Indochinese Refugee Resettlement — Australia’s involvement

Wew. This was a 1400 page epic. The publication documents the transcripts of Senate Standing committee hearings in 1981, five years after “Australia and the Refugee Problem” was completed, to follow up on the progress made and work still to be done in the areas such as settlement services, education, housing and community development for Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees.

Representatives from a range of service providers from public sector, private citizens, non-profit organisations and academics in Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Darwin were asked to give evidence.


By this time the Community Refugee Resettlement Scheme had been implemented, and had had a few successful case studies in small numbers. Some of the other suggestions made in the 1976 report were still not implemented, e.g. the inter-departmental council (Australian Refugee Policy Council) to spearhead policy around refugee matters; or they had been implemented, but not in a comprehensive manner. Many independent community-based centres and programs sprung up to fill those gaps, including:

  • South East Asian Community Assistance Centre in Cabramatta, Sydney. The centre began when a lady, Ulla Bartels, a migrant herself, began teaching English to a small group of refugees, eventually as trust grew, more and more people came to Bartel with requests for assistance with their problems — housing, family reunification, employment, advice on public services, relationship problems etc. Eventually a centre was established specifically dedicated to South East Asian refugees and migrants, as they were identified as requiring the most support.
  • Ecumenical Migration Centre in Richmond, Victoria. The centre was also situated in an area with a high concentration of SE Asian settlement and provided similar services with community education programs, community development and welfare services to connect the newly arrived to external staff and services that were appropriate to their needs.

Centres like these ran mostly on volunteers in tandem with one-off grants from the council or federal/state government, from the evidence that the representatives gave in the transcript, it seems that they provided valuable hands-on and on-the-ground support but struggled to sustain the high level of efficiency in the long term due to an increasing number of arrivals and lack of financial security.

Concerns raised

There were several recurring concerns across the board. One being the lack of translated materials or qualified interpreters and community representatives at each stage of the settlement process. This affected people’s ability to receive accurate advice and seek help, contributing to rumours and confusion amongst members of the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian community because many rely on information friends and family members tell them. The government was not dedicating enough resources to train members of the community so that they could empower themselves and others to break out of a cycle of dependency.

By far, most feedback related to employment/education:

  • English language competency was main factor affecting one’s ability to find employment. In Canberra, representatives from Narrabundah College reported that many mature-aged students of refugee background lacked the English skills to gain employment so had to rely on unemployment benefits to survive or support their younger siblings as the siblings undertook full-time study. The nature of the unemployment benefit also stipulates that the recipient must report regularly to the Commonwealth Employment Service (almost an equivalent to Centrelink) about their efforts in gaining work, and on top of that the they are only allowed to study a maximum of 8 hours per week, which is not enough to gain any proficiency in English. On the other hand, the available secondary education study benefits were issued only to the parents (not unofficial guardians) of children under a certain age (not mature-aged), and means tested. The eligibility criteria was too inflexible to accommodate disadvantaged refugees with a complicated home situation or severe lack of English skills.
  • For many adults with employment, the pressure of earning an income (sometimes involving both a day job plus shift work at night) plus the responsibility to family after hours often meant language classes could not be prioritised, even when people had the means to study. A home tutoring scheme was introduced, and effective to a degree, but struggled with a fluctuating and unpredictable number of volunteer teachers.
  • Professional qualifications obtained in a refugee’s home country were not recognised in Australia and there were little efforts in providing pathways to obtain equivalent qualifications so skilled refugees could continue working in their fields. Sadly, this is an ongoing problem today.
  • Robert Birrell, professor of sociology at Monash University, spoke to the employment situation from an academic point of view, and how trends in employment and industry affected on perception of the SE Asian refugees and their ability gain employment overall. He was one of the few that gave evidence suggesting that SE Asian refugees were highly employable for certain positions, especially unskilled labour jobs in manufacturing, textiles, food processing, etc. Some employers preferred employing SE Asians because of their work ethic, while others put a quota in the amount of SE Asians they would employ as to not create a sense of “cultural dissonance” amongst the workers. In his opinion, this unprecedented trend caused friction amongst other migrant/refugee groups or those of a low education level, as competition for unskilled, low-skilled labour positions arise. The nature of this work is often considered undesirable for the more privileged, or those educated by the Australian system as it offers no career progression. Birrell suggested that there is a tendency for Australians to de-value unskilled labour as dirty or migrant work, which in turn affects their attitude towards the workers that perform those jobs — devaluing migrants in the workforce.
  • For refugee students studying English as an ESL subject (English as a Second Language), their progress was hampered by the lack of translated educational materials and resources in their native language. It added extra pressure on ESL teachers to find a way of communicating with the students if they were not already bilingual in Vietnamese, Mandarin/Cantonese, Khmer or Lao.

The Perception of Indo-Chinese refugees and their settlement:

At each hearing, the senators would consistently ask two questions:

  1. In your opinion, how well are the Indo-Chinese fitting into life in Australia?
  2. Have there been any racial discrimination against the Indo-Chinese?

Unfortunately, most people that were at the hearings to give evidence were not from the refugee community themselves, save for about four or five, representatives were those who worked closely with refugees or whose line of work affected the lives of refugees. So it is difficult to believe in the total accuracy of the evidence as representatives were sometimes relaying stories of discrimination or no discrimination second-hand.

Besides detailing the issues faced with housing, employment, education and adapting to a new way of life in Australia, most interviewees answered the first question by acknowledging that the Indo-chinese refugees were hard-working, grateful, polite but kept to themselves and did not want to trouble strangers with their problems. Think I am beginning to see where the stereotype of the quiet Asian began. Children in particular were said to have trouble re-adjusting to an Australian education system where students were allowed to ask questions during class time, and a more relaxed and playful learning environment existed.

There were some concerns that due to the high concentration of settlement in Melbourne western suburbs and Sydney’s Cabramatta area, these hot spots were considered to have a ‘ghetto effect’, with the lack of funding and support services to adequately cater to everyone, there was high unemployment, crime and them ‘youths wandering the streets causing trouble’, (#africangangs anyone??) but they also attributed the media as having influence over the fear and negative perception of these communities. It’ll be interesting to dive into newspaper articles later in my research to see what was reported.

In response to the question regarding discrimination, most responded that discrimination was observed mainly from other migrant groups and not from Australians, the main reason being that they are in direct competition for employment with each other, but there have been no reported cases of discrimination in wealthier or middle class suburbs with Australians. Hm…

Although long, this set of transcripts has provided depth and great context to the day-to-day lives of Vietnamese refugees around 1981 that will help me create a more holistic picture for my writing.



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