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Malcolm Fraser’s real mistake

12 April 2019

Contemporary records show that Australia didn’t adequately assist refugees admitted during the Lebanese civil war

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Muslim Lebanese being driven out of Quarantina, in the war-torn Lebanese capital of Beirut, in January 1976. Claude Salhani/Sygma via Getty Images

Muslim Lebanese being driven out of Quarantina, in the war-torn Lebanese capital of Beirut, in January 1976. Claude Salhani/Sygma via Getty Images


When attention turned to Islamophobia among Australian politicians after the Christchurch massacre, Peter Dutton was conspicuous on the list of offenders. In 2016 he claimed that the Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser had made “a mistake” when it allowed Lebanese Muslims fleeing civil war to emigrate to Australia under relaxed migration provisions in the late 1970s. Later, in response to questions in parliament, he declared that “out of the last thirty-three people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, twenty-two are from second- and third-generation Lebanese Muslim backgrounds.”

Jacinta Carroll, head of the Counter Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, acknowledged that the numbers are correct, but said they “don’t tell us much that is helpful.” The figure of twenty-two “represents less than 0.01 per cent of the about 180,000 Australians of Lebanese background, according to the ABS,” she wrote. “That this group is over-represented among terrorism offenders — and supporters — is concerning. But it’s not surprising given the global trend of Islamist extremism, which has identity politics at its core.”

Following Peter Dutton’s comments, many second- and third-generation Lebanese were left wondering how many generations must pass before a person “belongs” in Australia rather being treated as a representative of a migrant group. Writer Ruby Hamad pointed to “a political climate where populist parties are gaining favour on the back of a vehemently anti-Muslim platform.” If citizenship is to mean anything, it should mean that “third generation Australians are not referred to as migrant grandchildren.” She argued that the level of invective was “worse than it has ever been” and that “in all of my family’s close to four decades [in Australia], I have never felt so hated or feared or fearful.”

The Lebanese Muslim Association’s Mostafa Rachwani took a similar line. “No one ever wants to talk about the deeply rooted racism Fraser’s migrants had to face,” he wrote, or “the aggressively uninviting society these communities arrived to… [or] the residual effects of having to battle these issues for so long.” He argued that violence and hostility — including having your religion “demonised in the media” — stripped communities of their humanity and self-worth, and that this “dehumanisation” was reflected in some people’s desire to engage in gang violence or fight abroad.

Dutton’s framing of the special admission of several thousand civil war–affected Lebanese more than forty years ago left the impression that the wrong people had been selected. If he were still alive, Malcolm Fraser would undoubtedly disagree. “If there was a failure of government in those early months it was in resettlement programs and planning,” he observed in 2009 in Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, co-written with Margaret Simons. “The proper approach to problems of integration is to find out what the problems were and what can be done about them, rather than to conclude that ‘bad’ people have been allowed in, or that it was wrong to show compassion.”

To understand the thinking at the time, sociologist Mehal Krayem and I looked at the two cabinet submissions made at the height of the exodus from Lebanon, and at other official documents from the time, as well as Fraser’s memoir. These sources provide a nuanced view of the government’s response to a complex and evolving humanitarian situation.

In a cabinet submission dated 17 September 1976, immigration and ethnic affairs minister Michael MacKellar sought cabinet approval to relax requirements for Lebanese “who had suffered hardship and who had relatives in Australia.” MacKellar wanted extra staff and resources to process the growing number of applications from Lebanese who had fled to Cyprus as the humanitarian situation worsened in Lebanon. In a second submission, a little over two months later, he sought cabinet approval to discontinue after 31 December 1976 the relaxed requirements for nominations lodged by Australian residents for the entry of Lebanese relatives.

In response to an approach from the local Lebanese community after civil war broke out in 1975, the Fraser government had agreed to relax the migration criteria for affected Lebanese. With no established process for accepting refugees — no dedicated branch in the department, no refugee visa category and no special settlement assistance — Australia’s practice was to admit refugees as migrants on an ad hoc basis.

Fraser had a vision of building a diversified Australian refugee and special humanitarian policy that would treat refugees and people escaping war or natural disaster — including Lebanese, Vietnamese and East Timorese — fairly and compassionately. It was agreed that relatives of Lebanese already living in Australia would be allowed entry under relaxed rules on the condition that the local community would cover their travel and settlement costs. The government would accept no responsibility for post-arrival services for this group.

