Letter from a former refugee

Refugee Week 2024: Finding Freedom. This week raises awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society. Refugees have been called as illegal immigrants, economic opportunists, and criminals. Is this fair?

Mr Tuan Le, our Music teacher, has been kind to share his story with the Elevation community. This is his story:

Like many war-torn countries, Vietnam has a long history of being invaded by other foreign countries through imperialism or colonialism. The Chinese, the French, the Japanese and the Americans have all occupied and ruled Vietnam for their own political benefits and agendas.

I left Vietnam as an asylum seeker when I was 18 years old. This was six years after the end of the Vietnam War (1975). My family is from Southern Vietnam, and it was the Southern Vietnam happened to fight alongside the American army during the war. My father was a police officer, and two of my brothers were in the South Vietnamese army. After the Northern Vietnamese communist regime won the war and reunified the country, they punished people who had any former connections with the American army. My family was of this assembly. My father was forced to work in the jungle. He contracted malaria and died at the age of fifty.

In 1981, when I was about to complete year 12, a local government official told me that I was not allowed to apply for any universities because of my Southern Vietnamese background. Around this time, one of my brothers was conscripted to join the army to fight in Cambodia. And so, I had no choice but to join my brothers in a boat to escape Vietnam.

Out of Can Tho, the East coast of South Vietnam, I fled my homeland to find freedom. When I arrived in Paulau Bidong, a refugee island offshore Malaysia, its refugee population stood more than 40,000. We were being housed in tiny tents, huts, wherever space could be found. The burden grew heavier each day for this already incredible over-crowded colony. My sleeps were filled with nightmares, often at nights rats sought high ground on my chest.

Ask yourself: would you want to risk your life and travel to the unknown whilst you were in the middle of year 12? Would you want to leave your family and friends to start anew in a country where you were alone, in a country where you did not belong, and in a country where you did not speak the language?

I have overcome such adversities but still consider myself exceedingly fortunate compared to the refugees in Nauru and detention centres offshore.

The crisis of the Vietnamese refugees in the late seventies and early eighties was horrific. Hundreds of thousands of so-called boat people died in their attempts to flee the country. During the height of the humanitarian crisis, Australia took more than 15,000 refugees per year. It was an incredible act of kindness and compassion which allowed us to strive and contribute to the Australian society for the last 40 years.

Here are some realities about refugees and asylum-seeking.

  1. It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia. Both Australian and International laws allow asylum seekers to enter Australia without authorisation.
  2. 23,000 persons per day leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere – more than the total number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia in a year.
  3. In 2010, 6879 asylum seekers arrived in Australia. That is 6.8% of the seats in the MCG.
  4. While asylum seeker arrivals have increased in recent years, the numbers are still very small in global terms and well under one-tenth of Australia’s annual migration intake.
  5. A refugee who has permanent residency in Australia receives the same social security benefits as any Australian citizen or eligible permanent resident in the same circumstances. Centrelink payments are calculated at the same rate for both refugees and non-refugees.
  6. Most refugees who have reached Australia by boat are found to be genuine asylum seekers. All must undergo rigorous assessment processes to obtain permanent residency in Australia on humanitarian grounds.

I was a refugee back in the eighties. I have been a teacher within the Education Department for almost 35 years. My son is a Medical Doctor, and my daughter is a Doctor of Optometry. We are here because of the generosity of the Australian Government under Prime Minster Malcolm Fraser. We are living and doing the best we can to continue building this great country, much like the generations before us. Post-colonial Australia is a land which was built by people from all corners of the world. We are all migrants, except for the Indigenous population of the First Peoples. We should show compassion towards those trying to flee persecution, poverty, or any inhumane living conditions.

Australia is a vast country with plenty of opportunities for everyone.  We need to open our hearts to all asylum seekers. We should allow all refugees and asylum seekers currently held in detention camps to settle in Australia. Everyone deserves a second chance. We all deserve to live safety and with dignity.

Letter from a former refugee 1

Tuan Quan Le

ADPA (WAAPA), BMusEd (Melb)

Instrumental & Classroom Music Teacher- Elevation Secondary College

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