“Boat People” Symposium

Saturday 15 October 1995
Murdoch University

Panel Discussion—Morning
Chair: Anne-Marie Medcalf
Phea Run, Lan Tran, Le Tan Kiet, Saret Tach, Stephanie D'Orazio


Anne-Marie Medcalf

I won't do a long introduction. The way that we are going to proceed is that each speaker is going to speak from ten to fifteen minutes and then we'll have some general question time and general discussion. So our first speaker is Phea Run. Phea Run arrived four years ago from Cambodia and spent four years in Port Hedland Detention Centre. He has now been granted refugee status and is living in Perth.

Phea Run

Hi, my name is Phea Run and I'd like to share my experience with you as a refugee. I came from Cambodia. We had to leave Cambodia because Khmer Rouge activity was strong around where we lived. My mother is half Chinese and half Cambodian and, as you know, the Chinese look like Cambodians and the Khmer Rouge would kill you if they see you as a Vietnamese because they don't like Vietnamese.

I left Cambodia in early 1991. We had to face many difficulties beyond our expectation. The experiences that I had on that small wooden boat will never leave me. For the first two days, after departing Cambodia, one of our biggest troubles was piracy. We knew that if we met them, we wouldn't survive. They would rape the girls and then put them into prostitution. Then they would sink the boats to kill the others. But luckily, we didn't meet any of them. We got away from them.

After about a week later, we had to face another big problem - the shortage of water. We had to drink dirty water that was left on the boat from the tanks. Even that dirty water was precious at the time. We had to take turns and wait until we got really thirsty. I thought that we were going to die when we had finally run out of water. We went through that evening without a drop of water. We desperately needed to find an island so that we could get some more water and some supplies - and in the early morning we did. We had everything that we needed and then we set off again. We had water shortages many, many times but we were fortunate enough to find islands nearby so that we could stop and put some more water in the tanks or find some other supplies that we needed.

My biggest scare during the entire journey was in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep. The boat got stuck into something during the low tide and was leaning heavily to the other side and I thought it was going to capsize - but we acted quickly by going to the other side to balance the boat and then some divers went down to see what happened and many people were saying prayers that the boat wouldn't sink but when the divers came up they said that the boat was okay. It wasn't damaged, and then, when high tide came, we were able to continue our journey again.

We had many, uncountable problems. Our small boats had to battle with big waves up to something like around four to five metres high - which is much higher than our boats. On one windy night we lost one of our two reserve petrol tanks. The wind just blew it off. The wind was too strong. And the engine of the boat failed that day. The day was very calm and the sea was calm and everything was all right but the engine suddenly stopped. We couldn't fix it but we were lucky - the engine stopped close to an island - close enough so that we could drop our anchor and then pull the boat in and we kept doing this until the boat got close to the island and some swimmers could swim to the island to get help from the local people.

After about thirty days we finally reached Australia.

That feeling was unbelievable. We were so excited. We knew that we were alive again. We were brought in to be questioned and then we thought that we would be accepted as refugees. But that wasn't to be.

We were locked up for about three years, or more than three years, while our applications were being looked at - were being processed. The period that some people have been in the detention centre is unbelievable. It is ridiculous. From three years to nearly six years and some of them are still there.

I was in the detention centre for three years before I got released but these two Cambodian brothers I know have been there for almost six years and they are still in the Port Hedland Detention Centre and their family - their entire family - is in the United States and the Australian government is going to send them back so I heard in the news. The Australian government is going to send those two brothers back to Cambodia. I don't know why they are doing that after locking them up for nearly six years. One of them was only sixteen when he got to Australia and now he is nearly twenty-two years old. He has spent some of his happiest life in the Detention Centre. There are a lot of children there. Some of them were born there and they are still there. I don't know why it takes so long for their cases to be processed. I don't think it should take any longer than a month.

People shouldn't be locked up. Innocent people shouldn't be locked up for years. This I don't think is right. Criminals don't deserve to be locked up that long. Some get only four or five years but these people get somewhere around six - six years and the media always tend to write about the negative side of them. They don't always say the good things about them. They classify them as "economic refugees" which is totally untrue.

