Cables released by the National Archives of Australia on Friday reveal that fear of an influx of refugees was among the key motivations behind Australia’s decision to assist the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Cambodia in the early 1990s.
Selected Cabinet records from 1990 and 1991 state that beyond a sense of humanitarian responsibility, Australia’s involvement in Cambodian affairs was influenced by concerns about increased migration, ambitions for greater economic and trade opportunities in Southeast Asia, and a desire to improve the country’s international standing.
Cabinet minutes from June 26, 1990, titled “Asylum claimants” betray a fear of asylum seekers reaching Australia’s shores.
“Our broad and liberal approach to visitor entry means that there is scope for many thousands of people from ‘at risk countries’…to self select themselves as de facto migrants,” the minutes say.
“Recent boat arrivals from Cambodia show that strains can be imposed on our processes and programs from those who can reach the Australian frontier by unconventional means without visas at all.”
According to the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, a mere 315 asylum seekers arrived by boat from Cambodia between 1989 and April 1991.
Australia’s treatment of refugees has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. In September 2014, Australia pledged AU$40 million (about $28.1 million) in aid to Cambodia in exchange for taking in an unspecified number of refugees from a detention center on the Pacific island of Nauru.
To date, Cambodia has received five refugees from the facility on Nauru—three Iranians and two Rohingya from Burma—which the U.N. has condemned for flouting its Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory. One Rohingya man has since returned to Burma of his own volition.
Another Cabinet submission titled “Options for an Australian contribution to a peacekeeping force in Cambodia,” prepared by then-Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans and then-Labour Party Senator Robert Ray in early October 1991, details the aims and potential pitfalls of an Australian deployment to Cambodia.
The document—submitted in anticipation of the Paris Peace Agreements planned for later that month—recommends Australia be prepared to provide 500 personnel to limit Cambodian refugees and bolster diplomatic influence in both Cambodia and the U.N.
It states that Australia’s efforts assisting the U.N. with the “Cambodian problem…provides the best chance of stemming the flow of Cambodian refugees and of arranging the repatriation of Cambodian boat people in Australia.”
“Participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations in Cambodia…will reinforce our standing in South-East Asia,” the document adds.
“It would help promote regional acceptance of Australia as a natural partner in future South East Asian security, and would enhance our long-term relationship (including trade and investment) with Cambodia and Vietnam.”
The document goes on to describe a “substantial risk” of instability in Cambodia due to competing powers in the country, and says that for both diplomatic and safety reasons, Australia should “actively seek positions or roles which provide access to both U.N. and the various Cambodian factions at a high level.”