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Book review: New work traces the origins of Australia’s refugee policy

20 September 20170 comments

At a time when Australia’s migration and refugee policies are contentious topics, a new book has given an insight into the way our official policy towards foreign entrants evolved.

Asylum By Boat: Origins of Australia’s Refugee Policy’ tells the story of how Australia developed world-leading refugee resettlement practices under the old adage necessity being the mother of invention.

Dr Claire Higgins

But the book’s thesis also turns to how a principled approach to refugees was compromised by unprecedented numbers arriving by sea and political exigencies.

Author Dr Claire Higgins argues that the story begins with Fraser government of the 1970s.

She contends that the ‘White Australia’ policy was not long dead when the first boat load of refugees from communist Vietnam sailed into Darwin Harbour.

She says the influx challenged the Fraser government to respond to what was a humanitarian crisis and in so doing redefine Australia’s national identity.

The book is a behind-the-scenes account of that response which led to an extraordinarily generous outlook to refugees that has been matched by few countries.

With access to people involved in the process and meticulous research, Dr Higgins has identified the moments of far-sighted decision making that shaped the policy.

In one recorded account the late Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, when asked about his government’s decision to accept large numbers of boat people from Vietnam, simply said: “What else could you do?”

Dr Higgins goes on to describe a difficult political balancing act with local unions protesting over the influx and the threat to jobs, international media fixed on the geopolitics of Southeast Asia and attitudes in neighbouring countries hardening.

The Fraser government could easily have jumped another way, she argues.

The book includes a list prepared by Immigration Department staff in 1978 of “possible options for dealing with unauthorised boat arrivals” that resonate eerily with current government approaches.

The list included: ‘Reprovision and refuel all boats, tow them beyond the three-mile limit and encourage them to find some other country to land in’; ‘Treat boat refugees almost as lepers, segregating them into special camps and giving them minimal standards of support’; and, ‘Construct a major holding centre in some very remote area… and hold them in such a camp indefinitely’.

The Fraser government rejected these and similar suggestions.

Instead, as Dr Higgins shows, they shared with the Australian public personal stories of those seeking protection.

A chemical engineer, an accountant, a bank clerk, typists and students, according to one media release from the time.

And details of their heroic survival during harrowing and poorly provisioned sea journeys were also publicised.

“We will not risk action against genuine refugees just to get a message across. That would be an utterly inhuman course of action,” the then Minister for Immigration and Minister for Foreign Affairs said publicly in 1977.

And the message was heeded, with Immigration demanding procedures “consistent with Australia’s international obligations” and UNHCR noting “a high degree of compassion, interest and preparedness to help” the boat arrivals.

Asylum By Boat’ is an important and timely book with lessons for anyone interested in today’s even more calamitous and global refugee crisis.

Dr Claire Higgins is an historian and a Senior Research Associate at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney.

She is a Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar, and completed doctoral study in History as a Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford.

‘Asylum By Boat’ is published by NewSouth.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist