“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.