September 2015 – Another Way is Possible

an dho
Comedian An Dho – happily, a Vietnamese-Australian

When Australia withdrew from the infamy of the Vietnam war, what became of the thousands of Vietnamese who had supported and fought alongside Australian and other US-allied forces? They were stranded in their own country. The ensuing persecution meant that owning or renting property, conducting business, educating children or raising a family fast receded from our friends’ lives as the reality of widescale persecution and retribution set in to Vietnamese society.

Faced with a country so turned against them, thousands of Vietnamese did what many of us would do. They did pursued any and every possible avenue to get their families out of danger. Boarding whatever seaworthy vessels they could find passage on, they left their native country as refugees to seek asylum in Australia and other places.


In the late 70s and early 80s Australia processed and received in excess of 112,000 Vietnamese refugees including those originally dubbed “boat-people”. They were processed in Australia and Malaysia. Though the state of the vessels in which they arrived and the dangers of their passage were matters of great concern, nobody at that time thought to build policy platforms on the notion that our guiding prinicple should be the targeting of “people smugglers” (ie those selling spaces in boats) in order to stop the boats – as if that were to solve the problem.

Not only did we in Australia accept this rapid inflow of asylum seekers, but today no one could deny that our country has been culturally enriched by this influx. At the time the significant inflow of refugees was managed without the need for a policy of mandatory or indefinite detention. Families were not deliberately separated, or fathers deliberately deprived of sleep, or sick people deliberately deprived of their medicines, before shipping them back to the same danger they were fleeing. It was managed without the fear and politicking we see today.

Australian families and churches all played their part in receiving and integrating Vietnamese families into Australian society. This generosity and open spirit were extended gladly and with grace and skill – because Australians recognized  the need to deal compassionately with the aftermath of war. It is a record to be proud of.

Today those making a similar journey to our shores for similar reasons, be it persecution of Christians in Thailand, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran; be it civil war in the Central African Republic or refuge from dangerous politics in countries like Zimbabwe, find that the government of Australia has changed since the 1980s in the style of “protection’ now being offered. Given the modest numbers it is difficult to understand why. But the testimony of our Vietnamese, brothers and sisters will remind us, if we will remember, that another way is possible.