It’s the tale of two refugee inflows four decades ago: one from Indochina; the other from Lebanon.

Communist forces came to power in South Vietnam and Cambodia in April 1975. Gough Whitlam, Labor prime minister at the time, vehemently opposed Australia accepting Vietnamese refugees since he did not like the fact they were anti-communist.

Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser became prime minister in November 1975, following governor-general John Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam government, and scored a huge victory in the December 1975 election. Fraser was broadly sympathetic to refugees from Indo-China.

The first group of Vietnamese boatpeople arrived in Darwin in April 1976 and some boats followed in subsequent years. The total number of arrivals by boat during the period of the Fraser government, from November 1975 to March 1983, was 2059. The total number of Indochinese refugees accepted during this period was about 70,000. Cambodians and Laotians joined the Vietnamese in the second half of the 1970s.

In short, the overwhelming majority of Indochinese accepted by the Fraser government were processed offshore and arrived in Australia with valid visas and on authorised flights.

Like all migrant groups, the Indochinese had some initial difficulties in adjusting to a new society. However, they soon became valuable contributors to their new country.

The Lebanese Civil War of 1975-76 was under way when Fraser became prime minister. Christian Maronite and Orthodox Lebanese Christians had settled in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and obtained some influence within the Labor Party and the Coalition. In late 1975, a group of influential Maronite Australians approached Fraser and his immigration minister, Michael Mackellar, with a view to the government allowing some Lebanese Christians into the country to join their relatives.

However, there was a potential problem. The Lebanese Christians in question could not be granted immediate access to Australia under the normal immigration categories. To facilitate entry, the Fraser government decided to categorise them as refugees — this despite the fact they were not refugees in the normal sense of the term. The Christians were not fleeing persecution but rather the difficulties of a civil war that involved clashes between Muslim and Christian groups.

In time, the Fraser government’s decision became known as the “Lebanon Concession”, meaning that any Lebanese granted access to Australia under this scheme had done so as part of a concession with respect to the prevailing rules. All they had to do was to state that they were fleeing the civil war and that they had a relative in Australia, plus meet some health checks.

As it turned out, most Christians did not want to leave Lebanon in 1975-76. Nor did most Muslims who lived in the capital city, Beirut. Instead, some Lebanese from deprived rural areas learned of Australia’s Lebanon Concession and decided to seek a better life in Australia. They comprised Sunnis from northern Lebanon and Shias from southern Lebanon.

The intending beneficiaries of the Lebanon Concession advised the Australian Immigration Department officials dispatched to the area that they were fleeing the civil war and had a relative in Australia. Few, if any, were rejected.

The cabinet records for the period indicate that the Fraser government quickly became concerned about the unintended consequences of the concession. In September 1976, cabinet considered a report that stated that the Immigration Department had been “completely overstretched” by the demand and had lost control of the program.

Put simply, Australian officials could not determine whether applicants seeking entry into Australia had suffered hardship in Lebanon. Moreover, there was no satisfactory criteria for assessing whether applicants had a family relationship in Australia. The report said “the Lebanese have an extended family concept” that included not only nephews, nieces and cousins but also “the residents of their home village whom they may not have seen in years”.

More seriously, the September 1976 report expressed concern about “the possibility that the conflicts, tensions and divisions within Lebanon will be transferred to Australia”. This was a reference to the tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The report stated that violence had occurred within the Immigration Department’s Nicosia office when applications for entry under the Lebanon Concession were being processed.

By November 1976, according to cabinet records, Mackellar was warning his colleagues about “the declining quality of many of the Lebanese people being sponsored for entry under the (Lebanon ­Concession) relaxed entry requirements”. Mackellar’s report to cabinet was blunt, to say the least: “A high percentage is illiterate. Personal hygiene is poor … The balance between Muslim and Christian applicants has risen to 90 per cent Muslim.

