A known but little-discussed part of the history of Chinese Australians is the entry of people on false papers or using assumed identities. Both those within the community and those of us researching the history know examples of families where this happened, but it’s only in rare cases that it is discusssed openly.
It came up during one of the sessions at the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide earlier this year and these discussions started me thinking—particularly after having just been to North America where the history of ‘paper sons’ is a well-acknowledged part of the story. In contrast to Australia, the USA and Canada addressed the issue in the 1960s by offering amnesty periods that allowed paper sons and daughters to legitimate their entry without fear of deportation or criminal charges.
So then, what is the legal situation today of Chinese people who entered Australia on false papers in the first half of the 20th century? If their stories were told, would the authorities take action against them?
In July 2012, I wrote to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, to find out.
Here is part of the response I received from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship:
Australia’s citizenship and migration legislation has been amended numerous times since federation, as immigration policies, immigrant source countries, settlement philosophies and notions of national identity have changed. These amendments have been enacted to remove past anomalies and discrimination.
It is difficult to comment about the legal position of people entering Australia using assumed identities before 1950 and their descendents as each person’s situation/circumstance can differ. Despite this, it is likely that these people are either Australian citizens or permanent residents under ‘absorbed persons’ provisions in the Migration Act 1958. As it has been more than 60 years since these events and given the likelihood that these people are Australian citizens or permanent residents, it would not appear to be in the public interest to actively pursue these people regarding their immigration status.
Should any members of the community require specific immigration advice, I encourage them to seek the services of a registered migration agent … If they consider that they may be an Australian citizen and wish to seek confirmation, they may apply for evidence of citizenship.
Here are copies of my letter and the department’s response: