2011 Rerum Novarum Oration by Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen OFM

The following 2011 Rerum Novarum oration ‘Asylum Seekers: Is There a Just Solution?’ was given by Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen OFMConv at Central Hall, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne on Tuesday11 October 2011.

Dear friends,

It is a great honour for me, a “new kid on the block”, to give the Oration for 2011, organised by the Melbourne Office for Justice and Peace, in conjunction with the Australian Catholic University and the Melbourne Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office. For those of you who are not familiar with this annual oration, it is inspired by the Papal Encyclical or “open letter” called Rerum Novarum meaning ‘of New Things’ by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. By confronting urgent issues of the day and calling on the State to protect the rights of the working class, Rerum Novarum laid the foundations for modern Catholic social teaching. In effect, it expresses the notion that the poor have a special status in consideration of social issues because God is on the side of the poor. Successive popes have followed the lead of Pope Leo and continued to speak out on matters of social justice. For example, the current Pope Benedict XVI makes a powerful statement in his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est when he says “the Church cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.”

This evening I speak to you as a bishop. I intend to proclaim unashamedly that the Church is on the side of the poor, as God is on their side. But above all, I speak to you as one who was a refugee and an asylum seeker myself. By sharing my personal journey, I hope to create an atmosphere of understanding and solidarity with other less fortunate travellers whose life-journeys deserve no less respect and dignity than ours.

It is often said that history repeats itself. I find that the stories of many of the asylum seekers who seek refuge in Australia today are similar to ours, the Vietnamese refugees who escaped the yoke and terror of communism during the 1970s and 80s. In sharing my story with you, I wish to give voice to theirs; because from where I stand, I consider it a privilege and a moral obligation to reach out to fellow-refugees who are in search of freedom and fundamental human values.

Let me just take you back down memory lane a little – at least for those who are old enough to remember.The Vietnam War: yes that most graphic, violent, protracted and at the same time most controversial and divisive war that is edged sharply into our collective memory.Who can forget the horrible images of that war which were relayed on our television screens every day? Who can forget the demonstrations on the streets of our cities and the campuses of our universities? It was a war that we could not come to terms with, even years after it had been waged, fought, finally abandoned and then tragically lost. Pity our Australian soldiers who bore the physical and psychological scars both during and after the war. In many instances, they came home not only without the recognition they deserved but also with the ignominy they did not deserve.

But truth has a habit of revealing itself in hindsight. When, at the end of the war, 30th April 1975 to be precise, millions of Vietnamese refugees took to the sea in order to escape the communist regime, people began to understand why it had to be fought and resisted. The Vietnamese are a very proud people. We are proud of our heritage which has more than 4,000 years of accumulated history; we are proud of our land and sea which are among the most spectacular in Asia. Those of you who have travelled to Vietnam will concur with me. Our lives and destinies are deeply rooted in our own soil. We were never known to be nomadic or migrant people. Never in our long and chequered history had there been such a mass exodus of people from our own land. Never, not even when the Chinese invaded us and subjected us to servitude for a thousand years. Not even when the French exploited us for a hundred years or the Japanese caused thousands to die of starvation during the Second World War. The communist regime outdid them all by their reign of terror, which was the reason for the biggest, the most tragic and the most unprecedented exodus in our history.

I am not here to revisit all the evils of communism. It suffices to say that the exodus was the testament to the indomitable desire to live in freedom and dignity in every human being. We Vietnamese refugees and survivors of that tragic event are the living witnesses to freedom and fundamental human values denied to us in our own country. That – my dear friends – is the reason we risked being shot at by communist guards, being hungry and thirsty for days, being robbed and raped by pirates, and ultimately being taken by the sea as hundreds of thousands of our fellow seekers of freedom did. We want to tell the world that freedom is worth fighting for. We want to expose the naivety and falsity about a communist utopia which might exist in theory or in a make believe world but was a living hell for us in the real world. We want to acknowledge the sacrifice and valour of our soldiers. Wars are always controversial and divisive; but as far as we are concerned, there was nothing more honourable than the fight for the people of Vietnam, for their future without the curse of tyranny, for justice and freedom. That fight never was, and never is, in vain.

Personally, I am a second generation refugee. By that I mean my parents themselves were refugees before me. In 1954, following the Geneva Convention that divided Vietnam into two ideologically opposing sides, they – a young couple in their 20s with a toddler, my then 2 year old eldest sister – uprooted from their home near Hanoi and ventured to the south. They escaped by a small boat and went to a part of the country they knew nothing about. Why did they, and over a million Vietnamese from the north like them, undertake such a perilous journey to the unknown south? The answer is simple: they had seen the atrocities committed by the newly inducted regime in such catastrophic events as the so-called land reform, the forced collectivisation of individual peasant farms, the systematic oppression of Christianity, the public trial and summary execution of thousands. They had lived in fear and in terror. In such an atmosphere, they were ready to exchange everything for a chance to live in freedom.

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. We were a family of seven children. It was common practice for parents to secure the safe passage for their adult sons in view of the forced conscription into the Vietnamese Communist Army which was engaged in two simultaneous border wars: the Chinese to the north and the Khmer Rouge to the south. My two older brothers escaped first and settled in Holland. I escaped by boat in 1980 with my sister-in-law and her two young children – an 18 month old boy and a baby girl, barely 6 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 of other boat people whose cry could have pierced the heavens. They were those who were shot and killed by the communist coast guards; they were those who were lost at sea without a trace; they were those who were robbed, raped, mutilated or killed by pirates. Some survived to tell their horror stories; but thousands upon thousands of others did not. One study estimates that up to 500,000 of the 2 million Vietnamese refugees died in the pursuit of freedom. Without a doubt, this was the darkest episode in the history of the Vietnamese people.

It is something that we will never forget.

For this, I have adopted as my Episcopal coat of arms, the image of a journey into freedom. It symbolises both the spiritual exodus that I as a Christian am called to make, and the real painful quest for liberty that I and countless other “boat-people” made. My motto “Duc in Altum” which means “go further into the deep” is in part meant to honour the memory of my people who suffered and died in pursuing that quest, that dream for freedom and dignity. As far as I know, I am the only Vietnamese-born bishop whose coat of arms incorporates the South Vietnamese flag and my refugee heritage. By doing so, it is not my wish to engage in the politics of my country of origin or take issue with its current communist rulers. It is simply my desire to witness to the truth about why we escaped and why we are here before you today.

We Catholics often say “God works in mysterious ways” and this is certainly true in the case of the Vietnamese “boat people”. Thirty years or so ago, we arrived in this country with little more than a few documents that we were provided with by the UNHCR in the camps scattered across the far flung corners of the South East Asian countries. We were demoralised, lost and uncertain about our prospects in a new country. In the eyes of many Australians, we were a burden, an intrusion, a disgrace and even a threat to the Australia that they wanted to maintain. I hasten to counter-balance this attitude with the goodwill, the generosity, the hospitality and the sense of a fair go that we experienced from the majority of Australians. Here we have with us the former Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Malcolm Fraser who was instrumental in bringing the Vietnamese refugees en masse to Australia. How I would have loved to have been “a fly on the wall” during the parliamentary party meetings or during the countless debates on the issue among his colleagues on both sides of politics at the time. Whatever might have been said and debated, the Australia that welcomed us and effectively buried the White Australia Policy was a courageous nation to say the very least. Australia was not the same after we’d arrived, and yes, for it being better or for it being worse off than before, you can blame Mr Fraser!

Speaking of the changes brought about by multiculturalism and specifically the arrival of the Vietnamese and South East Asian refugees, you can verify for yourselves when you visit suburbs like Footscray and Springvale in Melbourne and Cabramatta in Sydney. When I arrived in Springvale 30 years ago, it was a pretty dreary and dull place. The shopping centre which was limited to the area around Springvale Road, was quite ordinary to say the least. Now it is one of the most dynamic suburbs in Melbourne. So much so that non-Asian Australians now go there for a good bargain and especially for good food. The City of Greater Dandenong even mooted the possibility of a tourist bus for the area with its unique flavour and perhaps the largest collection of Buddhist temples of any suburb in Australia. In Sydney, similar initiatives for Cabramatta are being considered by the State Government. These suburbs and other Vietnamese centres around the country have certainly come a long way. There was a time people dreaded these places because of the drug-related problems. But such stigma is now but a distant memory and they have been largely transformed into vibrant, safe and colourful centres and outstanding examples of multicultural Australia.

