Asylum by Boat: Origins of Australia's refugee policy

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Kevin Bain reviews a new book by Claire Higgins tracing the origins of asylum seeker immigration policy during the Fraser Government period — which many consider enlightened and in sharp contrast to the Coalition's current policy.

PROFESSOR GUY GOODWIN-GILL is an authority on refugee law (currently at Sydney’s Kaldor Centre) and was a UNHCR legal adviser in Sydney when the first wave of Indochinese boat refugees came to Australia, during the period 1976-81.

In 'Asylum by Boat: Origins of Australia’s refugee policy',historian Claire Higgins has accessed Goodwin-Gill's private papers from his involvement in caseload decision-making and policy implementation and draws on other correspondence and interviews with key players, to give us the inside story.

The book has an accessible story-telling style, artfully guiding the general reader from the end of the Vietnam War up to the Howard Government.

This was the Fraser Government period, which many, but not all, see as an enlightened approach to refugees provided by brave leadership. And yet, the book notes that the Fraser Government tried to persuade Indonesia to stop boats going onward to Australia with its hard line from late 1978, resulting in anti-people smuggler legislation in 1980.

Boat arrivals aroused public disapproval but refugees selected by the government “arouse little comment”, as a departmental submission said. No doubt, this is why the refugees selected from camps in Thailand and Malaysia by the Department of Immigration, were those thought likely to leave by boat if they were refused!

The need to impress anti-communist Asia was strong. In a Cabinet memo, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock (p 128) had been categorical that Australia could not return people to a Communist state. And the Department of Immigration applied “very liberal criteria” to Refugee Status Determinations (RSDs) for Vietnamese, but less so for those from other countries.

Departmental leaders later wanted to reverse this policy when greater refuge overseas was used by Vietnam to expel target groups and when there was a rise in "weak" cases for asylum.

Drowning deaths are an issue absent from the Australian discussions reported by Higgins, but many other practices and debates of today were on the table.

These include:

  • reducing domestic welfare as a deterrent;
  • harsh reception arrangements to “send a message”; 
  • Papua New Guinea rejecting resettlement due to its largely homogeneous population; 
  • migrant communities unhappy about refugees displacing family reunion;
  • strong publicity management by the department; and
  • a decision by the High Court on how to interpret the “persecution” criterion in the Refugee Convention.

The Department of Immigration’s suggestion of “contingent” detention facilities in a submission to Cabinet in May 1978, was described much later by Malcolm Fraser as “racist barbarism”. His immigration minister, Michael Mackellar, justified it as a ploy to placate Cabinet hardliners, with no chance of getting past Fraser’s objections. A department leader saw the condition for expansion of migration as being “control of all the levers of entry”.

The author acknowledges there is some problem in interpreting these documents — the indicative but qualified language of the TV series, Yes Minister's discourse gives plenty of room for chameleons to invoke pragmatism or principle.

Higgins' verdict on the Fraser period is largely positive, on the grounds that harsh options were examined but rejected. This contrasts to the later Hawke and Keating period, also reviewed here, when Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and mandatory, non-reviewable detention began.

A less kind view would be that kite-flying these policies opened the door to their adoption and escalation by later governments, with the secular religion of the law providing little constraint.

If we look wider and agree that the slide towards such policies globally is not the coincidence of a simultaneous rise of inadequate leaders, then redefining the national-international relationship is the necessary way forward.  We could start by promoting the idea that we have much in common with people who are different, and the way we treat people in need determines who we are.

'Asylum by Boat: Origins of Australia’s refugee policy', by Claire Higgins, is published by UNSW Press, Sydney, 2017, $29.99.

Kevin Bain is an economic analyst and teacher who is active in housing and refugee advocacy and is the Secretary of the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group

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