They came great distances across dangerous seas in overcrowded ships to land at various points on the coast. More than 800 boats made it during an 80-year period, each carrying fragile human cargoes.

Lack of sanitation, poor food and disease were commonplace, sexual and other forms of violence were frequent. Many of the transportees were deemed major or persistent criminals; others - - especially the women and children -- often were first offenders. Some died on the passage; some were shipwrecked and drowned. Not infrequently, the captains had learned their trade as slavers.

On arrival, relatively few of these voyagers were incarcerated: Most received “tickets of leave” to provide forced labor for free settlers or government institutions. Some resumed lives of crime in their new homeland; others prospered and became pillars of the community. By the time the boats stopped, there had been about 162,000 arrivals. These were in large part modern-day Australia’s founding fathers and mothers.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, a different kind of “boat people” began arriving on our shores, claiming asylum as non-assessed refugees under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Their numbers have fluctuated since, but as Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, often reminds us, “the boats keep coming.”

‘Pacific Solution’

Abbott, who campaigned last year on a pledge to restrict the flow of asylum seekers, argues that the “Pacific Solution” introduced by the Liberal government of Prime Minister John Howard managed to stop the boats by incarcerating “illegals” in detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and then processing them offshore.

True, the numbers have been small. In 2010, for example, 134 boats arrived, carrying a total of about 6,789 people, a manageable figure compared with the hundreds of thousands of people who illegally cross into the U.S. each year, or the millions of displaced people currently flooding into refugee camps in Pakistan and Kenya.

Many refugees come to Australia from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where Australian troops have recently been fighting. Most arrive by air with valid passports and they apply for “protection from persecution.” Our largest influxes of actual illegal residents are tourists from the U.K. and elsewhere who have overstayed their visas. Yet the false portrayal of boat people as queue jumpers, moneyed criminals, terrorists, imposters and welfare cheats continues to have currency.

‘Children Overboard’

At the same time, there is little to differentiate the government and opposition asylum policies. Both parties clearly believe that appearing soft on refugees will cost votes. Etched into the collective political mind is the saga of Prime Minister Howard and “the children overboard affair” of 2001. When the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter carrying 438 Afghans who were rescued from a sinking fishing boat, tried to enter Australian waters, Howard ordered soldiers to board the ship.

In a later incident, his claims that asylum seekers aboard a vessel threw their children into the water to ensure their rescue and entry to Australia were proved to be unsubstantiated and led to a Senate inquiry. Howard’s attempted introduction of an emergency Border Protection Bill was defeated, but the tough stance -- plus the contingent ripples of the Sept. 11 attacks -- are widely believed to have secured his re-election in 2001.

Malaysia Swap

Both major parties continue to support mandatory detention. Under Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor Party government, a rapid escalation in the number of detainees held on Australia’s Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean has led to strict new policies aimed at deterring “people smugglers” and their victims. The government recently signed an agreement to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in return for accepting a larger number of people there who qualify as assessed refugees under the UN convention.

This proposal was rejected as unlawful by the High Court on Aug. 31. Lawyers on behalf of two asylum seekers argued that since Malaysia hasn’t signed the UN refugee convention, Australia has a duty of care not to expose their clients to the risk of arbitrary punishment.

The irony of all this jockeying for the draconian high ground is that both major parties may now be out of step with the citizenry. A Nielsen Poll last month found that, though a majority still favored mandatory detention for asylum seekers, 53 percent supported the idea of processing them on Australian soil, a policy advocated only by the left-leaning Greens party.

Private Contractor

It’s difficult to know what has caused this apparent softening of public opinion. Some may have been shocked by a recent parliamentary inquiry into incidents at the Christmas Island center, administered by the international security company Serco Group Plc. Among other troubling statistics, the probe disclosed that 1,507 detainees had been hospitalized in the first six months of this year, 72 as psychiatric admissions and 213 for self-inflicted physical injuries.

Other commentators cite the emotional impact of an acclaimed TV reality show called “Go Back to Where You Came From,” featured on the multicultural television channel SBS. Six contestants, all but one with negative views of boat people, were sent to a variety of hot spots to interrogate would-be refugees and their relatives. Ratings and tweets soared when the program’s chief villain, Raquel Moore, a self-avowed African-hater from a working-class suburb, showed a touching change of heart when confronted with the anguish of a Congolese woman whose family had been subjected to rape and murder.

Shifting Opinion

Conservative critics are cynical about what they believe to be a biased and manipulative piece of television staging; and even sympathetic analysts doubt that such sudden eruptions of public empathy will translate into voting behavior. A few pollsters deny that asylum seekers are a substantive issue for any but a small hard core of Australian voters: those who want to send the boats back out to sea.

Even after the High Court’s ruling on the Malaysian plan, it is unlikely that the issue of asylum seekers will go away. Figures collected by the UN at the end of 2009 showed that about 43.3 million people across the world had been displaced by conflict and persecution.

Amid this global avalanche of pain, some compassionate Australians may perhaps remember their own ancestral good fortune in having once been transported to these shores in overcrowded boats.

(Iain McCalman, a professor of history at the University of Sydney and the author of “Darwin’s Armada,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Iain McCalman in Sydney at iain.mccalman@arts.usyd.edu.au

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net