Airfares and other assistance may have been within the resources of better-established members of the Lebanese community, who tended to be Christian. But the requirement put recent arrivals with limited resources, who tended to be Muslim, in a difficult position. Faced with the alternative of leaving their relatives in a war zone, they went into debt to pay airfares. Houses became overcrowded as relatives moved in. Unemployment became rife as newly arrived relatives competed in a depressed labour market.

In late March 1976 the civil conflict in Lebanon forced the evacuation of the Australian embassy in Beirut. An Australian migration officer operated out of the Dutch embassy in Damascus until the end of June, when handling of Lebanese nominations was moved to Cyprus. With long delays in processing, the Cypriot authorities were faced with “the social, economic and political problems of destitute Lebanese,” according to the September cabinet submission. They wanted clear guidelines from Australia so that they could better control entry to Cyprus.

Extra Australian immigration officers were sent to manage the escalating workload. The submission blamed the delays on the time it took to obtain medical clearances and the absence of on-the-spot security and character clearances. But the Canadians, operating within the same constraints, were issuing visas at more than twice the rate; they took five days to complete the entire process, while the Australians took up to four weeks. Meanwhile, with no end to the war in sight, the estimated 8000 Lebanese on Cyprus had to find scarce and costly accommodation.

The Lebanese showed a “high propensity” to nominate relatives for migrant entry to Australia, and the department was alarmed at projections for arrival numbers in future years. With unemployment high in Australia, it was also concerned that the mostly unskilled or semiskilled arrivals would face employment difficulties. The submission cites concerns about “problems with young people in Sydney” and the “possibility that the conflicts, tensions and divisions within Lebanon [would] be transferred to Australia.” Given the potential for health problems, “medical checks need to be maintained at a high standard and speeded up.”

Cabinet decided to continue the special operation in Nicosia until 31 December 1976 and then review it. “Normal immigration criteria should apply in respect of Lebanese migration to Australia…,” it concluded, “with the additional criterion that nominated non-dependent parents do not have to meet economic viability criteria and nominated brother and sisters of Australian residents and their dependants be approved subject to compliance with the normal health and character requirements.” Under a new requirement, only permanent residents of a year or more’s standing were eligible to nominate migrants, unless they were a spouse or a dependent child.

Cabinet reiterated that it was not the government’s responsibility to arrange or fund transport for Lebanese migrants. Action would be taken, it said, to “promote greater responsibility within the Lebanese communities for the post-arrival settlement in Australia of Lebanese migrants.”

Nine weeks later, in the November 1976 cabinet submission, MacKellar pointed out that policy on Lebanese migration had needed to adapt to changing circumstances in the conflict in Lebanon, but that it was his intention to reintroduce normal migration criteria after 31 December. The conflict in Lebanon had eased and the “quality of applicants” and the high rate of nominations was causing concern. The chief migration officer in Cyprus had reported a high rate of illiteracy, poor personal hygiene, large families and a rise to 90 per cent in the proportion of applicants who were Muslim. “Misrepresentation and deliberate attempts to conceal vital information are prolonging interviews,” he added.

But employment was still of greater concern — jobless rates were high among new arrivals, particularly in areas like Campsie, in Sydney — as was the community’s ability to provide settlement assistance. The submission points to overcrowding in housing, sponsors engaging in “large-scale borrowing from friends, banks and lending institutions to finance the travel costs of relatives,” and wives “left without adequate support in Australia by husbands who have gone overseas to locate relatives.” Children who had suffered trauma were reported not to be attending school, and schools in some areas were facing overcrowding. Leaders of the Lebanese community in Australia indicated — in the words of the submission — “that they would not oppose application of more stringent requirements for Lebanese people seeking entry to Australia.”

The key lesson for the government and the immigration department — and the essence of Fraser’s real “mistake” — was that planning and post-arrival support should have been better. In the absence of a formal refugee policy at the time, ad hoc arrangements were put in place. With no separate visa category, refugees were indistinguishable from migrants, which means we still don’t know the exact number of arrivals. And because formal refugee criteria weren’t applied, people who might have qualified under the UN Refugee Convention were classified as migrants and their special needs ignored.

