OPINION: by Dr C.T. Bui OAMNews Weekly
Illegal immigration: what can be done?
, July 21, 2012
Being a refugee from Vietnam and now an Australian citizen for 37 years, I am frustrated at the way our country, through the political parties, is dealing with illegal immigration and people-smugglers.
I read with great interest and cannot agree more with the author of the article “Gillard government’s surrender on illegal immigration” (Canberra Observed, News Weekly, June 23, 2012).
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, at the end of 2010, there were 43.7 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the highest number in 15 years. Of these, 27.5 million were internally displaced persons, 15.4 million were refugees and 837,500 asylum-seekers. Half of them are women and children.
They have been forced to run for their lives, and are either temporarily or permanently exiled from their homes. Many live in refugee camps, fleeing persecution, armed conflict, murder, rape and mutilation.
As a member of the international community, Australia, being a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR), shares the responsibility for protecting these refugees and resolving refugee situations. Our refugee yearly intake since 2006 has been around 13,000, and per capita we resettle more refugees than any other nation in the world.
Our country certainly can absorb a much larger number of asylum-seekers as in the past. In 1989 Prime Minister Bob Hawke cried over the Tiananmen Square massacre, then allowed 42,000 Chinese students to stay in Australia. Over 112,000 Vietnamese asylum-seekers, after a lot of hardship, were accepted for settlement by the Fraser government.
After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the new communist government sent hundreds of thousand public servants, servicemen and women of the previous government to “re-education camps”, and others to “new economic zones”. An estimated one million people were imprisoned without formal charges or trials.
According to published academic studies in the United States and Europe, 165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s concentration camps. Thousands more were abused or tortured.
All these factors drove nearly three million people to the ocean during the period from 1975 to 1995. People fled Vietnam seeking freedom; but unfortunately, as reported by the UNHCR, about half a million perished on their journey. They died from starvation, storms or murder by pirates. They died in fear, in frustration and without a decent burial. They just disappeared, and the ocean was their hallowed graves.
Their sacrifices did not attract the world’s attention until late 1979, and the Vietnamese boat-people tragedy had been resolved relatively well since then.
After surviving the journey — and if their boats were not towed back to the open sea by the governments of some South East Asia countries — all Vietnamese asylum-seekers were put in refugee camps.
They were screened carefully for their identity, reason for leaving Vietnam and criminal records. If they failed the first time, they could be reassessed at the tribunal and that was final. The “screened out” people then had to face voluntary repatriation or, failing that, forced repatriation.
Because of the complexity of the screening process, most asylum-seekers had to stay on average one to four years in the camps. Some families, owing to health problems, had to stay up to 10 years.
In 2009, when the last Vietnamese group of refugees leaving the Philippines for Canada, in a humanitarian program called “Freedom At Last”, some of them had been living in that asylum country for nearly two decades.
Facing the current problems created by the people-smugglers, we can take the following measures:
• The decision to accept refugees should always remain with the government of Australia.
• The screening process for asylum-seekers can be done both offshore and onshore.
• All asylum-seekers should have their identity screened offshore.
• The rest of the screening process may be done onshore once the Australian officials are satisfied with the identity of the asylum-seekers.
• Our government should provide enough facilities for health and education in the processing centres both onshore and offshore.
• The rate of refugee intake should be doubled, or even tripled, in the next few years.
• Some 74 per cent of refugees to Australia come from just four countries, Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Iraq. So, to be fair to the people who lodge their applications in their countries and to reduce the waiting period, the assessment of the applications to immigrate should be accelerated.
• Special assistance would need to be provided for resettlement in Australia.
• The Australian government should continue to make an annual contribution to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
For the sake of the security of Australia we reserve the rights to screen all asylum-seekers for their identity and criminal record.
Cuong Trong Bui, OAM MD, is a former federal president of the Vietnamese Community in Australia and was a member of the Australian Refugee Advisory Council (ARAC) in the early 1980s.