Malcolm Fraser’s refugee policy: no model for today

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s policy of processing the wave of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s has drawn much praise recently, but it is nothing to aspire to, explains Hal Hewson

Refugee rights advocates have countered Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott’s attempts to justify offshore processing by championing a genuine “regional solution”. This would be based on Australia processing and resettling larger numbers of refugees directly from Indonesia and Malaysia. Giving people a real hope of resettlement, instead of forcing them to get on a boat to get here, could reduce the need for dangerous boat journeys. But there is confusion as to what a “regional solution” should look like and how it can be achieved.

Some refugee supporters, the Centre for Policy Development’s John Menadue in particular, see the solution developed by the Fraser government to deal with the Vietnamese refugee crisis of the late 1970s as a model.

Greens’ refugee spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young stated recently that, “By increasing the number of refugees Australia accepts and working with the United Nations and our neighbouring countries, we can prevent asylum seekers from feeling so desperate they risk boarding a boat. Experts know this works because it’s what Australia and other nations did after the Vietnam war.”

Fraser’s era is often held up as a time when both political parties were able to put political games aside and uphold humanitarian principles. Academic Robert Manne declared the Fraser years as “the halcyon era of Australian refugee policy”

This is a part of the widespread misconception that under Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal government of 1975 to 1983, Australia had a humane refugee policy. But a closer examination of Fraser’s version of a “regional solution” shows that, like today, his government was focused on “stopping the boats”.

Under Fraser the annual intake of refugees reached 22,500 in one year—almost double the paltry 13,750 of today.

Yet it was the Fraser government began the false divide between the “unauthorised” arrivals of asylum seekers by boat and “legitimate” refugees in overseas camps. This fact is often obscured when people recall this era; for example high profile lawyer and refugee supporter Julian Burnside recently claimed that Malcolm Fraser had resettled 25,000 “boat people” a year. It was soon pointed out that almost all of these people were in fact selected from camps. Asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat were still the target of hysteria and discrimination.

The end of the Vietnam War with the fall of Saigon in April 1975 triggered a wave of refugees, with over one million people fleeing the country in the following years. Australia became a country of first refuge in 1976 as small numbers of refugees from Vietnam arrived by boat. They did not face detention, but were initially just referred to charities for assistance while their claims were assessed. Later boat arrivals were housed in migrant hostels.

A total of 53 refugee boats had arrived in Australia by 1981. But they brought a total of only around 2100 people.

Most of the Vietnamese refugees remained in camps in Malaysia and Thailand. Prior to 1978, the government refused to accept more than a few thousand refugees a year from the camps. Their distance allowed the state to control exactly who would arrive, allowing them to keep the number of people to a minimum. They could do this and still maintain they were honouring international treaties, although they were increasingly criticised internationally for not taking their share.

Crisis and solution

In 1978 the number of refugees arriving in Australia on boats began to shoot up, along with the blood pressure of many politicians in Canberra. About 1400 arrived by boat between July 1977 and June 1978.

That same year five large freighters carrying refugees from Vietnam arrived in Southeast Asia. Each one carried around 1500 asylum seekers, sending local governments into a fury. Many of them were Chinese-Vietnamese, who had left Vietnam in response to government actions prior to China’s war with Vietnam in 1979.

Fraser’s then immigration minister, Michael MacKellar, flatly refused to recognise the passengers as refugees, worrying that such boats were capable of bringing large numbers of “unauthorised” refugees to Australia.

This was despite the provisions in the Refugee Convention and despite a direct appeal from the UNHCR and the US. In January 1979 the Australian government announced that it “would deny entry to any passengers on such ships”. It declared its intention to “legislate to introduce severe penalties for those who profiteered by bringing people into Australia without prior authority”.

Some of the political rhetoric used at the time is very similar to today’s hysteria against people smugglers. Organisers of these vessels were termed “entrepreneurs of evil” and these large-scale refugee operations were said to be, “organised by unscrupulous traders in human suffering and misery”. They were in fact organised by the government of Vietnam, which was keen to be rid of certain people seen as hostile to the new Communist government. For a price, people who didn’t like the new regime were helped to leave.