“Large families of up to 18 children are applying. Identification of applicants is complicated. Misrepresentations and deliberate attempts to conceal vital information are prolonging interviews … There is a high rate of nominations involving parents of working age and their dependants as well as brothers and sisters who, under the relaxed criteria applying during the emergency situation, are required to meet health and character standards only without any regard to their economic viability, personal qualities or capacity for successful settlement.”

Meeting on November 30, 1976, the Fraser cabinet junked the Lebanon Concession, less than a year after it had been created. Fraser and his colleagues decided that: “The normal selection criteria for Lebanese applicants be reintroduced immediately — ie economic viability, personal quality and ability to integrate criteria be applied to all applicants except spouses, dependent children and aged parents. All applicants will have to meet health and character ­requirements.”

This was an acknowledgment, at the highest level of government, that the Lebanon Concession had turned into a social policy disaster.

Fraser had been warned, soon after the experiment began, that the policy was ill-advised. Some leaders of the Lebanese Christian Maronite community in Australia told the prime minister that the decision to allow poorly educated people from the rural areas of Lebanon into Australia would prove unwise. The Maronites were met with a response along the lines of “well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?” Meaning that the Maronites were opposing the overwhelming majority of Lebanon Concession beneficiaries simply because they were Muslim.

This was a grossly unfair criticism — since, before 1975, some Muslim Lebanese Australians had settled successfully in Australia and there was no evidence of significant rivalry between those of the Christian and Muslim faiths.

The fact is that Maronite Australians, some of whom had been born in Lebanon, were more familiar with the people of rural Lebanon than Fraser and his key advisers. The Maronites were proved correct, but only when the consequences of the Lebanon Concession could not be wound back.

As with some other inconvenient truths, Fraser went into denial over the Lebanon Concession. In December 2005, before the release of the 1976 cabinet papers, I phoned Fraser to check some facts for an article I was writing about Lebanese immigration to Australia. Fraser said he could not remember anything at all about the Lebanon Concession but added that this was the kind of decision that he could have made. Really.

Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, which the former prime minister co-wrote with academic Margaret Simons, contains just over a page on the Lebanon Concession, though the co-authors do not use this term. According to Fraser’s memoirs, 4000 Lebanese were allowed into Australia at the time and adds that “nine out of 10 were Muslim” whereas, previously, “migrants from Lebanon had been mainly Christian”. He added that “for every one person admitted as a refugee, three came in under family reunion programs”.

The statistics tell the story. In 1971 there were about 3400 Lebanese-born Muslims in Australia. A decade later, the figure was 15,600. Most of the Muslim Lebanese who came to Australia as a consequence of the Lebanon Concession settled in southwest Sydney — mainly in the suburbs of Lakemba and Arncliffe. The numbers grew substantially due to family reunions and high birthrates.

The Sunnis, primarily from northern Lebanon, frequented the Lakemba mosque. The Shia, primarily from southern Lebanon, frequented the Arncliffe mosque.

In 1982 Sheik Taj El-Din Hilaly arrived in Australia from Egypt on a tourist visa.

Those who came to Australia under the Lebanon Concession had the misfortune to arrive during a decline in manufacturing jobs. There has been a very high level of unemployment among Australians of Muslim Lebanese background since the mid-70s and many of this group did not obtain maximum benefit from the Australian education system.

Many who benefited from the Lebanon Concession — along with their children and grandchildren — have done well in Australia. But not all. Last Tuesday, Haset Sali (founding president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils) told the ABCAM program that “if people are not prepared to respect our basic laws then they should certainly not be given refugee status and certainly not be given citizenship in Australia”.

The consequences of the Lebanon Concession did not turn on religion. The Turks, who began arriving in Australia in large numbers in the mid-60s, have settled successfully. As have numerous Muslims from India, North Africa and Southeast Asia, along with many Lebanese. Unfortunately, a small number of the children and grandchildren of these Lebanese Muslims have been attracted to extremism, others to crime.

As Mackellar conceded in November 1976, the Lebanon Concession was a flawed immigration program. It’s little wonder Fraser did not want to remember it.