Afghan refugees, Vietnamese asylum seekers and the weaponisation of immigrant stories

The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan has, correctly, prompted demands of the Australian government to increase the intake of Afghan refugees. Other capitalist states, such as Canada and Britain, are opening the doors to provide sanctuary for Afghans fleeing the misogynist Taliban.

Historical comparisons have been made between today’s outflow of Afghan refugees in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, and the post-1975 Vietnamese refugees, the majority of whom were loyal to the former Saigon South Vietnam regime. Such comparisons, while giving us a sense of comfort that ‘we have been through this before’, can be misleading. For while the Australian government of Malcolm Fraser (1975-83) admitted Saigon loyalist Vietnamese refugees, Fraser was not the champion of human rights and compassion that he is made out to be today.

This crisis provides us with an opportunity to examine an underlying trend of refugee-intake stories in Australia and other Western nations. The political use of good-news refugee stories to bolster domestic propaganda purposes is nothing new – but it reveals the true nature of our colonial-settler mindset.

Back in 2012, Rachel Stevens, research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, wrote that:

Australia has rarely had a humane refugee policy and the idea that the Fraser government compassionately welcomed Vietnamese asylum seekers is amiss.

Our ostensibly generous attitude towards selected refugee groups has always hidden ulterior motives. Since the end of World War 2, the United States applied the label of refugee to those fleeing from Eastern European nations and Soviet Union. Numerous white supremacist and Nazi collaborator groups – Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles, Hungarians and so on – were rebranded as refugees escaping Communist persecution. Their wartime crimes were swept under the carpet, and their skills in recruiting and fighting for the anticommunist cause were utilised by the US in the new Cold War.

Right wing communities, residing outside their country of origin, were in a practical and de facto alliance with US political elites. They became the politically acceptable refugees, and their stories were harnessed to the Cold War objectives of US foreign policy. These fascist collaborators became repurposed as ‘freedom fighters’, while their ideological similarities to Nazism and white supremacist ideology were downplayed.

Weaponising refugee and immigrant stories, the US has deployed ultrarightist and ethnonationalist communities as ideological battering rams against the USSR and officially-designated ‘enemy’ nations abroad. The Saigon loyalists, while not Eastern European, fit into this policy of the selective application of sympathy. Used as weapons to install a fanatical right wing regime – a regime that tortured dissidents and committed horrific human rights abuses – the imperialist nations then applied the label ‘refugee’ to this community of right wing exiles.

So why did Fraser provide sanctuary for the Saigon loyalist Vietnamese? Australian big capital was orienting towards business with the emerging markets in the Asia Pacific. Former Australian PM Gough Whitlam had abolished the White Australia policy, and opened direct relations with Beijing. Fraser, continuing this trend, demonstrated Australia’s willingness to abandon its racist past and accept Asian immigrants as equal citizens in a multiethnic Australia.

With the fall of Saigon, the outflow of refugees increased, and the Fraser government responded to this crisis with a combination of opportunism and cynicism. Whipping up hysteria around the ‘boat people’, it was Fraser who set the stage for increased anti-refugee paranoia. Denouncing boat arrivals as ‘queue jumpers’, the Fraser government was at pains to reassure xenophobic anxieties about Asian immigrants ‘not fitting in.’

By 1981, 53 refugee boats arrived in Australia, bringing with them a grand total of 2100 people – hardly a tsunami of unauthorised arrivals. The rhetoric used by Fraser government ministers was very similar to the tropes recycled today – that of unscrupulous operators bringing economic migrants to Australia, seeking a better life and thus not ‘real’ refugees. In fact, Fraser’s approach seems generous by today’s standards precisely because Canberra has moved even further to the far right on the question of refugees. Today’s inhumane compulsory detention of asylum seekers has its origins in the Fraser years.

Our refugee intake should be based on humanitarian concerns, and not narrow ideological interests. We must remember the time that Peter Dutton, Home Affairs minister in 2018, suggested the fast tracking of refugee visas for white South African farmers, based on reports of persecution.

Yes, there is a moral obligation to take Afghan refugees. That ethical obligation did not begin with the victory of the Taliban. Imperialist nations had the opportunity to take Afghan refugees since 2001 – ethnic minorities in Afghanistan have been persecuted for every year of the US/NATO war on that nation. Australian authorities ignored their moral obligations to refugees for the duration of that war, and only invoke sympathy for asylum seekers in the aftermath of the military defeat of the imperial project.

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