Canberra is a small town – about 350,000 people. It’s the centre of political power in Australia, has the highest standard of living in Australia, it’s local government actively supports refugee resettlement programs, and most interesting to us, it has a similar proportion of its population holding graduate degrees (ie masters, Phds) as the rest of Australia has post-secondary education qualifications.
It also rates in the world top-50 most liveable cities. So in simple terms, it is a rich, exceptionally well-educated, professionally dominated small multicultural city.
So you’d think its attitudes would be light years away from the typical Australia “bogan” attitude as demonstrated best by the Shitney (sorry, Sydney) anti-Muslim riots in 2005.
Apparently not. In this article, which can be found here a Catholic priest, a Vietnamese refugee who undoubtedly faced racism himself in Australia lambasted desperate asylum seekers who try and travel by boat to Australia to escape ethnic cleansing, sectarian violence and other horrors for the comparable safety of a country with a generally tolerant majority but a big racist (but fortunately mostly not violent) minority called Australia.
So, Don Nguyen thinks that: “''In my time, identifying refugees was easier. I think a lot of people are playing games these days.''
Really? So, in the 1980s, a trip by boat from Vietnam with stops in Indonesia is different from an overland trip to get out of Afghanistan or Iraq, then flying to Malaysia then a boat trip to Australia via Indonesia how exactly?
Exactly how is that a less dangerous trip? Why was it easier? He then goes on to say: ''I would love to have involvement with refugees. I have experienced how the refugee feels.''
To be fair, I think the article headline does not do justice to his stated aims of helping refugees. But the key quote above does show that racism and xenophobia can rear its head in very different ways.
Here we have a Vietnamese refugee expressing what some would consider xenophobic view about the current influx of refugees into Australia. Like most other countries that accept refugees (something most countries in SE Asian don’t), who comes is a result of conflicts in the region. Still, if a Vietnamese refugee feels threatened by western-Asian migrants, what would the rest of Australia feel?
Strangely enough, outrage at his views. The paper that published the article had a flurry of letters in response published, including this gem from one Gavin O'Brien who wrote:
“I am extremely concerned at Deacon Don Nguyen's comment ('' Cleric wary of new wave of asylum seekers'', June 25, p4) that today's refugees ''are playing games''. So often we hear or read that these people may be communist agents or terrorists. I am a Vietnam veteran, I think I understand why these people flee persecution. I know some of these boat people and their stories, both from postwar Vietnam and some more recently fleeing from Sri Lanka and other war-torn countries.
Today's refugees are no different to the people that Don escaped from Vietnam with. Such ill-informed comments only serve to muddy the debate even more. Where is the Christian compassion and charity please?”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Xenphobia and racism deserve no part in any nation.
Cleric wary of new wave of asylum seekers
He came to Australia as a refugee and recently Don Nguyen was ordained the seventh permanent deacon for the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn.
Mindful of his background, he would love to have involvement with refugees, but he urges caution.
''Refugees are of concern for the church and everyone,'' he said. ''But we have to deal with whether they are genuine refugees.'' The situation was now very complex. ''In my time, identifying refugees was easier. I think a lot of people are playing games these days.'' People claiming to be refugees could be terrorists or being used by communist regimes to expand their empires. ''We don't want to lose our freedom helping these people.'' But people in refugee camps, as opposed to those who could afford to pay to get to Australia, were very disadvantaged and had no protection.
''I would love to have involvement with refugees. I have experienced how the refugee feels.''
He was born in Vietnam in 1959 and came to Australia on October 21, 1981. The date is obviously significant to him. ''It is something I cannot forget.''
In Vietnam he was a swimming instructor. His wife, Jennifer, was a gymnastics instructor. They married two years after moving to Australia. ''We escaped together from Vietnam.'' This was in a small boat during a two-week hazardous voyage to Malaysia. ''We consider we were one of the lucky people. We experienced a lot of storm. There was a moment when we thought the boat would be sunk. Somehow we survived.''
They spent three months in a refugee camp before being accepted by Australia as refugees.