As to my experience I've known what it is - the refugee's life. I hope that people get to understand these people much better and to know their problems much better. Thank you.

Anne-Marie Medcalf

Thank you very much for sharing that experience. Our next speaker is Lan Tran who is a very well known figure around Murdoch University. Lan arrived sixteen years ago from a refugee camp in Malaysia and she will tell us her story.

Lan Tran

Much of what I have to tell regarding my experience as a refugee is from a perception of a child, therefore I find it appropriate to section my story into a series of impressionable events. You'll find I'll be interrupting the chronological flow of my story with recurring incidents that shape my subjective understanding of myself in context, that is as a Boat Person, a refugee, a Vietnamese and, generally speaking, an Asian in Australia. Before I launch into my personal tale of drama I shall brief you on my specific history so that you can understand my position.

My family was from Saigon - double income, middle-class. We lived in an average district where our sense of comfortable wealth contrasted with our not so well-off neighbours. However, since the communist take-over in 1975, our position made us easy targets for social political persecution, where people were encouraged to dob in their neighbours suspected of anti-communist beliefs or activities usually done out of jealousy, and children were often brainwashed with communist propaganda permeating schools, scout organisations and the media. I must mention that I was brought up to understand this as a circumstance of why we had to leave Vietnam. And I often find myself referring to this version in order to validate my refugee status in the past and to justify my being here in Australia.

The journey. My family of six, my dad, my mum, my brother, my sister, my mum's youngest brother and I, had been trying to escape Vietnam since 1978, and we finally succeeded in 1980. I was six years old at the time. Here I'd like to point out the term "escaped" described more of my parents' and my uncle's frame of mind - but for my brother, sister and I, it was more of an experience of being uprooted. One day we were eating a substantial meal, the next day we were out at sea throwing it all up, and a week later we were on an island coming to terms with our permanent separation from Vietnam and the life we had known.

The rest of the story is pretty much the case of escaping in an overcrowded boat, 75 people on board a 10 metre fishing trawler so seaworthy that the owner had to dive under every so often to screw the propeller back on because it was loose; so well planned that we were relying on the mercy of passing ships rather than travelling to a specific destination, like hitch-hiking out at sea; so well organised that we ran out of water on the first day, resorting to rationed engine water (the water used to keep the engine cool) and it was pure luck that just as we were running out of water on the sixth day, which was like a great drama from the movies, we came across a group of Malaysian fishermen who directed us to Pulau Tengah, a former military island serving as a temporary refugee camp.

As I mentioned earlier, despite our ordeal at sea, I didn't realise that we were leaving Vietnam for good. I actually thought it was an overseas trip with appalling standards. You see, my parents did not tell us kids about their plans at the risk of one of us, most likely to be me, boasting in the school playground about it, so it was only on reaching Pulau Tengah that I kind of figured out that we had actually escaped Vietnam.

On arrival we became the latest spectacle for other Vietnamese refugees who had arrived before us. They were looking at us, pointing at us, and talking about us. From the moment we stepped off the boat we became aware of being on parade as the "newcomers". Our ignorance or naivete must have shown on our faces and in our gestures. The label "newcomers" stuck with us until the next load of Vietnamese refugees drifted along and we discarded that label on to them. We became part of the ranks of observers pointing at them and talking about them. It was quite empowering to be able to talk about someone else with such authority. It proved that we had finally become absorbed into the makeshift Vietnamese community on that island. It was the kind of authority that must necessarily be marked by new arrivals. This hierarchy of "knowing our space" or "our sense of place" was based on the length of time that we'd been at a place. With each transfer to a new location there was definitely that sense of re-establishing ourselves in relation to other Vietnamese who had been there before us and those who had arrived after us.

The next stage was being processed. Upon arrival at Pulau Tengah, looking malnourished the way we did, we were quickly fed then taken to an isolated area on the island to be monitored and immunised until the Malaysian authority was satisfied that we weren't carrying any disease that could infect the rest of the inhabitants. We were then classified by the date of our arrival and for the rest of our stay on the island we were identified by our boat number DN1070. After a week of relative isolation, we were allocated living quarters within the transient refugee community. As the latest arrivals, we became recipients of charity for the first time ever.

