News & Current Affairs
23 March 2015
by Dr. Rachel Stevens
Exposing the reality of Fraser’s treatment of Vietnamese refugees
No, the Fraser era was not a golden age for asylum seekers
Australia has rarely had a humane refugee policy and the idea that the Fraser government compassionately welcomed Vietnamese asylum seekers is amiss.
Asylum seeker policy is sure to be a divisive issue again this year. Instead of wishing that Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had the courage and decency of their predecessors 35 years ago, we should acknowledge that the Fraser government's reaction to the Vietnamese refugee crisis was far from ideal.
For many, that government's treatment of the Vietnamese boat people is a proud period in Australia's long immigration history. Between 1976 and 1982, more than 2000 Vietnamese boat people were admitted to Australia. None was detained in a camp. None was issued with a temporary protection visa.
The story, reinforced by the media, that Vietnamese refugees were welcomed with open arms is an enticing narrative, tempting us to believe that this country has demonstrated a willingness to treat asylum seekers humanely and with compassion. But it is not the whole story.
Initially, the Fraser government resettled only a small number of Vietnamese refugees. By the end of 1977 - 2½ years after the end of the Vietnam War - 2753 refugees and 979 boat people had been resettled. Yet at this time the government estimated that 5600 Vietnamese refugees were emigrating every month.
During the 1977 federal election campaign, six boats carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived in one day. In the political frenzy that followed, the Fraser government tried to reassure voters that they were tough on border enforcement.
Fraser warned that ''some Vietnamese [boat people] who landed in Australia might have to be deported''. Fraser's minister for immigration, Michael MacKellar, said that boat people would not necessarily be permitted to stay. This was similar to the current Coalition policy of ''turning back the boats''.
After re-election, the Fraser government changed its refugee policy. It realised that by increasing the formal refugee program, this would dissuade desperate asylum seekers from taking to rickety fishing boats in an attempt to reach Australia. This policy - increasing the refugee intake to reduce unauthorised immigration - was effective.
But in increasing the Vietnamese refugee intake, the Fraser government was also reacting to external pressure. In late 1978, three large ships each carrying more than 2500 Vietnamese boat people appeared in the South China Sea. Previously, boats typically carried 100 passengers.
The escalation in the Vietnamese exodus was shocking. It was also troubling for the United States and the Asian nations that had admitted the majority of Vietnamese refugees to this point. These countries were reluctant to admit more refugees and put pressure on Australia to expand its intake.
So, the Fraser government did open its arms briefly to the Vietnamese, but it was motivated principally by external factors.
In the early 1980s, the government increasingly became suspicious of Vietnamese asylum seekers. In parliamentary debates, Vietnamese boat people were portrayed as duplicitous economic migrants wanting to circumvent immigration laws to secure a better way of life.
In 1981, immigration minister Ian Macphee warned the House of Representatives that a ''boat load of illegal immigrants'' was approaching Australia ''under the guise of refugees fleeing Vietnam''.
The following year, Macphee concluded ''that a proportion of people now leaving their homelands were doing so to seek a better way of life rather than to escape from some form of persecution''. He argued that to accept these boat people as refugees ''would in effect condone queue jumping''.
The resettlement of the Vietnamese refugees was an unfamiliar challenge for the Fraser government, just a few years after the formal abolition of the White Australia Policy. The government was resistant, ambivalent and at times pragmatic in responding to the Vietnamese refugee crisis.
The fact that Australia struggled with the arrival of these asylum seekers was symptomatic of an insecure nation threatened by Asian penetration, an anxiety that has influenced the national psyche since the mid-19th century. Unfortunately, this anxiety continues to inform asylum seeker policy today.