Contrasting takes on Lebanese migrant policy in 1976

Crackdown as Lebanese refugee program gets out of hand

THE Fraser cabinet decided to crack down on Lebanese immigration after being advised by officials based in Cyprus that it had become difficult to check the refugee claims and there was a possibility that terrorists and criminals were using the civil war as a cover to enter Australia.

Documents presented to cabinet by immigration minister Michael MacKellar said the Lebanese refugee program had “got out of hand and the department was scraping the bottom of the barrel with regard to quality”.

Notes prepared by the head of the community affairs branch and attached to cabinet submission “860” said: “There are regular reports of deliberate dishonesty and misrepresentation by applicants and their agents.” …

At the time immigration authorities had more than 10,000 applications for residency from Lebanese. With the number of arrivals jumping at the rate of 150 a week, cabinet decided to tighten the conditions for entry, which had been relaxed by the Whitlam government and extended by the Fraser government.

The Age
, 1 January 2007.

Fraser was warned on Lebanese migrants

IMMIGRATION authorities warned the Fraser government in 1976 it was accepting too many Lebanese Muslim refugees without “the required qualities” for successful integration.The Fraser cabinet was also told many of the refugees were unskilled, illiterate and had questionable character and standards of personal hygiene.

Cabinet documents released today by the National Archives under the 30-year rule reveal how Australia’s decision to accept thousands of Lebanese Muslims fleeing Lebanon’s 1976 civil war led to a temporary collapse of normal eligibility standards.

The emergence of the documents raises the question of whether the temporary relaxation might have contributed to contemporary racial tensions in Sydney’s southwest, which exploded a year ago into race-based riots in Cronulla.

In September 1976, as a humanitarian response to the civil war raging at the time between Lebanese Christians and Muslims, cabinet agreed to relax rules requiring immigrants to be healthy, of good character and to have a work qualification.

and at paragraph 27, on a different page of the paper:

Cabinet agreed with Mr MacKellar and authorised him to issue a press release attributing the decision on curbing the intake to concerns about a lack of work opportunities for the migrants.

The Australian, 1 January 2007.

This morning’s papers provide a good example of how differing political agendas between newspapers can lead to very different interpretations of the same story – in this case, the release of the 1976 Cabinet documents. The Australian seems most guilty of spin here – unless you read right to the end of their lead story you would not realise that the Fraser government had realised there was a problem with refugees from Lebanon, and tightened eligibility criteria after an earlier relaxation. Indeed, I did not pick up on this important element of the story until I subsequently read The Age‘s very different take on the Cabinet papers. But The Australian wanted to draw a link with contemporary problems among the Lebanese, and probably have another go at Fraser, and so let the initial relaxtion of migration rules dominate the story. I’m not usually a fan of The Age, but here they have shown the value of media diversity.