1 Jan 2010

Papers show how Australia faced earlier refugee dilemma

9:29 pm on 1 January 2010

The Australian federal cabinet was warned in 1979 that the exodus of refugees from Indochina in the wake of the Vietnam war had turned into an "open-ended population movement" capable of threatening Australia's national unity.

Formerly secret documents released on New Year's Day show that Malcolm Fraser's cabinet faced dilemmas on boat arrivals similar to those faced by contemporary Australian governments.

The documents have been released under the 30-year secrecy rule by the National Archives of Australia.

By mid-1979, the ABC reports, 50,000 Vietnamese a month were fleeing or being pushed out of their country, and Asian countries were threatening to push refugees back out to sea.

The Australian cabinet was warned that as a result, a major element of Australian policy had been rendered inadequate: the plan to have ASEAN nations act as countries of first asylum, and for Australia to be a resettlement country only.

Vietnam's invasion of Kampuchea created still more refugee havoc.

Refugee intake boosted to 14,400

The Fraser cabinet decided during the year on laws to prosecute the owners and crews of boats bringing refugees into Australian waters. It also gave $A250 million to the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) towards the cost of building a holding centre in Indonesia.

Discreet contingency planning was also made for a holding centre in Darwin, in case of an influx of direct arrivals.

A decision was also taken to boost Australia's Indo-Chinese refugee intake to 14,400.

Professor Patrick Weller, a veteran writer on Australian government and politics, says the documents show the asylum situation was similar to the one facing the current federal government.

"You read that," he says, "and you think it could almost have been written today - but change the words of Vietnam to the words Afghanistan, Iraq or Sri Lanka."

Fraser still reminded of policy's legacy

Mr Fraser himself says that he is still reminded sometimes about what he considers the success of his policy to resettle Vietnamese refugees in Australia.

A young man in an Air Force uniform stopped him in a Melbourne street the other day, he says, and said: "I came here in 1976 in my mother's arms and as I grew older the family discussed it all and we thought we ought to pay something back to Australia and it was decided therefore that I should join the Air Force."

Mr Fraser says: "You get a few stories like that [and] you realise what great Australians these people are going to make."

Sense of ownership after Vietnam war

There were important differences between the refugee debate then and now.

One was the sense of ownership of the problem after Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war. There was also political bipartisanship, after an initial objection from then Labor opposition leader Gough Whitlam.

The outstanding question is whether the Fraser government's humanitarian streak would have won out over politics had the war turned out differently and communists were the ones fleeing, or being pushed out, on boats.

After all, historians note Mr Fraser's strong suspicions of the Soviet backers of Vietnam's communists.