Claire Higgins. International legal obligations once shaped our refugee policy

The refugee policy of the Fraser government is often invoked in debates about Australia’s current approach to asylum seekers. While the small number of boat arrivals between 1976 and 1981 cannot be compared to the many thousands who arrived between 2009 and 2013, the political difficulties in that era were far greater than simply the reception and processing of asylum seekers. By contrast with more recent policy, the Fraser government overcame these difficulties by choosing to fulfil Australia’s international legal obligations under the Refugee Convention and by explaining this imperative to the Australian community.

Then, as now, the government was acutely aware that Australia was one of the only parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol within the region. Indeed, Australia ratified the 1967 Protocol only three years before the first Vietnamese boatpeople began to arrive in 1976. The Department of Immigration admitted that Australia was now ‘locked in’ to obligations and ‘had never envisaged’ forced migration on this scale. Yet instead of working to distance Australia from the Convention, the Department of Immigration worked to explain to the public that compliance with international legal and moral obligations was integral to Australia’s ‘credibility and status as a civilised, compassionate nation’.

In fulfilment of these obligations, the Fraser government established Australia’s first formal refugee status determination procedure and used this mechanism to reassure the public that all boat arrivals were being rigorously assessed. Even though, in reality, the boatpeople could not be repatriated, the government nonetheless declared that only those found to be genuine refugees would remain in Australia. This was a clever strategy. By employing it, the government was able to emphasise the importance of giving due effect to Australia’s obligations under international law while maintaining the appearance of control over the entry of asylum seekers. There was no need to resort to the image of a militarised ‘national emergency’.

Behind the scenes, the Fraser government was mindful to ensure that its response to asylum seekers should not be in breach of the Convention. The archives record how officials ruled out turning back boats and establishing closed detention centres due to the moral and legal implications of these measures. This was despite intelligence reports that up to 100,000 people could potentially sail to Australian shores. UNHCR records show that even the investigation and deportation of 146 fraudulent asylum claimants aboard the fishing vessel VT838 in 1981 was undertaken with the full knowledge of UNHCR’s Australian office.

In public, the Fraser government sought to marry arguments about Australia’s international obligations with the need to move on from ‘White Australia’. Instead of expecting impoverished regional neighbours to shoulder the burden of resettlement, as Australia is now doing, the government encouraged the public to see that the admission of asylum seekers would enhance the nation’s standing in the eyes of the world. Efforts to improve Australia’s image abroad would come to nothing, the ministers for Immigration and Foreign Affairs announced, ‘if we now respond to the Vietnamese refugee question in a narrow, ungenerous and emotive way’. Given that the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently accused Australia of a ‘chain of human rights violations’ in relation to its offshore processing system, these issues are as relevant as ever.

Working closely with UNHCR to expand and diversify the refugee intake was central to the Fraser government’s long-term vision for Australia’s immigration program. Immigration Minister Ian Macphee collaborated with his Labor shadow Mick Young to speak at public meetings around Australia on the benefits of non-discriminatory entry criteria and refugee resettlement. Macphee and Young recognised that the Indochinese intake was ‘a major wrench to the Australian people’, which brought about ‘more discussion about where our immigration policies were headed than took place at any previous time’. They ‘copped abuse’ from some members of the public as a result. Yet their bi-partisan efforts were based on the belief that these questions were vital to the nation’s future. On reflection, Macphee told the house in 1984, ‘I believe we are now a less parochial people’.

The number of boat arrivals may have been much smaller during the Fraser era, but the political challenge was great. The Fraser government demonstrated that Australia can give effect to its international legal obligations while carefully managing the public’s response to asylum seekers. In looking to the past we are reminded that these objectives are not mutually exclusive.

Dr Claire Higgins is an historian and a Research Associate at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW

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