Did Britain and Australia really propose to create a new Hong Kong in the Philippines to be populated by Indochinese refugees? The Guardian says yes. The documents from the National Archives say no. Unless there is more than the Archives made available, or I missed the juicy stuff in my long skim, nobody seems to have really considered the creation of a new Crown Colony in 1979. I can’t find any references to an entrepreneurial city or opposition from Lee Kwan Yew; I certainly can’t find any references to an actual transfer of sovereignty.
Judging from the documents, the story does have a grain of truth. There was a bilateral meeting between Australia and Britain, although little seems to have been discussed other than the possibility of a joint position at the U.N. conference. (Both countries had already tried and failed to get the main Western powers in for a sit-down before the U.N. meeting.) The British ambassador to Jakarta did raise the possibility of buying an island from Indonesia for an expanded refugee camp capable of housing up to 200,000 people. The thing about that is that the report about the British suggestion and the Indonesian response is phrased in vaguest possible terms. It isn’t clear who exactly would have put up the money. (I suspect that the British were thinking about the UNHCR, not HMG) It certainly isn’t clear that the use of the term “buy” meant “transfer sovereignty” as opposed to a simple land purchase.
The rest of the stuff in the Guardian story is easy to find, from the worries about riots to the weird decision to try to make it harder for immigrants to bring their spouses into the U.K. But the island-buying and rival Singapore? Can’t find it. Maybe I’m not reading carefully enough.
The full story, best as I can tell, is below the fold.
On June 15th, 1979, the U.K. cabinet sat down to discuss the refugee problem, after receiving from hysterical letters from Thailand and threatening ones from Malaysia. The Thais bluntly stated that they believed that the Vietnam intended to displace or kill the entire Cambodian population and “replace them with Vietnamese immigrants.” The Singaporeans were more limited in their assessment: they believed that the Vietnames aimed at expelling a potential Chinese fifth-column. The Malaysians didn’t care about the reason; they simply stated that they intended to start sinking refugee-laded ships.
This prompted a lot of worry back in London. There was some discussion about allowing some into Britain, if only to convince other countries to take them, but Margaret Thatcher ixnayed that. “Sir Murray Maclehose said that … he hoped that the U.K. would feel free to make a bid of her own. The Prime Minister explained the difficulties created for the British government by the pressure of 2 million immigrants on our large cities.” (1) I assume that meant two million existing immigrants, and not the possibility that Britain would accept two million Vietnamese refugees.
On June 22nd, the Malaysian foreign minister, Tan Sri Ghazali, stated that he believed that the Vietnamese were determined to expel their entire Chinese population. He also believed that if the refugees were not allowed to depart by sea, the Vietnamese would push them over the border into Thailand—interestingly, and accurately, he no longer bothered to refer to Cambodia as a separate country. He therefore proposed upping the capacity of the proposed Galang facility to 200,000. “He commended this idea to HMG and … hoped that it would receive HMG’s support.” (2) The British believed that the total number of additional refugees would not exceed 800,000; I have no idea where that number came from. (3)
On June 26th, France put some pressure on London. “Since the tragedy of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos has begun to assume the character of a veritable transfer of population … the President of the Republic has decided that France will welcome 5,000 additional refugees … for every 1,000 inhabitants of France, there is one refugee from Indochina … France urges all states able to do so to add their efforts.” (4) By that point, France had accepted 51,500 refugees; proportionately about the same as 230,000 who had arrived in America and far above the 2,316 that had arrived in Britain. (5) The southeast Asian countries were losing patience. The Indonesians had agreed to set up a 10,000-person processing center on Galang Island, but the U.K. suspected that their plan was to shunt the refugees they had already accepted to Galang, rather than take more. Of course, that would imply packing 32,000 people into a facility built for 10,000 … ugh. (6) Britain, meanwhile, had given £3.5 million to the UNHCR in 1978, and expected to give £4.75 in 1979. That, however, still left the UNHCR underfunded to the tune of US$67 million … assuming that the problem didn’t get any worse. (7)
On July 6th, Belize agreed to accept 1,000 refugees, as long as the U.K. provided funds for their “health, education, and welfare.” (8) One July 12th, Britain pledged another £5 million for the UNHCR. (9) The next day, Britain’s ambassador in Jakarta reported that they had approached the Indonesian government “about the possible purchase of an Indonesian island,” and had been rebuffed. (10) The same day, the FCO reported that Britain would be on the hook for US$7.503 million for refugee aid and resettlement. (11)
The Malaysian government then reiterated its proposal for a 200,000 person settlement on an island, somewhere. It proposed that the United States set up a “United Nations Processing Centre for Vietnamese Refugees,” preferably on its own territory, but also possibly Hainan (!), Okinawa, Darwin, or New Caledonia. All the refugees would then be transferred to the Centre, and “security and other matters affecting sovereignty and ownership of the land should be determined by the government of the United States of America … but ways must be found to overcome difficulties in the municipal law, e.g., the writ of habeus corpus … in order that these U.N. processing centres are immune from the process of local laws.” (12) It is too bad that the Malaysians didn’t have better lawyers, or they would have known that the Constitution already did not apply to America’s Pacific territories, save Hawaii.
And that seems to be pretty much it. Unless I missed something, which is quite possible.
(1) J.S. Wall to Stephen Wall, “Vietnamese Refugees,” 15 June 1979. Reference PREM/19/130.
(2) Telegram 204, “Vietnamese refugees,” 22 June 1979.
(3) Telegram 644, “Your Telno 284: U.N. Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees,” 20 June 1979.
(4) Telegram 268, “France : Council of Ministers : Indo-Chinese Refugees,” 26 June 1979. Reference PREM/19/130.
(5) Lord Carrington to the Prime Minister, “Vietnamese refugees,” 25 June 1979, p. 6. Reference PREM/19/130. Canada had accepted 15,000. The FCO didn’t have up-to-date Australian numbers, but stated that the country had taken in 19,500 as of May 1st.
(6) Ibid, p. 9.
(7) Ibid, p. 14.
(8) George Price to Margaret Thatcher, “6 July 1979.
(9) JS Wall, “Indo-China Refugees,” 12 July 1979.
(10) JS Wall to Brian Cartledge, “Possible State Visit by President Suharto of Indonesia,” 13 July 1979.
(11) Telno 318, 13 July 1979.
(12) Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie to HMG, “The Vietnamese ‘Boat People’—An Outline of Malaysia’s Proposal to Resolve the Problem,” 14 July 1979. Reference PREM/19/130