A November 1976 report by the Senate foreign affairs and defence committee, Australia and the Refugee Problem, criticised the immigration department for failing to recognise the special needs of refugees. An “approved and comprehensive set of policy guidelines and the establishment of appropriate machinery” should be applied to refugee situations, it said, and quoted sociologist Jean Martin:

No matter how harsh the conditions from which we rescue refugees we cannot claim moral credit simply by permitting them to enter this country. Just as the admission of refugees for reasons of humanity involves relaxing our normal intake criteria, so also does our continuing responsibility to these refugees entail modification of normal settlement practices.

The Lebanese program lasted just nine months and ended in December 1976. The following May, MacKellar announced plans for a comprehensive refugee policy and new procedures for designating and responding to refugee situations. An interdepartmental committee would now advise him, in consultation with voluntary agencies, on Australia’s capacity to accept refugees. Voluntary agencies would be encouraged to participate in refugee resettlement and the department’s refugee unit would be strengthened. People “in refugee-type situations who do not fall strictly within the UNHCR mandate or within Convention definitions” would also be covered.

That same month, Malcolm Fraser asked cabinet to approve a major review of post-arrival programs and services, to be headed by Melbourne solicitor Frank Galbally. In March of the following year, the government established the Determination of Refugee Status Committee to process applications from people in Australia, or arriving, who wished to seek refugee status as defined by the UN Convention. Then, in May 1978, Galbally made his report to government, which changed the face of Australia’s settlement services. Many of those who came to Australia in subsequent years as refugees or under the Special Humanitarian Program were settled in smaller towns and rural cities under the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme.


Malcolm Fraser believed that the problems faced by Lebanese refugees were “the government’s responsibility as well as that of the individuals concerned.” If Australia were to absorb more migrants harmoniously, it was essential that they had real equality of opportunity.

“If particular groups feel that they and their children are condemned, whether through legal or other arrangements, to occupy the worst jobs and housing, to suffer the poorest health and education, then the societies in which they live are embarking on a path that will cost them dearly,” he said in 1981. “The less constructively a society responds to its own diversity, the less capable it becomes of doing so. Its reluctance to respond, fuelled by the fear of encouraging division, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — the erosion of national cohesion is a result not of the fact of diversity but of its denial and suppression.”

What purpose does it serve, two generations later, to demonise the Lebanese community? The number of arrivals during that period was small and terrorism scholars have found little evidence directly linking Australians charged with terrorism to those who entered the country under the Lebanese humanitarian arrangements in 1976. The only link may be membership of a community that has suffered social disadvantage as a result of unsupported settlement.

Monash University terrorism specialist Andrew Zammit suggests that social disadvantage and marginalisation have played a role in the radicalisation of Australian-Lebanese jihadis: a pattern that hasn’t been seen in other countries with large Lebanese communities. People charged and convicted of such offences in Australia have been “of low socioeconomic position, lacking high educational status or prestigious jobs.” They are “disproportionately poorly educated” compared to other Australian Muslims, and most of the radicalisation occurred after 2001. The fact that most were born or grew up in Australia suggests that “local grievances are important and could be an example of ‘relative depravation.’”

Zammit quotes Justice Anthony Whealy’s judgement on a member of the Pendennis terrorist cell in 2008:

It appears that the events of September 11, 2001 changed things radically for the offender… He himself was abused and called “Osama bin Laden” and a “terrorist” by non-Muslim workers he encountered. At a more abstract level, the offender perceived the threat in terms of all Muslim people being under attack, where the “war on terror,” as it was described, was translated by some Muslims into meaning a “war” against all Muslims.

The Canadians took many more Lebanese during that period than Australia did, processing them under similar constraints. Those who went to Canada haven’t had to suffer the indignity of being labelled a mistake by their immigration minister. Was comedian John Oliver right when he claimed that Australians have “settled into their intolerance like an old resentful slipper,” with much “vitriol reserved for Australians of Lebanese origin”? •

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Conflicted: Santo Santoro tenders his resignation from John Howard’s ministry at Parliament House in Canberra on 16 March 2007. Mark Graham/AAP Image

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