Adjournment speech - Vietnamese Australians
Senator John Faulkner
9 February 2012
Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (19:22): This year marks the 35th year since then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser formally made a humanitarian commitment for the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in Australia. He did so under our responsibilities as a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Last year I spoke in this chamber on the 60th anniversary of that convention.
The history of Vietnamese migration to Australia has recently been brought to our attention by the popular SBS television series Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta. The series described the hardship endured by Vietnamese refugees fleeing the newly unified Vietnam after the Vietnam War and their subsequent resettlement in Cabramatta, then a tiny suburb in Sydney's south-west. The Cabramatta community's struggle with gangs, drugs and violence through the 1980s and 1990s has been well documented. But Cabramatta has come a long way since those dark days. The Cabramatta experience provides many valuable lessons for Australians and future migrants alike. And it reminds us that community support is needed to assist migrants finding their place in Australian society.
While pockets of disadvantage still exist, the story of Vietnamese migration to Australia has largely been a story we can all be proud of. The Vietnamese people have made an outstanding contribution to Australian society and have forever changed the face of modern multicultural Australia. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, fear of persecution from the invading North Vietnamese Army led massive numbers of Vietnamese to flee by sea. The first boatload of asylum seekers arrived in Darwin on 26 April 1976. Of course, most of the 90,000 refugees who settled in Australia in the 1970s and 80s arrived by air after being processed in refugee camps across South-East Asia. The majority of arrivals to New South Wales were processed at the Westbridge hostel, now the Villawood Detention Centre, and settled in nearby Cabramatta.
The Australian community was divided. Many had reservations about the new arrivals' ability to adapt to a very different society. Others had reservations about refugees bringing with them their own politics, their own religion, their own culture and ancient ethnic conflicts. Vietnamese refugees arrived, in many cases, with broken families and fractured lives. They arrived in Australia with little knowledge of the language and culture. They struggled to find meaningful employment to support their growing families. And in many cases these issues were only compounded by the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, a product of years of conflict and upheaval in their homeland.
The story of Vietnamese Australians has taught us valuable lessons in Australia's role as a responsible global citizen and about the humane treatment of refugees. It is proof that we are a generous country. It is an example of how quickly, with efficient processing of claims for asylum, that is possible and how, with sufficient planning and infrastructure, migrant communities can flourish and make a valuable contribution to Australian society. Cabramatta is a good example of close community engagement with government and our democratic processes, community policing and determination effecting positive change in our communities.
While extremists talk about ethnic ghettos and the failure to assimilate, the truth is that suburbs like Cabramatta are an example of harmonious modern Australian multiculturalism. The new generation of Vietnamese are often high achievers in schools and universities. They make a valuable contribution to Australian society in so many fields. They excel particularly in the field of health, such as pharmacy, optometry and general practice. They are engineers, architects, public servants, ministerial advisers. They are contributors in workplaces of all descriptions. Modern Australia is dotted with successful small businesses started by entrepreneurial and hardworking migrant families, particularly Vietnamese Australians. They excel in the field of small business, with many successful bakeries, drycleaners, restaurants and fabric stores. In fact, two Vietnamese Australians are recent winners of the Young Australian of the Year award. The story of Vietnamese refugees is not too dissimilar to the stories of our latest wave of refugees seeking asylum from the Middle East and Africa, vulnerable people fleeing war, famine and political persecution. It is interesting to note that while the community is once again debating the arrival of the latest wave of refugees, the second generation of Vietnamese Australians—every bit Australian—are making valuable contributions to Australian society and doing it with a broad Australian accent. They have become as accepted as the Greeks, Italians, Poles, Chinese and refugees from the former Yugoslavia.
Cabramatta has become an important piece of the jigsaw that makes up modern multicultural Australia. While some pockets of disadvantage remain, Cabramatta is surely not an ethnic ghetto. It is an optimistic, vibrant and harmonious community with people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, people proud to call Cabramatta their home.