Essential addition to asylum-seeker debate
Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees: A History By Klaus Neumann Black Inc, 358pp, $34.99 In the first nine months of 1977, a trickle of small boats arrived in northern Australia, carrying a total of 167 people fleeing communist Vietnam. By November, the numbers were rising. On the 20th and 21st alone, six boats arrived with a total of 218 people on board. One of them, the Tu Do, now in the Maritime Museum in Sydney, was owned by a Vietnamese businessman who had purpose-built it for his meticulously planned escape. It arrived towing another boat it had found stranded en route.
Meanwhile the Song Be 12, a refrigerated Vietnamese trawler carrying 181 people, had been seized by its crew, who overpowered armed soldiers deployed to prevent them jumping ship. Australian authorities monitored its progress though the Indonesian archipelago. It anchored for five days in Surabaya and finally
June 6-7, 2015 arrived in Darwin Harbour on November 30, escorted by HMAS Ardent.
Outrage was quickly whipped up. Northern Territory Labor senator Ted Robertson warned the government not to “open the floodgates”. The mayor of Darwin, Ella Stack, called some of them “pseudo-refugees”. Newspapers quoted health officials and waterside workers saying they looked too clean and healthy, “as though they’d been on an excursion cruise”. Waterside Workers Federation president Curly Nixon said they couldn’t be refugees because they wore “pressed trousers”. He asked: “Who makes money out of civil war?” And answered himself: “Black marketeer, dope runners and brothel keepers.”
Gough Whitlam, who had been unsympathetic as prime minister, claimed it was “not credible 2½ years after the end of the Vietnam War that these refugees should suddenly be coming to Australia”. He coined the usage “queue jumpers”. Bob Hawke, then still ACTU president, said only refugees selected offshore should be allowed. Foreshadowing slogans later used by the other side of politics, Hawke insisted that, as a sovereign state, Australia had “the right to determine how it will exercise its compassion and how it will increase its population”.
After shilly-shallying for a few days, the Fraser government responded. At a joint press conference, foreign minister Andrew Peacock and immigration minister Michael MacKellar appealed to politicians “not to subordinate the issues ... to electoral considerations, not to exaggerate the dimensions of the problem, not to attempt to exploit the assumed fears of sections of the Australian public, and not to forget the human tragedy represented by these few small boats”.
In Across the Seas, historian Klaus Neumann narrates this story of the paradigm-breaking mass intake of Vietnamese refugees into Australia as the culmination of a detailed examination of our response to refugees from the time of Federation.
Many of the tropes of Australian history, such as the White Australia policy and antiSemitism, hover throughout. Constant unthinking expressions of racism and ethnocentrism pepper the notes of selection officials eyeing prospective immigrants, even the urgent humanitarian crisis of post-World War II displacement: “too dark”, “fuzzy hair”, “poor specimens”. But the book also throws light on some aspects of the history that lie hidden under our broadbrush memories, placing those Vietnamese arrivals in context.
Seven months after Federation in May 1901, the new federal government passed two bills: the Immigration Restriction Bill, which established the cornerstone of the White Australia policy; and the Pacific Island Labourers Bill, which eventually sped up deportation of 7500 indentured Melanesian labourers brought to work in the Queensland cane fields.
The population of Australia was 3.8 million at the time. Despite the 3 per cent that was indigenous, and the 2 per cent of Pacific Islanders, the population was, Neumann points out, “more homogenous than that of the motherland, Britain”. During the next four decades, the Chinese-born minority shrank from 29,900 to 6400.
Refugees started coming to the young colonies early, however. Among them were German Lutherans, French Communards and exiled Chilean president Ramon Freire. A few of the 2.5 million Jews who fled eastern Europe in the