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Sydney Morning Herald
Fearful of a public backlash against Vietnamese refugees, Margaret Thatcher asked Australia to help buy an island to resettle them, British cabinet documents from 1979 reveal.
Released after 30 years of mandatory suppression, the Downing Street papers reveal the extent of the then British prime minister’s aversion to granting asylum to 10,000 boat people at the United Nations’ request.
The Iron Lady warned her ministers of ”riots in the streets” and hatched a plan to have then Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser jointly purchase an island in Indonesia or the Philippines – ”not only as a staging post but as a place of settlement” for them all, the papers said.
The plan for a refugee colony was blocked by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who was concerned it could become a ”rival entrepreneurial city”.
The former Liberal prime minister was unable to recall the proposal yesterday but he noted Britain’s reluctance to assist the resettlement effort. ”I’ve got absolutely no recollection of it. I’ve got a fairly good memory for what happened at the time,” Mr Fraser said. ”The British were not involved in taking a large number of Vietnamese refugees. We were, Canada was, America was and France took a great many.”
Australia eventually became home to about 220,000 Vietnamese refugees. Canada took a few more, the US more than a million, and France about 90,000.
”One of the problems was a lot of the people fleeing Vietnam were doing so in boats that … were totally unsuitable for survival at sea,” Mr Fraser said.
”Therefore, it was essential to try and establish centres they could get to without making the journey longer than it had to be.”
Malaysia had initially pushed boats back out to sea and many refugees were believed to have drowned.
”As a result of diplomacy, they agreed to establish holding centres. That was on the understanding that we, and other refugee recipient countries, were going to take a very large number so they weren’t all going to be left as a problem for Malaysia,” he said.
A similar global effort was needed now, Mr Fraser said. Repeated Opposition criticism of the Government’s border protection policies perpetuated a myth, he said.
”It’s obviously nonsense. Politicians would be surprised how much support a political party would get if it truly stated the case for asylum seekers and refugees and explained the circumstances from which they are fleeing.
”It shows a lot of courage to leave everything you know behind to try to get a better future for your family.”