This pattern of requiring assistance and relying on welfare became a fact of life for the next several years. On the island there were several activities to settle us down. For instance, my family were slotted into the existing eating patterns, sleeping routines and English classes. This whole process was like a big bureaucratic sieve, draining away our previous identities. The paperwork for documentation, the immunisation for purification, the routines for adaptation - all made us acutely aware of our new identity as refugees. At this stage, as a people taking refuge on a temporary basis, we accumulated the necessary appliances for cooking and products for hygiene ready to leave them all behind each time we were transferred. That was the state of how settled we were. During this relatively brief transitional period we experienced a spectrum of emotions from fear and uncertainty of what the future may hold to wondrous joy at the prospect of progressing towards our utopic vision of the West and modernity.

We were on the island for four months before we were interviewed and accepted by the visiting Australian delegation. We were then transferred across to Sungai Besi "A", the detention camp on the mainland of the Malaysian peninsula for the final processing. That was another upheaval because we had just settled down into the way of life on the island, developed friends and in some ways regained some sense of dignity from what had been lost in escaping Vietnam. We had to undergo the whole process of being the newcomers all over again, of not knowing what was going on and being subjected to a spate of immunisation as if we were highly contaminated, still. In fact the only times we travelled out of that compound were for medical check-ups and regular inoculations. We settled down to the established routines in the detention camp for four more months. We readily accepted these standards. In fact we were grateful because we were a step closer to what we envisaged would be a bright future. It needs to be emphasised that we lived on a day-to-day basis in the refugee compound. Even with the vision of eventual stability, we were in a limbo as we waited to resume our lives properly once we reached our final destination, Australia.

In Australia I have come to experience a lot of racism as opposed to our high expectations and this next bit is about my experience.

By the time we were flown to Australia, we had shed our previous identity as purely Vietnamese to Vietnamese in relation to our experience, Boat People, refugees. By then I had acquired a way of dealing with the process of migration from the experience of previous transitions - being processed, being placed and persevering with the temporary label "newcomer", presumably until another plane-load of Vietnamese refugees came along and unburdened us of that label - or so I thought, until we came out of the familiarity and protective custody of Graylands Migrant Hostel and its mainly Vietnamese inhabitants, and found our way to the mainstream Australian society. Against the backdrop of the white Australian population we became acutely aware of our "yellow" Asianess, like having other children chanting "Ching, Chong, Chinaman" in my face as a form of greeting, and also my experience of racism in playgrounds. Early on in school my lack of English prevented me from blending in.

A couple of years down the track I realised that there were greater barriers preventing me from ever being part of the Anglo-Australian crowd. Foremost in the social divide - my Asian appearance. My racial colouring cannot be bleached, even as my English competency improves or even as my knowledge of the Australian lifestyle increases. Not only is our colour undesirable but our corporeal presence here is obscene. In fact, we had to be upholding citizens, always. The slightest deviation is often magnified as the media swoops down on it immediately.

This incident among others makes me realise that I will always be seen as an ethnic in Australia. This time the label "newcomer" denoting outsidedness, had stuck. In the past this realisation has caused much anger within me. I was often impatient and frustrated with the lack of acceptance. The future did not look particularly bright. The process of grief for having been uprooted and living in exile began to sink in. Everything that was familiar to me, apart from my family, seemed to be a lifetime away. I missed intensely the familiarity of Vietnam and hated just as intensely the alieness of Australian society. For years I dreamt of going back and resuming my comfortable life in Vietnam and for years I was filled with contempt with where I found myself. I was often overcome by a sense of helplessness over my situation because I did not have the chance to say good-bye. The following feelings of grief and helplessness were formative in the process of shaping my new identity in Australia.

For a long time what I couldn't understand was why we'd left the only life we'd known behind, our lifestyle, our culture, our speech and, in many ways, our dignity. Why had we left behind a network of friends and relations including my granddad, my uncles, aunts, cousins, to mention only a few? Why had we left a fully furnished house to live in relative poverty in our first couple of years in Australia? Now I have come to accept that the decision had been made for me - shit happens - and here we are.

