Features Australia

Some boats shouldn’t be turned back

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

Reports that an Australian naval ship, HMAS Choules, has secretively returned about 50 Vietnamese boat-refugees to Da Nang in Vietnam are, if true, so far beyond shocking one is left at a loss for words.

If true, it is one of the blackest stains imaginable on the honour of Australia. One can only hope there is some context that has not been made public.

I am writing a book on Labor and the Left’s brutal and inhuman campaign against Vietnamese boat-refugees in the 1970s and early ‘80s. This campaign was epitomised by Gough Whitlam’s disgusting statement at the time of the fall of Saigon in 1975 as reported by then Immigration Minister Clyde Cameron. Foreign Minister Don Willesee had implored Whitlam to use the Royal Australian Air Force to evacuate Vietnamese whose lives were at risk because of their association with the Australians. Whitlam reportedly ‘thundered’: ‘I’m not having thousands of f***ing Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their political and religious hatreds against us.’ (‘us’, of course, being the ALP and the Left). Senior Labor and many other left figures claimed the boat-people were brothel-keepers and black-marketeers, bearers of ill-gotten gold and of an incurable (and imaginary) strain of Venereal disease (to their credit, two ALP Members, Richard Klugman and Doug Everingham, who happened to be doctors, poo-pooed the last).

Darwin watersiders went on strike against ships rescuing them from sinking boats. Queensland unionists serenaded them with chants of: ‘You’re not human.’ Even Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin got into the act, claiming they were all ‘drug takers and criminals.’

Now, however, it looks as if my book will need another, and different, chapter.

The Vietnamese refugees of the ‘70s and ‘80s are not to be compared to the recent illegal immigrants with questionable bona-fides and origins who have resorted to tactics like destroying their identity papers. With a few exceptions, they have proved valuable and sometimes outstanding citizens. Any sensible and ethical refugee policy should, as far as possible, actively favour the Good Guys (as happened in 1956 when Australia favoured refugees fleeing the Soviet butchery of Hungary).

The Vietnamese have not engaged in terrorism or anything like the Cronulla race riots, nor have they expected their host country to alter its religious, social and sexual mores. There are always a few bad eggs in the basket, but by and large they came to Australia seeking freedom and opportunity, not the dole. Many who arrived in Australia with hardly clothes to cover themselves have built up businesses. On Anzac Day South Vietnamese veterans march proudly with Australians.


Vietnam remains a brutal one-Party communist police state. Escapees returned to it can expect dire punishments, including possibly death. There is no freedom of association, of speech or of religion.

According to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other monitoring bodies, the condition of human rights under the Hanoi regime remains among the worst in the world.

Human Rights Watch reported recently that: ‘the human rights situation in Vietnam deteriorated significantly in 2013 [the last year available], worsening a trend evident for several years.

‘The year was marked by a severe and intensifying crackdown on critics, including long prison terms for many peaceful activists whose crime was calling for political change.’

Even the arch-peacenik Joan Baez took out a newspaper advertisement with others accusing the Hanoi Government of creating a ‘nightmare’, a situation further evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of boat-refugees who, once they had experienced it, found a 50 per cent chance of death at sea preferable to continued existence under Hanoi’s commissars.

At the height of the boat-refugee exodus, one major Australian paper wrote in a leader whose words are still apt:

‘People who detest their communist conquerors should not have to prove persecution to gain our help if they choose to risk death to get away to freedom. Here is a test of our democratic idealism. Let us meet it.’

Following the fall of Saigon and the confiscation of many private businesses a couple of years later (these ‘businesses’ sometimes consisting of people selling off family possessions and furniture on the sidewalk in order to survive another day), millions of city-dwellers were herded into ‘New Economic Areas’ – uncleared jungle without medical, sanitary or other infrastructure. Countless numbers died.

Their fate however, was probably preferable to those who had served the Saigon Government – army officers, police, civil servants and Buddhist and Catholic religious leaders – who went into ‘re-education camps.’

According to academic studies, about 140,000 people would die in these ‘re-education camps.’ Recent Vietnamese sources say many of the camps in this tropical Gulag are still operating. Some of the inmates, who resist re-education, have been there since 1975. Other more recent arrestees include those who have acted for human rights or in some cases have tried to escape.

Labor’s attack on Vietnamese when it was in opposition, and scare-mongering and demands by Whitlam, Cameron and others that the boats be ‘sent back’ under Navy guard failed to turn the Australian community against them.

It was a failed campaign for forced repatriation along the lines of ‘Operation Keelhaul’ in 1945 when the Western allies following the Yalta agreements, forcibly repatriated anti-communist Cossacks, Vlasovite Army soldiers and others to the tender mercies of Stalin (apart from the large number who succeeded in committing suicide with pocket-knives or by jumping in front of locomotives).

Now, it seems, the Coalition has taken up where Labor left off with the difference that this forced repatriation to a communist tyranny is actual rather than a mere desire.

One hopes the latest report is somehow wrong or incomplete. If not, then the question is: ‘Why?’

Hal Colebatch was a winner of last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

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