Wayne Gibbons. The boats were not sabotaged.

“So we convince ourselves every cruelty we’ve inflicted – beginning with sabotaging boats along the Malaysia coast under Malcolm Fraser – isn’t a reflection on us. It’s tactical.”

I was surprised and disturbed by this sweeping statement from David Marr in theguardian.com on 5 March. It unfairly casts a pall over the great success of Australia’s Indochina refugee program led by the Fraser government and the role of the immigration officials involved.

From 1978 to 1980 I was based in Malaysia as Coordinator of Australia’s refugee resettlement programs in South East Asia. Prior to that fulltime roll I lead several short term missions to Guam and the East coast of Malaysia to offer resettlement in Australia to Vietnamese refugees. I have also served as private secretary to Ministers for Immigration in the Whitlam and Fraser Governments.

From this vantage of involvement at the highest levels of government and at the coal face of refugee selection and resettlement, I am confident that no directions to sabotage boats were given to Australian immigration officers by people in authority and that no boats loaded with refugees were deliberately damaged by our officials. Though, I believe we may have disabled several empty boats to prevent their reuse to “push off” people who had already arrived on other vessels.

I understand why some people may be confused on this point because we often spoke publicly about the need to “stop the boats”.  But far from resorting to sabotage as a tactical response, our strategy was to conduct a sizable, caring and efficient resettlement program under a Comprehensive Plan of Action with the countries of SE Asia in co-operation with the US, Canada, France, the UK, New Zealand  and ourselves.

From the start, all resettlement countries wanted to discourage refugees taking very long and risky journeys across open seas in unsuitable craft. We all wanted refugees that were fleeing Vietnam on small boats to be landed in neighbouring first asylum countries into the care of the UNHCR. Australia and other countries had already agreed to treat all such people as refugees. This meant we could offer resettlement without first having to determine individual status under the UN Convention.

From the fall of Saigon in 1975 until the first half of 1978, those setting out from Vietnam to cross the South China Sea were mostly rural ethnic Vietnamese. They travelled in small owner skippered fishing boats that were usually reasonably seaworthy.

If our immigration officers came across any of these people as they arrived along the Malaysian coast they would try to counsel them to disembark and await an offer of resettlement. Most heeded that advice, but a few pressed on. At the same time, some local Malaysian officials would insist they keep going if their boat was seaworthy and in some instances resorted to towing them back to international waters.

Being owner fishermen and competent seamen the Vietnamese were very reluctant to disable their own boats and would keep going if pushed off. Some made it to Darwin but most broke down en route and ended up in makeshift camps in Indonesia.  It is difficult to believe them allowing Australian officials to sabotage their boats.  Indeed I have been unable to corroborate such a suggestion among surviving officials who served in Malaysia during this period.

All this changed rapidly from mid 1978 as arrivals increased dramatically. This next, far larger wave of departures consisted of urban people who paid corrupt officials and middlemen for their passage. They were predominantly ethnic Chinese who were crowded into vessels in numbers that made their journey highly dangerous. For example, a small vessel that would have carried 15‑20 Vietnamese could be packed with 100-130 ethnic Chinese in appalling conditions. Understandably they were almost always desperate to disembark at first landfall, be that in Thailand or Malaysia. Their wretched, cramped conditions and not infrequent encounters with pirates en route fuelled fears about being forced back to sea, which in turn encouraged them to scuttle their boats as soon as they reached coastal waters or if they were intercepted by Malaysian patrol boats. In any case, very few boats were able to withstand the coastal surf and most broke up within hours of beaching.

UNHCR was very slow to gear up as arrivals skyrocketed and this created great frustration within the Malaysian Government, which was increasingly worried by the growing concerns evident among Malays living in kampongs along the east coast. Malaysia soon reacted by closing all mainland camps (except for the transit centre in Kuala Lumpur) and designating Pulau Bidong, an uninhabited island,  as the site for a major holding camp for arriving refugees. This created huge logistical difficulties for all resettlement countries, made worse by continuing UNHCR shortcomings.

Malaysian patrols were also subsequently increased with orders to stem numbers landing in Malaysia by intercepting boats further offshore and deflecting them south. This led to a rapid build-up of refugees landing in the Indonesian Anambas Islands where the local population was quickly overwhelmed as more and more makeshift camps developed. Australia was among the first countries to organise resettlement from these new remote camps.

Far from calculated cruelty, our approach to people leaving Indochina was generous and fair. It certainly did not include sabotage of small boats crowded with refugees.

