Thursday, 18 February 2021
When 20-year-old Lam Binh sailed into Darwin Harbour with his younger brother and three friends aboard the 20 metre Kien Giang on 26 April 1976, the thought that their arrival would mark a significant event in Australian history, and that it heralded a new era in Australia's cultural diversification, probably did not even enter their minds.
In the months and years that followed, a further 2,000 Vietnamese boat people reached Australia. They were the lucky ones, not because Australia is the lucky country but because, unlike the estimated 200,000 to 400,000 refugees who perished at sea, they had survived the perilous 3,500 kilometre journey, having endured pirate attacks, dangerous seas and starvation on unsafe, flimsy boats. They became known as the Vietnamese boat people. For the South Vietnamese, the end of the war did not bring relief but a new trauma. Their choice was to stay in Vietnam and face the likelihood of brutal persecution, starvation and discrimination, or they could risk their lives in a highly dangerous escape attempt. It is estimated that over 1.5 million people fled Vietnam. Of those, around 800,000 were resettled in other countries by the UNHCR. Eighty thousand came to Australia in the decade after the end of the war, and thousands more followed in subsequent years. Their migration represented a major shift in Australian immigration policy and Australian culture. It marked a visible end to the White Australia policy.
For the early arrivals, life was often difficult, particularly as not all Australians welcomed the Vietnamese influx. However, community fears and trepidation soon faded as Australians saw grateful people being given a new start in life, free of war and persecution after decades of conflict in their homeland. For most, it was the first time they could live in peace. They could finally see a bright future ahead. They too had dreams and aspirations. They too wanted a better life for themselves and their children. They worked hard, they showed initiative, they supported each other, and at all times they remained appreciative of the opportunities that Australia had given them.
Today, their contributions have permeated through all walks of Australian life. They have particularly excelled in the health and medical professions. Vietnamese students are frequently the very high achievers. In South Australia, the Vietnamese people have had some great ambassadors and role models, none more so than Governor of South Australia since 2014, His Excellency Hieu Van Le, who, as a boat refugee and supported by Mrs Van Le, has won the hearts of South Australians. From boat refugee to Governor of South Australia—what an extraordinary achievement!
In acknowledgment of the extraordinary trials and tribulations, the lives lost, the suffering endured, the resilience shown and their gratitude to Australia, a monument dedicated to the Vietnamese boat people has been constructed on the banks of the River Torrens in Adelaide and was officially unveiled on 7 February. The project was the culmination of four years of planning and fundraising by the Vietnamese Boat People Monument Association, led by Tung Ngo and Thai Minh Nguyen. Tung Ngo, who came as a 10-year-old boat arrival, is today a member of the South Australia's upper house. In a display of unity, the monument was jointly blessed by religious leaders of the Vietnamese Catholic and Buddhist communities. Beautifully designed by Tony Rosella and Ash Badios, the memorial rightfully acknowledges a significant chapter in Australia's history. My compliments to all who, in any way, contributed to the monument. It represents another example of Vietnamese perseverance and determination.
Today, around 300,000 Australians have Vietnamese ancestry. Australia has become a better country, a more prosperous country and a more inclusive country because of the resettlement of Vietnamese people. And it all began 45 years ago, with the arrival of a courageous and skilful Lam Binh and his four fellow refugees.