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Giving everyone a fair go


When boatloads of Vietnamese refugees began arriving on our shores in the late 70s and early 80s, together with those arriving by plane from refugee camps in other countries, there was a level of fear and ignorance about what this meant for our nation.

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South Australian Labor MLC Tung Ngo, who came here as an 11-year-old refugee in 1981, remembers witnessing protests by white supremist groups in the CBD and on Hanson Road in Adelaide’s western suburbs where many Vietnamese lived.

Michael Nguyen (pictured) came to Adelaide in 1977 and a year later had joined the Vinnies conference at Hindmarsh where he would visit disadvantaged families to give them food vouchers. He recalls going to a house one night and the people refusing to open the door. Later, the police came to arrest him, thinking he was trying to steal something because he had an ‘Asian face’.

Fortunately, the government of the day, under Malcolm Fraser’s leadership, was steadfast in its commitment to resettling people tragically impacted by a war our country was heavily involved in as part of its ‘friendship’ with the United States.

Australia had entered the Vietnam war backing the Americans to stop another country from falling to communism. By the 1970s, it was clear there was no end in sight and the US troops left the defence of the republic to the southern Vietnamese.

The world saw pictures of people scrambling to get on helicopters from the American embassy and orphans being loaded on to planes taking them to safety.

It’s little wonder that the withdrawal of US and Australian troops from Afghanistan and the chaos at Kabul airport this year revived memories for Vietnamese-Australians.

More than 100,000 refugees were accepted by Australia back then, in stark contrast to the 3000 Afghans brought to Australia and offered a “pathway” to permanent residency.

And as for the few thousand Afghans who have fled the Taliban since 2012, they continue to be knocked back as legitimate refugees by the Immigration Department or have their appeals delayed indefinitely.

A Mercy Sister who provides migration advice to asylum seekers told me that anyone who has received two negative responses to visa applications needs to re-apply as currently they are expected to return to Kabul. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling!

Expressing her frustration at politicians and those constituents who claim that the asylum seekers are economic refugees, she said “I’ve seen the scars on their bodies to disprove it”.

When Mr Ngo was handing over $50,000 from the Vietnamese Boat People Monument Association last month (story page 5) he stressed the importance of refugees receiving education and training so they could become productive members of society.

Hopefully the funds will assist in this regard, but it is not easy for someone to find work when they have no certainty about their future. Employers are not going to look favourably on someone who doesn’t have a permanent visa. If their children are charged exorbitant fees to enrol in tertiary studies, what hope do they have of achieving their dreams?

The contribution Vietnamese refugees have made to our country in so many ways is irrefutable.

(Incidentally, at the Vinnies cheque presentation, Mr Nguyen proudly told the gathering he retired from the Department of Agriculture 16 years ago and that he still volunteers for the Department of Correctional Services, looking after prisoners at Yatala.)

I am sure we would be able to say the same in 40 years’ time of those fleeing Afghanistan and other oppressive regimes around the world, if only they were given the chance.

In these days of preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, Pope Francis reminds us that the plight of the Holy Family in fleeing to Egypt “calls to mind the sufferings of the many men, women and children escaping war and persecution. “Little Jesus reminds us that half of today’s refugees in the world are children, blameless victims of human injustice,” he said.


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