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As refugees in the 70s, we were lucky, but what would happen to us now?

Opinion
Dai Le (at far right) with her family in a Hong Kong refugee camp.
Dai Le (at far right) and her family stayed in a refugee camp in Hong Kong for nine months.

Supplied: Dai Le

Every time a story appears in the media about asylum seekers or refugees it pains me. I look in the mirror and tell myself: "That's me."

As different immigration ministers and prime ministers announce new pieces of legislation designed to "stop the boats", I tell myself: "Well, it's not me anymore. It's about another group of people."

I try to tell myself that such harsh policies need to be in place so that we can protect our borders, that our Government has the right to determine who comes to this country.

A black and white photo of a young girl wearing a Vietnamese pointed hat.
Dai Le grew up in Vietnam in the 1970s.

Supplied: Dai Le

After all, I have shed the clothes I wore after I landed here as a Vietnamese refugee from Hong Kong in 1979. I'm now a new Australian. Another piece of harsh legislation will not impact me.

But if I continue with that thought I am denying my background, and the circumstances under which my new identity had to be forged.

When my mother was forced to run, taking her three children with her as Saigon fell, she did not have a choice.

Her birth country had fallen. To survive, she had to flee like the hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese who fled Vietnam at the end of the war in April 1975.

If the Australian government had implemented the current pushback policies in the 70s, what would have happened to Vietnamese refugees like my mother and my three younger sisters?

Would we still be in refugee camps? Or would we have died at sea, like so many thousands of Vietnamese refugees who headed towards Malaysia, where a pushback policy was in place at the time?

After leaving Saigon in a boat we spent two years in a refugee camp in the Philippines.

In 1979 we took another treacherous sea journey and headed for Hong Kong, because we'd heard it was a gateway to the West.

Vietnamese boat refugees arrive in Hong Kong.
More than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived by boat in Hong Kong after 1975.

Getty Images: Gerhard Joren

Vietnamese refugees started arriving in Hong Kong after April 1975.

The number reached a peak in 1979, when 600 to 1,000 people came each day to the small island that then had a population of around five million.

To put this into perspective, Australia has seven times more people than Hong Kong.

Its dense population, coupled with its economic and social issues, should have made Hong Kong less tolerant of asylum seekers.

Yet the Hong Kong government set up emergency accommodation to house hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese boat arrivals, including my family.

A photo of conditions in the Hong Kong refugee camp.
Dai Le remembers 'the harshness and cramped nature of camp life'.

Supplied: Dai Le

While there was resistance from some locals, most were welcoming.

"There was a huge amount of sympathy and compassion in the local community for the Vietnamese refugees because we actually saw on television the fall of Saigon," I was told by Eddie Chan, who worked for the security branch of the Hong Kong government at the time.

For 30 years my memories of Hong Kong were all about me: the harshness and cramped nature of camp life, the lack of food and education, and being a child behind bars.

But going back to Hong Kong recently, I gained a greater understanding of the challenges the Hong Kong government faced in managing the resettlement of the Vietnamese refugees.

"We were taking care of a human disaster and catastrophe on a grand scale," Talbot Bashal, who managed the refugee centre, told me. "Everyone pulled together to try to relieve it."

We stayed nine months in Hong Kong. I left the camp each day to work in a factory, ironing brand name T-shirts and assembling watches. I was only 10 years old.

Refugees in a camp in Vietnam, 1989.
Many Vietnames refugees remained in the camps for years.

Getty Images: Peter Turnley

We were lucky to be processed by the UNHCR and settled in Australia.

In the mid 1980s countries like the US, Canada and France slowed their intake of refugees, and Hong Kong was left to deal with the crisis.

Some remained in the camps for years until, in the 1990s, Hong Kong decided to repatriate many of them.

Some would argue that this repatriation was inhumane, but the fact remains that the Hong Kong government did not turn back a single boat of asylum seekers at the height of the exodus.

For that, I, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees like me, are grateful.

Here in Australia the resettlement of asylum seekers has been a complex policy and political issue.

Over recent decades many political leaders have treated it like a football game, kicking the issue from one goal post to the next.

A police vessel stands guard alongside a freighter crammed with more than 3,000 Vietnamese refugees inside Hong Kong's harbor.
Hong Kong did not turn back a single boat of asylum seekers at the height of the exodus.

Getty Images: Bettmann

And in recent years, none of the policies announced have really made an impact on the human suffering and the conflicts that cause people to flee their homes.

While the recent proposal to ban some asylum seekers from ever entering Australia is supposedly aimed at the people considering purchasing passage on an illegal boat, it has been condemned by many as bad policy and bad politics, playing into the hands of politicians like Pauline Hanson.

While she represents a chunk of the Australian population that fears people like me — who look different and sound different — the policy to ban asylum seekers will only create division in our society.

At a time when we have little diversity of representation in our political leadership, such announcements divide our rich and vibrant society even more.

I have no doubt there are "people smugglers" who are capitalising on human desperation.

But to those fleeing conflict zones, these "smugglers" give them an opportunity to set sail for a better and safer life.

And these asylum seekers are prepared to take the risk of dying at sea, just like my mother and thousands of Vietnamese refugees did after the end of the Vietnam War.

Dai Le is the founder of DAWN, an organisation that grows culturally diverse leadership, and a councillor on Fairfield City Council.