Despite the many difficulties, we made a significant contribution through resettlement. It was made possible through close cooperation with regional countries in a strategy that balanced their requirements and the demands of refugees with our own need to maintain public support at home.

Whatever has happened since then, at the time of these policies it was a watershed for Australia. As John Menadue said in an earlier blog, “in accepting 150,000 refugees from Indochina …… Malcolm Fraser broke the back of White Australia”. Australia is a better society for it and I am grateful I had a role helping achieve that outcome.

Wayne Gibbons was the Co-ordinator, Australian Indo-Chinese Refugee Resettlement Program. He was later Deputy Secretary, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Deputy Secretary, Department of Employment, Education and Training. He was also the CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.






John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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4 Responses to Wayne Gibbons. The boats were not sabotaged.

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  3. Jack H Smit says:

    This Wayne Gibbons post is one of the most brazen attempts at rewriting history that I’ve come across in a long time, but I’m happy to respond in order to set the record straight.

    Gibbons makes claims about his own expertise in this area as a delegate of the Immigration Department, who was sent to Mayasia to deal with the Vietnamese refuigee movements at the time, but he seems to have forgotten that major statements have been made by one of his closest colleagues of the time: Greg Humphries.

    Alas, Humpries is no longer with us to sweep the floor with Gibbons. As one of the “old guard” in the Department, he is no longer alive to defend his statements, which directly contradict Gibbons. But because they are on the public record, I can quote from them. And, before I do so, I will also reveal that in the printed Immigration Department publication I quote below, Humpries tells his story mainly on the mentioned page 107. Sorry, Wayne Gibbons, you yourself share the other half of that page in that same book.

    This attempt to rewrite history by Gibbons disgusts me even more because the blog entry was clearly not posted by Gibbons, but by the blog owner, former Immigration Department Secretary (1982) John Menadue. Both of you are therefore implicated in my accusation.

    Anyway, here is Humphries, who makes clear that his mission was to “stop the boats” from going to Australia, and that the methodology was clearly to sabotage boats before they would be used to sail to Australia.

    The book:

    Martin, Harry. (1989). Angels and arrogant gods: Migration officers and migrants reminisce 1945-85. Canberra: Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Australian Government Publishing Service.

    Quotes from Humphries:

    (Greg Humphries “…was given overall responsibility [around 1977] for responding to Vietnamese refugees including those who soon began arriving on Australia’s northern shores by boat….” (p. 100),)

    Boats were arriving in great numbers. The ones that were landing on the Australian coastline were presenting an alarming threat to our meat industry which is centred up around the north-west of Australia and could be virtually written off overnight if they introduced foot and mouth disease with these things that were coming in.

    I was sent to Malaysia with virtually my term of reference to stop these boats from coming to Australia.
    We set ourselves up in the headquarters of a place called Kuantan, half way up the east coast of Malaysia and overlooking the South China Sea, and we were able to move up and down to wherever these boats were landing in Malaysia because they couldn’t get from Vietnam to Australia direct.

    If a boat was unseaworthy the Malaysians were very sympathetic and they’d allow them to land and go to a camp but if the boat was seaworthy, they’d say, ‘On your way. We’ve got enough.’

    Some of our fellows would take the police inspector or the sergeant of police away and divert his attention and a couple of hours later there’d be great excitement, the boat had sunk. How did it sink? Well, we knew how it’d sunk because boys had pulled the plug out or bored a hole in it but left the Malaysian authorities scratching their heads on many occasions as to how these boats had suddenly sunk. I hate to think how the Malaysian authorities would have reacted if they had known. (p. 107)

    The documentary:

    Morgan, Alec. (1992). Admission Impossible. A film by Alec Morgan [VHS Video, 55 mins]. Lindfield NSW: Film Australia.’

    Quote from Humphries:

    “So I was given the task of stopping these boats from arriving in Australia. That was pretty simple, I suppose, in terms of reference, but… eh, so, off I went again to the South China sea with a team, and we located many a boat coming down the Malaysian peninsula. We encouraged the Malaysians to land them, put them in the camps so that they could be processed. There were still a percentage of the boats, eh, people themselves, who were determined to push on to Australia. Well, we took a pretty broad interpretation of the terms of reference to stop these boats; we did… because we had some very capable fellows with their screwdrivers and brace and bit. We bored holes in the bottom of the ships, of the boats, and they sank overnight, so they had to be landed. And we were very successful in stopping many of the boats, by one way or another.”

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