While Australia’s Catholic bishops have welcomed the federal government’s decision to process onshore the claims of asylum seekers arriving by boat, in much the same way as it treats those who arrive by plane, a deeply personal plea for a more compassionate approach to refugees has been made by Melbourne’s Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen, who himself escaped from Vietnam by boat.
Delivering the 2011 Rerum Novarum Oration for the Melbourne archdiocese’s Office of Justice and Peace, Bishop Long related that he was a second-generation refugee.
His parents, as a young couple with a toddler – his eldest sister – had escaped from Hanoi to South Vietnam in 1954 on a small boat.
“It was by a twist of fate that I would later follow in their footsteps, only this time it was a further and riskier journey,” he said.
In 1980 he escaped from Vietnam, standing upright with 147 other people on an eight-metre boat for eight days. With him on the voyage were his sister-in-law and her two young children, an 18-month-old boy and a baby girl, barely six months old.
“I held her for the most part of the journey. It was the most distressing experience I ever encountered, and I am not talking about the lack of food, water, and exposure to the elements. It’s watching a young child suffer and you are totally helpless to do anything about it. But my experience was mild in comparison with so many other boat people whose cry could have pierced the heavens.”
The stories of many seeking refuge in Australia today were similar to those of the Vietnamese refugees who escaped the yoke of communism during the 1970s and 1980s, Bishop Long said.
While acknowledging the complexity of the asylum-seeker issue, he appealed for a positive narrative and the abandonment of a narrow and negative mentality that demeaned all Australians.
“Regardless of where we stand on the issue, it demeans us when fellow human beings are projected as less than human and dangerous. Surely, people who risk their lives for nothing more than a better future for themselves and their children deserve better treatment. Surely, a civilised migrant nation such as ours can conduct itself better even in respect of a very complicated issue,” he said.
The director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office, Fr Maurizio Pettena, said more boats might come as a result of the federal government’s decision to revert to onshore processing, but this was no reason for alarm or community anxiety.
“On the contrary, Australia boosts over 200 charities ready to support asylum seekers in the community'” he said. “Helping others never leads to social unrest; rather, it builds goodwill, peace and international respect.”