Features | Society | Oceania

We Were All Boat People Once

Two months after docking in Indonesia, a boat full of Sri Lankan refugees still don’t know if they will be allowed to reach their intended destination of Australia. Susan Merrell looks at how the debate has unfolded in Australia and visits a New South Wales town with direct experience of the issue.

By Susan Merrell for

In the tropical waters off the coast of northern Australia, fine spring weather and calm seas combine to make the perfect conditions for an ocean voyage. But recreational sailors aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the weather — refugees from war-torn countries have been using this window of opportunity to pour onto overcrowded, barely sea-worthy boats as they attempt to flee to Australia to avoid persecution.

It’s a hazardous journey fraught with danger. Pirates intent on robbery and rape target refugee boats, while some shoddy vessels have sunk, drowning some or all of the occupants. In 2001, 353 people were drowned when a boatload of refugees in a vessel now known as SIEV-X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel — X for unknown) sank in international waters 70 kilometres off the coast of Java.

But even if all goes to plan and they are rescued from their leaky boats, many refugees find themselves interred in primitive foreign detention camps for months or even years. There they face the constant threat of repatriation to the very country from where they first made their escape. To embark on such a voyage is a dark lottery. Desperate measures for desperate times.

Some Australians, though, question their bona fides, suspecting that many are not genuine refugees at all but are merely ‘queue jumpers’ in the immigration process, preying on the largesse of the Australian taxpayer.

Indeed, invoking the image of queue jumpers, the former leader of the Opposition in Australia last week asked one of many of the questions that have been raised on the subject in the Australian House of Representatives.

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Bringing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s attention to the ‘surge’ in numbers of boat people (55 boats with 2450 asylum seekers) since ‘[Rudd] weakened Australia’s border protection laws’, he went on to ask: ‘Is the Prime Minister aware that these unauthorised arrivals will take up around 20 per cent of all of the places in Australia’s generous humanitarian immigration program?’

But although the figures are correct, the underlying assumptions aren’t.

Australia’s intake of refugees per capita is not particularly generous in international terms – in fact it’s considerably lower than countries in Europe and is nothing like the burden carried by states that neighbour the world’s trouble spots. Ironically, these are often countries that are themselves poor and so least capable of effectively managing the influx. In some border camps, refugees can be counted in the hundreds of thousands. This has come against a backdrop of deteriorating situations in places including Sri Lanka and Afghanistan (there was an 85% increase in Afghan asylum seekers alone in 2008).

The opposition’s message has been that the tough border control policies — especially the internationally condemned ‘Pacific Solution’ (mandatory detention offshore) — were responsible for the decline in boat people trying to reach Australia after 2001. But tough Australian controls were not the only reason for the decline over this period. For example, while the number of boat people seeking asylum in Australia dropped from 2161 people in 2001 to 63 in 2003, the drop in numbers mirrored a global picture where, among Afghans, for instance, asylum applications dropped from 52,927 to 14,216 over the same period.

Cabramatta: A Case Study

It’s been decades since the first boat people arrived in Australia. Coming from Vietnam in 1976 after the fall of Saigon they continued to enter this way into the early 1980s, with Australia taking in extra Vietnamese boat people from Indonesian refugee camps.

Cabramatta had long been a Mecca for newly arrived Australians. With migrant hostels in the vicinity and a relatively low cost of living, World War II refugees had settled there. But the suburb was to change in character irrevocably when Vietnamese migrants, mainly refugees, chose this suburb as their new home. At some stage during the 1980s the population of Cabramatta became overwhelmingly Indo-Chinese in origin.

So, with 30 years hindsight, has suspicion and hostility towards boat people been justified?

Take the Train on Platform 5

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If the train from Sydney to Cabramatta is running on schedule, it’s a 51-minute journey.

For a heroin addict desperately needing a fix this journey must have seemed interminable. Yet many still took the trip during the 1980s and 1990s, knowing that in Cabramatta they were guaranteed to score and that the heroin would be cheaper and purer. It was not for nothing that the train to Cabramatta was known as the ‘Smack Express’.

