Both of my parents are considered boat people. They escaped the war in Vietnam and sought refuge in Australia. Thanks to them, I can now say that I’m an Australian-born artist contributing to society. Still I want to challenge something: why is it that we fear the arrival of immigrants? Oops, let me rephrase: why are people so blardy scared of boat people?
Remember, my parents are boat people, does that make them illegal? Technically, they are labeled as refugees. Due to the Vietnam War during the 1980s, an overwhelming humanitarian effort helped the displaced Vietnamese refugees resettle around the world.
My mother’s boat story
Under the cover of the night, she made contact with the boat captain. She told me that she was slightly acquainted with him, so she was able to receive passage. The tiny boat was overcrowded, what was meant for 5-10 was filled with closer to 50 frightened people. It wasn’t long before the engine broke down. Did I mention pirates came and took what little they had? They floated for just under two weeks before a Malaysian ship saved them. She stayed in a refugee camp for almost two months before she was given permission to fly to Australia. Long story short: she escaped by boat to Malaysia and flew to Australia.
Asylum Seekers are not ‘illegal’ boat people
Today the word refugee has negative connotations. There’s a misconception that asylum seekers are seen to be illegal arrivals to Australia. Just because they are missing certain papers doesn’t mean they are not trying to escape from persecution from their homeland. Again, lets emphasise that refugee are not illegal under international law. Article 14 of The Universal Declaration states “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” 9 out of every 10 ‘boat people’ are eventually found to be genuine refugees. So what’s the difference between the experiences my parents went through and the ones today? The answer is: there is no difference.
They are people fleeing from persecution, usually running away from being persecuted by their own government
Xenophobia and the boat factor
Largely our xenophobic attitude has allowed us to quickly join the ‘stop the boat’ wagon and contribute to our ‘we’re full’ attitude. The propaganda ‘stop the boats’ campaign doesn’t help, it only adds to the fuel of belief that they are a threat to society. I believe that the seed of doubt was planted long before the anti-boat campaign and pre-SIEV X incidents. Or the way we dealt with ‘Yellow Peril’, where the arrivals of Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush days were seen as an economic threat. We only have to look at the White Australian Policy to realise that we haven’t quite gotten over the the perils of newly arrive immigrants.
Asylum seekers are not ‘queue jumpers’
There is no such thing as a queue for asylum seeker to patiently line up and escape from persecution. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no queues for people to flee or ‘jump’ from. Without any diplomatic representation in these countries, standards for refugee request and process don’t exist. Few countries between the Middle East and Australia are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, so many of are forced to continue their travels to another country to find protection.
Positive contribution by immigration
Immigration is very much a focal point of life in Australia, it is worth look at some of the benefits of immigration for Australia:
– Economic benefit: We still are relatively small population and readily available skills are in short supply. With the example of the mining sector, we would be near as powerful today if it was not for the every growing influx of skilled workers from overseas.
– Cultural diversity: By celebrating cultural diversity, we have open up a whole range of new opportunities, including trade, education and investments. Also, we only have to walk on the streets to find a range of awesome and amazing diverse range of cuisines.
Happy Refugee Week
I digress from the main topic; originally I wanted to highlight Refugee Week. I wanted to write a story about my parents’ refugee story and I realised that there are more issues that are in place. I feel a slight pain to hear of the plight of asylum seekers in detention centres. There are many times that I wonder and thought to myself, that could have easily been my parents’ story too. I know I’m lucky to be where I am now, to write and share this is something that only happened because my parents escaped and found refuge in Australia.
So yeah, happy refugee week.
Suzanne Nguyen is an artist and story collector. She is currently building a collection that explores race and racism in Australia as part of @TheTwoChairs.