Asylum By Boat: New book goes behind the scenes to trace the origins of Australia’s refugee policy

The ‘White Australia’ policy was not long gone when the first refugees from communist Vietnam sailed into Darwin Harbour, seeking asylum and inadvertently challenging the Fraser government to reject now-familiar policies such as turnbacks and detention, and to define a new national identity.

What followed is an astonishing story of necessity and invention, vividly told in Asylum By Boat: Origins of Australia’s refugee policy (NewSouth).

This behind-the-scenes account traces how Australia developed a world-renowned refugee response – under the intense pressure of unprecedented numbers of people arriving by sea – and how its original, principled positions were eroded by political exigencies, leading to today’s dramatically different approach to asylum seekers.

Through extraordinary personal interviews and meticulous historical research – including first access to records from UNHCR in Australia – Kaldor Centre Senior Research Associate Dr Claire Higgins takes readers into moments of defining decision-making. 

The late former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser told Higgins his government’s principled response was a matter of simply, “What else could you do?” 

But it was a gripping political balancing act. With international media fixed on the geopolitics of Southeast Asia, attitudes in neighbouring countries hardening, and local unionists protesting, the Fraser government was offered many other choices. Asylum By Boat includes a haunting 1978 list of “possible options for dealing with unauthorised boat arrivals”, prepared by Immigration staff, that 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.

“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 official media release) and details of their heroic survival (‘only 30 kilograms of rice’) on ‘harrowing’ sea journeys.

“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. 

An important book, Asylum By Boat portrays how leaders can shape the response of the nation, for better or worse.

About the author of Asylum By Boat: Origins of Australia’s refugee policy

DR CLAIRE HIGGINS is an historian and a Senior Research Associate at the Andrew & Renata 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. Claire has previously held the Margaret George Award at the National Archives of Australia, and in 2017 she held a visiting Postdoctoral Fellowship through the Australian European University Institute Fellowship Association Inc., to pursue research into safe pathways to protection for asylum seekers.

About the launch: 

Asylum By Boat will be launched by David Marr on 12 September, from 6.30pm at Edition Book Bar, 181 Harris Street, Pyrmont (RSVP essential). Marr is the author of Patrick White: A Life, Panic, The High Price of Heaven and Dark Victory (with Marian Wilkinson). He has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Saturday Paper, Guardian and The Monthly, and been editor of The National Times, a reporter for Four Corners and presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch. He is the author of five bestselling Quarterly Essays.

More upcoming events: Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival Soiree (15 Sept), Gleebooks in Sydney (3 Oct), Avid Reader in Brisbane (13 Oct).