Cabramatta saw a rise in violent gang culture, among which the primary business was the importation, sale and distribution of heroin. Vicious home invasions, extortion and even murder were all just another part of the culture. The gang members, meanwhile, were all young and overwhelmingly of Vietnamese origin.

Cabramatta had become the embodiment of many of conservative Australia’s immigration phobias.

Acting Superintendent Alf Sergi of the Cabramatta Police believes that opportunity fed the culture, created by economic considerations that meant both parents needed to work and were not available to exert parental control. Vietnamese youths also had links back to the Golden Triangle where most of the heroin was sourced. The success of the gangs was aided by law-abiding Vietnamese citizens’ traditional suspicion of police, something which ultimately worked to their own detriment.

‘Cabramatta, for the average person, has never been a dangerous place,’ Sergi says.
Yet while this may have been true for most people, for some Asians it was still an extremely dangerous place. The gangs exploited the inherent fear of the police and committed the bulk of their crimes within their own community, where the victims were unlikely to inform or complain.

Fairfield Councillor Dennis Huynh agrees with Sergi that youth gang culture arose in Cabramatta because of parental negligence underpinned by lack of money, a view he says has been formed by his own experiences.

Huynh says that despite growing up in Cabramatta during the gang years, he never participated in the culture because he was never given the opportunity. Huynh’s mother didn’t work and supervised her son closely. The family was fortunate, for with only one child, they had few of the economic pressures that beset larger families.

‘[Other] parents didn’t have enough time’, Huynhsays. ‘They both worked and when they came home from work they were tired.’

And such children ran amok — ruthless and often vicious. None more so than Tri Minh Tran, the leader of the most prominent of the Cabramatta Vietnamese gangs: the 5Ts. (5Ts stood for Tu, Tur, Toi, Tinh, Tien — variously translated as “Jail, Death, Guilt, Love and Money” or “Young People Lack of Love”).

Tran was born in Vietnam in 1975 and came to Australia as a seven-year-old refugee after spending time in an Indonesian refugee camp. But no one, it seemed, could control, direct or curb his trajectory into violence.

By the age of 11, Tran had been arrested for carrying a sawn-off shotgun. By the time he reached 14, he was a suspect in two murders and was already leader of the 5Ts, who controlled most of the heroin trade in the area. At 16 he was convicted of firearm offences and spent two years in a juvenile detention centre. His reputation for violence preceded him and when the anti-drug campaigner and member for Cabramatta in the New South Wales State Parliament, John Newman, was gunned down outside his home in 1994, suspicion automatically fell on Tran. He was barely 19, and within two years, Tran himself was murdered.

Huynh’s early life was in some ways similar. Just like Tran, Huynh, was just seven years old when he and his family left Vietnam. They too sought asylum in Australia after spending some months in an Indonesian refugee camp. Tran and Huynh were just 3 years apart in age, and both settled in Cabramatta.

But there the comparison ends.

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As well as serving his community as a councillor on the Fairfield local authority, Huynh is married with two children and is the General Manager of a city-based travel agency. His is a heart-warming Australian success story.

But although Cabramatta received a lot of attention in the media, it was not Huynh’s story that was of interest. It was Tran’s. Murder and heroin sold newspapers.

Things only started to improve for Cabramatta when, in the late 1990s and in response to escalating crime, a parliamentary inquiry was initiated. The government agreed to fund over $30 million worth of initiatives in an attempt to solve the problem, with the money earmarked to provide infrastructure and for increasing resources including personnel. The focus was to be directed towards community liaison and cultural sensitivity.

The multi-tiered solution has been spectacularly successful.

‘Our crime statistics are one of the lowest in the South-West Region now,’ Sergi boasts. Indeed, Cabramatta’s crime figures are down in almost all categories.

‘That’s history,’ Huynh says of Cabramatta’s murky past. ‘Look at the contribution Asian societies make to Australia — at the amount of businesses run by the Asians in the community. It all helps the Australian economy.’

Cabramatta is prospering.

The thousands of small businesses in Cabramatta’s Central Business District appear to be thriving, and as this correspondent strolled around the area with Sergi, the streets were abuzz with people. Women shopped with their children, the elderly congregated in congenial groups in cafes. Come lunchtime, the precinct was so popular it was difficult to get a table at any of the many restaurants.

