In 1982, when I was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, the Fraser Government ignored the pressure from the US that we should not help people in South America suffering at the hands of US-supported military governments.
The US was a generous supporter of the UNHCR, but was opposed to the UNHCR operating in some countries in South America, including Chile and El Salvador, which then had oppressive military governments that the US was actively supporting.
The UNHCR approached us to see our help in resettling people from those two countries that were facing persecution.
I consulted Malcolm Fraser and Ian Macphee and we decided that we should do what we could to help regardless of the view of the Regan administration. As a result we took over 5,000 people from Chile and about 300 from El Salvador.
A brief account was mentioned in my book ‘Things you learn along the way’ which was published in 1999. See extracts below:
In 1982, we introduced a global Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) for people who were not ‘refugees’ under the strict UNHCR definition, but who were suffering gross discrimination. We gave priority to those with close links to Australia. Applicants could apply ‘in country’; they would not have to flee their country in order to apply. Prior to that, all of Australia’s humanitarian resettlement entrants were classed as ‘refugees’ only if they had left the country in which they had experienced persecution. By 1998 over 70,000 people had settled in Australia under the SHP.
The program was largely a reaction to the installation of US-backed military governments in El Salvador and Chile. Under the program Australia could react humanely to those suffering discrimination within their homeland but unable to leave to seek refugee status elsewhere. It was quite an achievement to implement the SHP without antagonising bilateral relations. Perhaps, in part, we were successful because the military governments concerned wanted to get rid of their critics. It was also because we studiously avoided the word ‘refugee’.
Establishment of the SHP was also influenced by President Reagan’s policies towards Latin America. The US was a very generous funder of refugee programs generally, but as a result of US pressure, the UNHCR would not declare many displaced people in Latin America to be ‘refugees’. The US Administration could not bring itself to acknowledge The most satisfying job of my life that people might want to flee right-wing governments, particularly those they had installed or supported.
Macphee was straightforward in agreeing to help these people in need, regardless of whether they were under pressure from dictatorships of the left or the right. Fraser was very supportive.