History written by Kaldor Centre Senior Research Fellow Dr Claire Higgins features in the new book When Migrants Fail to Stay: New Histories on Departures and Migration, edited by Ruth Balint, Joy Damousi and Sheila Fitzpatrick (Bloomsbury, 2023).

The chapter by Dr Higgins is called, 'Departure by Diplomacy: a History of Refugee Resettlement Offers between Australia and the United States’.

It covers several occasions since the 1960s when Australia and the United States have agreed to transfer or ‘swap’ refugees whose original journey to one or the other country was politically contentious. The most recent and well-known example is the 2016 resettlement arrangement for refugees held in offshore detention by Australia, but this practice of ‘departure by diplomacy’ has a much longer history, involving generations of refugees from Cuba as well as many Vietnamese, Haitians, and others who sought asylum by boat.

An early and obscure example of refugee departures organised between the two countries originated during a Washington D.C. meeting in April 1978 between Department of State representatives and an Australian government delegation. There, the two sides agreed that where a Vietnamese person in a refugee camp had been approved for resettlement in the United States by US officials but then – put off by a long wait and difficult living conditions –decided to sail to Australia instead, the individual would be transferred from Australia to the United States. 

With the number of Vietnamese fleeing into the Southeast Asian region increasing, Washington hoped that this agreement would encourage Canberra to continue Australia’s resettlement of Vietnamese from refugee camps. The Australian government hoped the deal would discourage refugees from leaving camps and risking the onward boat journey to Darwin. 

Archival evidence suggests that ultimately around 21 people were moved from Australia to the United States under this agreement.

Discover more by exploring When Migrants Fail to Stay: New Histories on Departures and Migration.