His mother was a Christian and his father a Buddhist. His father, brother and sister were killed in 1968 when the communists invaded from the north. On arrival in Australia with limited English he worked as a kitchen hand in Sydney.
Later, while working as a mail sorter with Australia Post, he studied electrical engineering and computing at Wollongong University. The combined pressure of work, study and the arrival of their first child meant he did not complete the degree.
In 1990 he joined the then Department of Social Security and about 10 years ago he moved to Canberra as part of a restructure of the department for which he worked.
He said he was an ordinary Christian with a Vietnamese community until invited to attend a Cursillo weekend. Cursillo is a Christian renewal movement established in Spain in 1944. With Kairos Ministry he visited inmates at Long Bay Jail.
He said his ordination as a deacon gave him more opportunities to serve the Church. He is not sure where it might lead. ''I just open myself to God and enter the unknown.''
As a deacon he can perform most priestly roles but not the sacraments of Eucharist, confession or anointing of the sick.
''I hope to be available when people need my service.''
Asylum seekers deserve same help as Vietnamese
I was appalled that Don Nguyen (''Cleric wary of new wave of asylum seekers'', June 25, p4) thought it appropriate to announce his appointment as deacon to the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn by airing views on asylum seekers that are directly contrary to those of the Catholic Bishops Conference and many Catholics in his diocese.
Refugees from Vietnam benefited from Australia's involvement in the Comprehensive Plan of Action, an international effort to resettle refugees from Indochina, as well as the Orderly Departure Program Australia negotiated with the Vietnamese government.
Australian immigration officials sent to countries of first asylum processed people like Nguyen, and our government was sympathetic to the distress of those displaced by a war in which Australia had taken part.
No such national or international program has been established to resettle refugees who have fled to Pakistan and Iran from Afghanistan and Iraq, despite Australia's involvement in war in their countries. Desperate people with no alternatives risk dangerous boat journeys to claim asylum in Australia.
When Australia signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, we committed to treating such arrivals humanely while considering their claims for protection. The 2000 Vietnamese who arrived in Australia by boat from the late 1970s, were not detained and were granted permanent residence immediately on being found to be refugees. Current boat arrivals are detained for lengthy periods and granted only temporary visas on release into the community, gravely impeding their resettlement prospects. Nguyen's claims that asylum seekers could be terrorists or communist subversives are both ridiculous and un-Christian.
Ann-Mari Jordens, Red Hill
I am extremely concerned at Deacon Don Nguyen's comment ('' Cleric wary of new wave of asylum seekers'', June 25, p4) that today's refugees ''are playing games''. So often we hear or read that these people may be communist agents or terrorists. I am a Vietnam veteran, I think I understand why these people flee persecution. I know some of these boat people and their stories, both from postwar Vietnam and some more recently fleeing from Sri Lanka and other war-torn countries.
Today's refugees are no different to the people that Don escaped from Vietnam with. Such ill-informed comments only serve to muddy the debate even more. Where is the Christian compassion and charity please?
Gavin O'Brien, Gilmore
I disagree with both Labor and the Coalition's respective positions on asylum seekers, but the time has come for all of us to put aside opinions and demand that our politicians find a solution.
Surely somewhere in the self-interest that forms the soul of modern politics, there remains a remnant of bi-partisanship that will put the lives of desperate people ahead of ambition.
Bart Meehan, Calwell
May I suggest that if our politicians are unable to reach a joint decision on the handling of asylum seekers arriving by boat by Wednesday of next week, then as many as possible people of Australia gather in Canberra, place the Federal Parliament under siege and only let the pollies out when a decision has been reached.
John Bonnett, Belconnen
Once again we are supposed to sit back as a nation and cop it when a boatload of illegal immigrants founders in another people-smuggling attempt to reach Australia.
I simply ask why we are not seeing articles indicating the Indonesian ambassador has been ''called in'' and given an absolute rocket by the Gillard government, as an indication of growing Australian disgust at his government's overt complicity in criminal people smuggling by allowing the craft to sail in the first place.
Michael Doyle, Fraser