And then, finally, my thoughts on the Boat People issues. To those who are interested in my being here, I tell my story. So often am I required to launder it, my journey transition from Vietnam to Australia became an open reference point on my Vietnamese-Australian identity. In other people's imaginations, the story itself expresses a test of endurance some would admire, some would sympathise, and some would feel both or not at all. For me, my ordeal has become an adventure because over the years it has lost its element of danger and profound sense of uncertainty of what the future may hold.

From where I'm speaking right now, I am at one point in that future of my past. I can see from my experience that the ordeal wasn't the journey itself. It was how we were received by the community at large. And that is an on-going process. I am conscious of now and again, beyond my experience as a Boat Person, a refugee, an Australian citizen living in Australia, I am Asian and because of that I would have to continually justify my place in this society through a full admission of my history that was elsewhere.

It is interesting that in the '80s everyone I came across warmed up to the term "Boat People". It was a more than sufficient explanation for my being here. I cannot claim the same reaction now. In fact last year, when I had barely made a reference to my earlier status, the person to whom I was explaining, fixed me in my tracks, "You mean queue jumping?" To this day I couldn't decide whether he was saying it out of ignorance or out of deep-seated resentment for other Asians who sought refuge in Australia.

Because of this preoccupation with my past, I am particularly sympathetic to other Boat People who are currently held in detention or who have been shipped back to the country they sought to escape. They didn't have much to say and because of my direct experience with racism in this society I knew how it felt not being able to articulate my grievance. I know how it felt to be unjustly accused. I feel even more for the Post Hedland inmates for which the global community seems to have withdrawn support and the media has virtually free reign over the bastardisation of the actual circumstance. In fact, I find them blatant in instilling in their audience fear and disgust for these Boat People through images of being invaded, swamped by economic queue jumpers, costing taxpayers' money in detaining them and sending them back from where they came.

My conclusion. Despite media representation or condemnation at large in the '90s, I see these Boat People through my own experience. To me they are refugees. Why else would they risk losing so much, leaving behind the life they had known, travelled all the way to Australia just to be imprisoned behind bars, if their present or their future livelihood wasn't threatened in their homelands? In a macabre way I reflect on their unfortunate timing, timing is so important. Their fate could have been that of my family and me had we not been granted asylum when we were or did not succeed in escaping when we did, in the '80s. That's it.

Anne-Marie Medcalf

Thanks Lan. I'd like now to introduce to you Le Tan Kiet who arrived sixteen years ago in Australia as a refugee. He is the present of the Buddhist Association of Western Australia and I would like to add that the Buddhist Association of Western Australia was the first association to sponsor Vietnamese refugees in Australia and that the Association has sponsored more than 1,600 to date.

Le Tan Kiet (through a Translator)

Dear the Commissioner, Madam Chairman, the Professor from New South Wales, the organisers of this workshop, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to express my thanks for giving me the opportunity to be here today to talk about the refugees from Vietnam, the so-called "Boat People".

I would also like to mention briefly some of the experiences the Vietnamese people have been through on their journeys to Australia.

As for me, I lived in Saigon and we left there to journey to Pulau Bedong. There were five people in my family and we joined up with about one hundred and eighty people on a boat 16 metres long. We left Pulau Bedong and it took us two days and three nights to arrive in Indonesia.

At that time procedures applying in refugee camps was not as strict as it is now. Most officials applied human rights according to the United Nations Convention and so we had a fairly easy time. After about three and a half months we were granted refugee status. We travelled to Singapore and arrived in Australia in 1979.

When we first arrived in Western Australia, we stayed at Graylands Hostel and afterwards we moved to 45 Money Street and stayed there.

I understood that Australia claimed to be a multi-cultural society. But I now realise that the policies applied by the Department of Immigration are very contradictory with what we call human rights, which should also apply in Australia. I wonder why so many people risk their lives to arrive here by boat only to fight for freedom. Many have been denied the right to apply for refugee status and my question is where are human rights in Australia? We thought Australia had recognised human rights according to the International Convention.

Vietnamese refugees (as did others) came here to look for freedom. Australia, because of fear of being overwhelmed, or other reasons, has tried to limit the number of refugees coming into the country.

