My old friend looked straight at the stage with a strong determination, and perhaps, a touch of sadness. Sitting next to him, I sensed that the events of 60 years ago for Bern Brent, were rolling back to him as he mentally relived his teenage years. The occasion was a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Dunera Boys’ arrival at SydneyHarbour in 1940.
I first met Bern in the late 1950’s when he taught me English as a lecturer at the University of Saigon. He was my first contact with Australia. Unbeknown to me at the time, Bern had been a ‘displaced person’ or an unattached refugee minor prior to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. It was an unforeseen irony for both of us that I should follow in his foot steps a quarter of a century later.
Berlin-born to parents of Jewish background, the 16 year-old Bern was sent by his mother to London to escape the Nazi tyranny and persecution. His search for safety went terribly wrong when he and thousands of others in the same circumstance were shipped on HMT Dunera by mistake to Australia. He became unwittingly a ‘boat person’ joining the First Fleeters in 1788 and other subsequent arrivals by boats from the United Kingdom. The Crown or more correctly His / Her Majesty’s Government organised these transportations as a state policy, so no one and much less the Aboriginals dared to label the organisers as today’s ‘people’s smugglers’
Indeed, Australia has resettled many hundreds of thousands of displaced persons mainly from post-war Europe and refugees from all parts of the world, including those who came directly to Australia.
In 1977, Hieu Van Le, a young man in his twenties, waded with his wife and scores of other exhausted Vietnamese asylum seekers to the shores of Darwin in search of freedom. Found to be refugees, they were allowed to stay permanently in this country. Hieu Van Le has subsequently gone on to become the longest serving member and chairperson of South Australia Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission, and is currently lieutenant governor of the state.
Of course not everyone amongst the Australians of a refugee background can be as successful as Bern Brent or Hieu Van Le in their respective careers, or as Frank Lowy, an entrepreneur in the business world. By and large, surviving refugees tend to possess a strong will to overcome calamities and generally demonstrate a good entrepreneurial spirit to succeed. Their contribution to Australia has never been in doubt and their commitment to this country as a democracy has never been questioned.
Until 2013, Australia normally allowed on-shore asylum seekers who were found to be Convention refugees to resettle, subject to security clearance. Only when both sides of politics, in my view, competed against one another for electoral advantage that denial of a permanent residency in Australia became part of a suite of deterrent measures against potential asylum seekers.
But why was Cambodia chosen?
The government has said correctly that Cambodia is now a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention. But Cambodia – and for that matter, Papua New Guinea and Nauru – are the poorest amongst developing countries. One can assume that these three countries have agreed to settle refugees only on the basis of generous financial aid from Australia, but one cannot assume that Australian tax payers’ monies will be properly spent as intended, because local corruption is rampant.
Cambodia has promised that it will provide welfare and education to refugee families who come ‘voluntarily’ as settlers, while at the same time failing to look after its own people, including around 1 million ethnic Vietnamese Khmers without citizenship, employment and education.
As a signatory of the 1951 Convention, Cambodia has an abysmal record of treating refugees and at times has sold them down the river as in their dealings with Beijing (relating to Uighur asylum seekers), and Hanoi (relating to Vietnamese dissidents). Some Vietnamese dissidents supposedly under the UNHCR protection in Cambodia had to escape a second time to Thailand to avoid forced repatriation back to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
To force those asylum seekers who are found to be refugees by Australia under the Australian legal mechanism is not just to deny them a legitimate desire to live in a democracy after fleeing authoritarian regimes, but also to take away from Australia a group of potentially good contributors
The writer came to Australia as a Vietnamese refugee and is a former Head of SBS Radio (1989-2006)