‘It’s not even that busy, today,’ said Sergi. ‘At the weekend there’ll be queues lining up there,’ he said pointing out a noodle restaurant.

With prosperity effectively removing the need for competition for otherwise scarce resources, ethnic tensions and crime tend also to fall. Meanwhile, officials believe culturally appropriate administration for the mainly Indo-Chinese population should also not be underestimated in Cabramatta’s renaissance.

A Blueprint for Success?

So, could Cabramatta’s experiences provide a blueprint for other such communities?

Sergi stresses that the Asian community of Cabramatta had traits that made their particular solution workable. For instance, although the Indo-Chinese community were initially reluctant to co-operate with police, they were never confrontational and policing became easier as people’s confidence in working with them grew.

Asked about the recent arrival of boat people from Sri Lanka, Huynh says it is a difficult question. ‘There are positives and negatives,’ he says. ‘If we are tolerant and accept them, how many more hundreds and thousands of Tamils are going to come? When do we say enough is enough?’

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This ‘slippery slope’ argument is a pervasive one in Australia.

It’s a Matter of Security

Although boat people are a relatively recent phenomenon in Australia, migration is not. With the exception of the indigenous population, all were migrants once.

Nevertheless, Australians have always had an ambivalent attitude to the issue. For with each wave of migrants since World War II, when Australia took in refugees from eastern and southern Europe, the cultural flavour of Australia has changed. Not all Australians have welcomed this. Parts of the population still carry attitudes that were embodied in the now defunct ‘White Australia Policy’, a policy that was maintained until 1973.

It was this Asian migration that was the catalyst for the rise to prominence of the right-wing politician Pauline Hanson in the mid 1990s. In her maiden speech to Parliament she warned Australians of the dangers of being ‘swamped by Asians’ threatening the Australian (or Western) way of life. Her rhetoric hit an Australian nerve and at the height of her popularity The Australian newspaper was giving Hanson more coverage than the prime minister. It also polarised the country.

Similarly, Australians have always been nervous about national security, a feeling that stems from being a ‘Western’ country situated in the Asia-Pacific region. With neighbouring countries to the north often perceived as hostile, and with a large coastline, Australians have felt vulnerable to invasion.

Indeed, the Australian government’s ‘populate or perish’ migration program of the 1950s had little to do with economics and everything to do with the perception that if Australia didn’t populate the country of its own accord, someone else would do so forcibly. Phrases such as ‘the yellow peril’ and ‘reds under the beds’ became part of the vernacular, typifying the worries of the day.

National security is the reason why Australia embraced the ANZUS treaty, and is why support for this pact remains strong even though it has meant Australians have had to fight in American wars.

Migration and invasion are perceived to be two factors with great potential to threaten the Australian way of life. Boat people breach both.

Opportunistic Politics

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently told Parliament that he had fielded 88 questions about boat people in the past few weeks. With the opposition party in disarray over whether to back the government’s Emissions Trading Scheme, attacking the government on its refugee policy is a good diversionary tactic — it’s worked in the past.

Looking back over the last 60 years, appealing to immigration and security fears has been a sound political tactic within the Liberal Party. In 1954, Labor lost the ‘unlosable’ election  after the playing up of the communist threat and Labor’s perceived sympathies there. In 2001, it was Howard’s tougher stance on refugees that led his party to victory. Even though international human rights’ agencies condemned the Pacific Solution as inhumane, it was initially popular at home. With Tony Abbott having just taken over the leadership of the opposition Liberal Party from Malcolm Turnbull, Australia can expect more of the same.

‘What’s happened with Kevin Rudd [since he scrapped the Pacific Solution] is that people smugglers now determine who comes to our country and the circumstances under which they come,’ Abbott said recently on ABC television.

It’s clear that the issue has the potential to do considerable political damage — since the recent arrival of boat people in Australia, Rudd’s approval rating has fallen for the first time since he took office. It will therefore need a delicate balancing act from the Labor Party to appease both the hardliners and keep the faith with those who favour a softer approach.

Yet, if there are lessons to be learnt from Cabramatta it is that all problems are solvable given the will, the patience and the right resources. It will be for all Australians to decide if the end result is worth it.