We, the refugees coming here with limited language and differences in cultural background, do have a barrier. When we arrive we take on low level jobs - no more, no less.

You have already heard the stories of other refugees this morning, so there is no need for me to speak more on that subject except to say how very hard it is to make the journey to come here. But I want to say that in risking our lives to get here, once we are here we only have one chance in ten of staying in Australia. We come and do our best to be co-operative but human rights are not recognised. I wish that we could see human rights at work.

As President of the Buddhist Association, I have helped to build our temple so that people from all walks of life have the chance to participate and integrate into the Australian society. This is a very developed country when compared to Vietnam.

Since 1983 I have been granted the right to sponsor people from the refugee camps and, so far, we have managed to sponsor about one thousand people to come here.

Since we have settled in Australia, we try to contribute as much as we can to make Australia a better place. I work on a voluntary basis. I don't receive any support and I don't receive any money from the Government.

I understand that some people have concerns  that is why you are here today. I would like to appeal to all of you to exert some influence on the Australian Government and also the Department of Immigration, to review its policies because many people coming here have suffered a lot, not only hardships but they have the sense of being abandoned. They try to look for jobs. They try to look for a future. However, deep down in their hearts, they are very agitated.

I would once again appeal to all of you to put pressure on the Australian Government to once again look at the fate of all refugees  particularly from Vietnam and Indo-China and hopefully you may somehow influence Australian policies with regard to refugees and help these people. Thank you very much.

Anne-Marie Medcalf

Thank you very much. Our next speaker is Saret Tach who came from Cambodia in 1990 after having spent since 1984 in a refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border. He is now a Grant-In-Aid worker at the Cambodian Welfare and Cultural Centre of Western Australia.

Saret Tach

Thank you very much. I would like to give a general background of Cambodia and why the Cambodian people escaped their country. Cambodia has gone through years of civil war since 1970. 1975-79 were terrible years. All the people in cities were evacuated to live in the countryside and were forced to engage in agriculture. Our schools, hospitals and banks were closed. Teenagers were usually separated from their parents and worked hard. More than one million people were killed and in 1979 Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and took power from the Khmer Rouge. During this year and shortly after a thousand people escaped to Thai/Malaysian refugee camps.

Many Cambodian survivors experience symptoms that disturb their life patterns. Phychology calls it distress, memory impairment, hopelessness and distrust - so all experiences need to be considered when looking at the Cambodian Boat People in the Port Hedland Centre. For a long period they believed they could stay here in Australia and this has caused more mental stress.

I appreciate tht the Australian Government assisted Cambodia to be a peaceful country.

I first escaped to a refugee camp and came to Australia in November 1990. I received my Australian citizenship in 1993. I am now Australian. I hope Australians will welcome me and the rest of the Cambodian community as Australians. We are happy to have found peace and safety in Australia. Thank you very much.

Anne-Marie Medcalf

Thank you. Our last speaker is Stephanie D'Orazio who is also a Grant-In-Aid worker at the Cambodian Welfare and Cultural Centre, where she shares the position with Saret Tach.

Stephanie D'Orazio

Thank you. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss some of the community attitudes that I have personally come across during the time that I have been in this position, and the way these attitudes affect the Cambodian community. What the young people are saying and the previous speakers have said, is actually very true. Very true.

I am employed as a Grant-In-Aid worker and this position is funded by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs to meet the settlements needs of migrants/refugees. Funding for this position is determined by the settlement needs of particular migrant/refugee groups.

Until I became employed by the Cambodian Centre I did not realise the depth of ill feeling in the wider community towards Boat People and Cambodian refugees. I must say I have been shocked on several occasions at comments made to me. When socialising, one of the first questions asked is "where do you work?" The reaction I have had on my place and type of work has been overwhelmingly hostile. Firstly I am told that they should not be assisted at all. Then such comments as "their boats should be blown up, sink the boats, send them back" are all quite common. I have found there is a general belief that all Cambodians come by boat; they all arrived illegally in Australia "jumping the queue". Comments include they have no right to be here, that all Asians are the same, they all share the same culture, and the terms "migrant" and "refugee" mean the same.