The Australian government’s solution was to create “regional boat holding arrangements” with Malaysia and Indonesia. In return for Australia taking larger numbers of refugees from the camps, Malaysia and Indonesia would prevent boats leaving for Australia.

But the numbers Australia was willing to resettle were still meagre: only 9000 a year, while an estimated 373,000 were languishing in Southeast Asian camps. And as noted by historian Nancy Viviani, Australia would, “choose refugees who best fitted migration rather than humanitarian entry criteria”, hand picking who they would accept.

Preventing boat departures was a key plank of the comprehensive “regional solution” implemented following an international conference in July 1979, which secured pledges to resettle refugees from countries including the US, UK, France and Canada. Indonesia and the Philippines agreed to establish regional processing centres and the Australian government lifted its annual resettlement quota for Indochinese refugees to 14,000 between 1978 and 1982.

But alongside this was Fraser’s determination to “stop the boats”. The government even sent immigration officials to sabotage the boats bringing asylum seekers so they could not undertake a voyage to Australia.

In the documentary Admission Impossible Greg Humphries, an Immigration Department official, recounts how he was sent to Malaysia for this purpose and gives an account of their methods: “We bored holes in the bottom of the ships, of the boats, and they sank overnight, so they had to be landed. And we were very successful in stopping many of the boats, by one way or another.”

‘Queue jumping’

Fraser spoke of the country as having a front and back door. Refugees who waited in camps were coming in the front door, while the boat arrivals were coming through the back. His view was that the “solution to people coming in the back door was to open the front door wider”. In other words those arriving by boat were “bad” refugees and a problem that needed to be dealt with.

This position marked a continuity with the Immigration Department’s early objections to the Refugee Convention. When Australia signed the Convention in 1954, the department immediately voiced concerns. Of particular concern was Article 31, which stated that refugees should not be punished or discriminated against based on their mode of arrival in a country—for instance by boat, without prior approval through the normal immigration processes. This section of the Convention recognises that asylum seekers cannot always abide by the usual immigration rules when fleeing desperate and dangerous situations.

In Australian politics, much is made of asylum seekers arriving by boat with no passports. But to obtain a passport, people have to write an application to the government and wait for a reply. This would be suicide for someone facing serious state repression. The only option many people have is to try and travel on a fake passport, which in most countries is a serious offence. It is little wonder then that asylum seekers throw away fake documents before being intercepted by Australian customs officials. It is exactly this type of scenario that the Refugee Convention was designed to address.

Nevertheless, the Department of Immigration was not impressed. One immigration official was frank: “It is rather ridiculous to ask any state to subscribe to a convention which would deter it from imposing a penalty on an undesirable refugee who deliberately flouted its immigration law. To my mind it would be a definite step towards abandoning effective control over immigration.”

And the Immigration Department Secretary Tasman Heyes believed the idea that they, “should not be discriminated against and should not be subjected to any penalty for illegal entry would be a direct negation of the immigration policy followed by all Australian Governments since Federation.”

Perpetuating this position would see the government sink to new lows in its depictions and attitudes towards asylum seekers arriving by boat. Discriminating between “good” and “bad” refugees led straight to the creation of one of the label: queue jumpers.

The term queue jumpers entered the Australian dialogue in official government broadcasts. In response to an increase in boat arrivals in April to May 1978, the government made announcements through Radio Australia to Southeast Asia warning against “queue jumping”, according to research by Jack Smit.

This approach spurred the government to pass the Immigration (Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill of 1980. This introduced penalties for people smuggling aimed at boat organisers and crew of ten years imprisonment and/or a fine of $100,000. This is the real bipartisanship of the Fraser era—bipartisan support for legislation to keep boat people out. The laws were used to carry out the deportation of 140 people who arrived on board the boat VT838 that arrived via Malaysia in late 1981.

The real history of Fraser era shows how refugee “solution” based on “stopping the boats” means capitulating to the racist xenophobia against refugees and the myth that refugees arriving by boat are doing the wrong thing. Despite his opposition to the anti-refugee policies of today, Fraser’s government did not challenge this racism: it perpetuated it. The lesson is that a genuine welcome refugees policy will not come through appealing to a “progressive” section of the ruling class. It will come with a movement from below that challenges the anti-refugee racism from above.


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