritten.

Marilena Anastassiou would like to see her father and his contemporaries remembered for their contributions to Australia: “As opposed to being portrayed as the agitators and the troublemakers and the people who need to be deported, to be promoted in the sense that they were people who were fighting for rights, for justice, and equality amongst workers.”

Some, like Johannes Vorstman, want an official inquiry into the way the “Unwanted Australians” were treated.

“They should make a statement in parliament that those sort of things happened in the past and to make sure this will never happen again,” he says.

And there’s some support among human rights lawyers and academics for that idea. Prof. Kim Rubenstein of the Centre for International and Public Law at the Australian National University asserts that the “Unwanted Australians” are “not unlike questions to do with the Stolen Generations.”

“Or wrongs,” she says “that have been done as a society because of the culture and the historical values of that period that we recognize clearly as being anti-democratic or illiberal in ways that are not consistent with rule of law principles that we so cherish”.

“They are broader questions of national reconciliation, reconciliation with wrongs that have been done in the past.”

Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby, who recently chaired a U.N. investigation into human rights abuses in North Korea, argues the issues raised in the SBS investigation have relevance “to important past and contemporary political, legal and social questions in Australia”.

He states: “I hope that before this story is over we get in a state in Australia that we find it in ourselves big enough to acknowledge that wrongs were done and to have it expressed in our national parliament that we regret that was so.”

“It is a just multicultural society that acknowledges where we’ve gone wrong in the past, puts them on the table and turns them around, and expresses regret for what happened and does so in a very public and formal way.”

And there are fears too, that the kind of treatment that the “Unwanted Australians” experienced isn’t necessarily confined to history.

Some who are acquainted with the work of security agencies see uncomfortable parallels with the past as Australia introduces ever-tougher measures to deal with perceived terrorism threats, and there’s talk again of cancellation or denial of citizenship, and deportations of “undesirables.”

Joe Caputo, who leads the main group representing migrant and refugee communities, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, says: “What concerns me is that they might still be doing these things to a lot of new and emerging communities now under this guise of terrorism.”

Without adequate safeguards, they believe, there’s a danger Australia could end up having more long-term negative effects on innocent individuals who just dare to think differently from most.

“There does need to be a continuing focus to make sure that we don’t again fall into the sloppy and biased ways that were followed in ASIO in the 50s, 60s and 70s,” argues lawyer Ian Cunliffe.

“I do have concerns that the political rhetoric puts all of the focus on some particular groups of people and seems likely to ignore other people who are also causing trouble.”

And to others, it’s a case of hoping that current-day governments will be prepared to learn from the past.

“People coming to a new country need encouragement to be able to participate in the life of the country, not to fear that participation is counter-productive, not to have two standards of citizenship, one for those born here and another one for those coming from overseas,” says George Zangalis.


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