Negative views held in relation to Boat People has an enormous impact on the acceptance by the wider community of Cambodian and other refugees who have settled in Australia, some having been here for many, many years. Many comments made to me are reminiscent of the White Australia policy days, an "Asian invasion", "the yellow peril arrives".

I recently viewed an anti-racism training video called "Admission Possible" on Australia's immigration policies during the White Australia era and I must say that many of the same discriminative views depicted in the video still abound today. There were street interviews undertaken, I believe during the 1940-50's, asking people in the street what they think about Asian migration to Australia. What I hear in 1995 is exactly the same as depicted in the video. I strongly believe the legacy of the "White Australia" era still has a huge influence on attitudes in today's communities in regard to Asian migration.

In my position as a Grant-In-Aid worker I have found that these same attitudes and views permeate our major institutions and service agencies. Service providers can't help but be affected by the general community views, they too are part of the community. A large part of my workload is to advocate, negotiate and liaise on behalf of Cambodian clients with mainstream service providers to ensure that they have equitable access and opportunities to service and services. I must say that today has been particularly good for me because I sometimes feel quite isolated and I am often told I am "no good for the Cambodian community because I am too aggressive when I challenge views". After listening to Sir Ronald this morning, I feel great. I am not too aggressive. (Laughter) So it's been great. I am not isolated.

Little account is given to the torture and trauma experiences endured by members of the Cambodian community. This includes the men, the women and the children who all have their own harrowing story. One of the main issues service providers have trouble in understanding is the lack of English skills among the Cambodian adult population despite their number of years in Australia. In the period 1983 to 1987 many Cambodian refugees were accepted into Australia. Service providers' perception of the majority of Cambodian adults' abilities/skills to communicate in English affects their life in a considerable way. It affects their access to interpreters in such crucial areas such as health, police and legal issues, schooling and education issues. Every aspect of Cambodian adult life is controlled by their skills in the English language. It is often not recognised that it is very difficult for Cambodians to understand complex Western information and instructions in English. They can actually breach their contracts with CES for not taking such jobs. The view taken by mainstream service providers is "they've been sent on a thousand English courses. They should be able to communicate in English".

The legacy of trauma and torture experiences affect learning ability. The Cambodian adults tell me it is difficult to concentrate. I am told it is easy for me. "Your mind is clear, your brain is still. You don't have nightmares that never go away, you can learn, I can't learn."

I have a few suggestions/recommendations. I believe there must be a bi-partisan political approach to ensure (as Sir Ronald indicated this morning) that our leaders send direct messages to the community, and that Australia's refugee policies reflect international human rights standards, particularly when addressing asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

I believe the selective media coverage of Boat People and Boat People issues does much to influence the negative views which are heard in the community. I also think there is a great example of selective media coverage on display today. Selective coverage often reinforces the myths of an Asian invasion and I believe the media has a responsibility to provide the wider community with information that would give an insight into the plight of refugees and the associated issues.

I believe cross-cultural training is vital in order to provide service providers with information and knowledge of the many diverse groups within our community. All major government and non-government organisations and institutions should be given the benefit of this training. It is also vital that this training is conducted by appropriate trainers. Asian countries are not all the same. Cambodian and Vietnam have their own culture and traditions and inherent complexities. Employment opportunities within these organisations must exist for Asian migrants.

I would briefly like to mention a project that is undertaken by Saret Tach and I at the Cambodian Centre. It is called Family Befriending. Non-Cambodian families are invited to befriend a Cambodian family with the view of providing them with a practical support mechanism. We have ten families currently matched and it's really very, very successful. The Australian families went in with "Oh we'll be a do-gooder and support this little family". It has not been like that at all. The non-Cambodian families have included their own extended family members to join the project as well. Feedback from both non-Cambodian and Cambodian families has been very positive; finding a supportive friendship has developed. I think this is very important. Tolerance and acceptance has to start at a neighbourhood level, a community level. That is a role I am honoured to be involved in.

I would like to thank everybody for attending today, and, as I said, I do not feel so isolated. Thank you.


CRCC | New: 24 March 1996 | Now: 27 February, 2015