Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Age remembers a more welcoming Australia

The Age Editorial on Sunday drew comparisons with our response to the Vietnamese 'boat people'and today's asylum seekers:

“When the Kein Giang, a rickety wooden fishing boat chugged into sight of the northern coast of Australia on April 26, 1976, it signaled a fundamental change in Australian society. It was just four days short of a year since the fall of Saigon ended 30 years of civil war. Lam Binh, the 25-year-old captain, his 17-year-old brother Lam Tac Tam and their three friends were the first of 2000 refugees who made it all the way to Australia by boat from Vietnam. Most of the 55,000 refugees who were eventually settled here came via detention centres in Asia. They were joined in time by a further 95,000 who arrived under the family reunion program.

It was a perilous journey. Aside from the deprivations of the long sea voyage, often with insufficient food, in overcrowded and dilapidated craft, there was the additional threat of piracy on the high seas. It is estimated that between 10 and 15 per cent of those who fled Vietnam in boats perished at sea.

Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, Australia is a different place again. Australians in the 1970s were generous in their acceptance of the newcomers, even though their arrival represented the most significant shift in the acceptance of non-European migration since Federation. The policy of taking the refugees was nurtured by the conservative government of Malcolm Fraser. Australia in time became one of the key centres of the Vietnamese diaspora.”

Australians mobilized in huge numbers in opposition to the Vietnam War. It was a lightening rod for my generation, having a huge influence on political responses to this day. We were ready to take Vietnamese boat people because they were on the ‘right’ side (through the ‘optics’ of the time), escaping detention, property confiscation, ‘retraining’ and other forms of repression.

Are people escaping repressive fundamentalist regimes and violent upheaval today no longer worthy of our compassion? In the current political construct I am at lost as to why, for instance, an Afghani escaping the Taliban is not seen as being on the ‘right’ side? Many parts of Afghanistan remain under threat of a Taliban revival.

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