God works even more mysteriously as far as the role of the Vietnamese Catholics in the Australian Church is concerned. Forgive me if I sound somewhat boastful here. But it is clearly evident that the Vietnamese Catholics are one of the most vibrant groups the Catholic Church in this country has ever seen. At my Episcopal Ordination, I made a tongue-in-cheek remark that we are the “New Irish” and I think that is true in a lot of ways. For a long time, Ireland had a surplus of priests and many of them came to fill the gap in Australia. Now, it’s the Vietnamese who help ease the clerical shortage and change the face of the Catholic Church here. The numbers speak for themselves. There are up to 150 Vietnamese priests in Australia – a highly disproportionate figure given the much smaller percentage of Vietnamese Catholics here. Similarly, the seminaries and religious institutes across the country often experience the same phenomenon. Ordinary Vietnamese Catholics, too, are making their presence felt. Not only are they active in their centres scattered all over the country, Vietnamese Catholics are involved in all sorts of ways for the good of the Church. Wherever they are, there is more participation and vitality than otherwise possible. I guess you could say the same about the Filipinos, Mauritians, East Timorese and other groups who are known for their piety. What is unique about the Vietnamese Catholics is the experience of being forced to leave their own country in a very traumatic fashion.

With due respect to the Jewish people, I make bold to draw an analogy between their experience in exile and our own refugee experience. Like them, we experienced the horror and shame of rootlessness. Like them, we yearn for liberation and restoration of our nation. Like them, we are determined to rebuild our lives and our sense of identity. And ultimately like them, we have a sense of mission in relation to our place in a new society and the local church. That mission consists in our witness to freedom, to faith and to the core human values. The words of the psalm take on an added meaning for us: “The stone which has been rejected by the builders, has become the corner stone”. Ours is a journey from despair to hope, from captivity to freedom, from a state of rootlessness to a new sense of belonging, from marginalisation to integration. We might not yet have fully completed this journey. However, our experience gives us a unique appreciation of the values and the opportunities that many others take for granted. Indeed, our humble beginnings have turned out to be our assets. The “rejected stone” has turned out to be the “corner stone”. This is not to say that we have an exalted sense of identity and mission. Good heavens, no. We are not more special than anyone else. Rather, it is our belief that God uses us with our unique experience for his own purpose in the church and in the society in which we live. We hope to live up to our God-given mission.

Up until now, you notice, I have not said anything specifically about the issue of asylum seekers which is the main topic of our discussion this evening. It’s a lot of “beating around the bush”, you might contend. But I have framed my argument purposely in this way. What I have demonstrated thus far is that vulnerable people wanting to have a better life for themselves and their children should not be seen simply as a burden and a liability to our society. They can become great contributors and builders of this nation. The experience of the Vietnamese refugees is clear evidence that even the most traumatised and the most impoverished group can be integrated in our multicultural society and can make a positive contribution. The fear that our social cohesion might be undermined or that our very future might be compromised on account of an “Asian invasion” – to use the popular fear mongering phrase – has been proven unfounded. Today, Asian Australians have joined the mainstream in every aspect of our society. Even the sceptics of multiculturalism would concede that Australia has evolved to become a much more dynamic, diverse and interesting place.

Controversial though it may be, the arrival of Vietnamese refugees or Asian migrants are just part of the richly textured tapestry of our nation. They were by no means the only group that had to struggle hard for acceptance and integration. Each successive generation of migrants had to overcome enormous odds in adapting to their new life in Australia. The post-war refugees and migrants from Europe – particularly those of non-English speaking background- suffered no less hardship, adversity and even discrimination. They were the ground troops of the economy, often working on the massive infrastructure projects that provided the foundation for a prosperous Australia that we inherit today. The same spirit of determination and hard work characterised earlier generations of migrants. They were, and continue to be the contributors of our economy and society. To be sure, each group presents its own challenge to Australia and yet this nation has consistently risen to the challenge and becomes enriched as a result. I contend that we will have failed to live up to our tradition and impoverish ourselves when we adopt harsh and unprincipled policies towards the asylum seekers.

As a former boat person, I cringe and shudder with revulsion every time I hear the mantra of “Stop the boats!” It is as if we are going to be swamped by these undesirable elements who are going to take our jobs, threaten our security and put our future at risk. We, the Vietnamese refugees have heard it all before and we have proven to all Australians that such a mantra is simply fear-mongering and demeaning to our great nation. Do you know that some of us landed in Darwin following the Fall of Saigon? An asylum seeker called Hieu Van Le was on one of those first boats. After a successful financial career, including a stint period as investigator and manager with ASIC (the Australian Securities and Investments Commission), Mr Le went on to become the Lieutenant Governor of South Australia and Chairman of the SA Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission. And of course, he is not the only former boat person who has risen to prominence against tremendous odds. Australia has produced countless of these individuals with their unlikely success stories, known or unknown, sung or unsung, from almost every generation, every ethnic group and every field of endeavour. How can it be, after all modern Australia was established as a penal colony? Our Aboriginal brothers and sisters knew it better and yet Australia was regarded as only fit for convicts. They arrived by the ship loads and against all odds transformed this country. Few nations can boast such unlikely beginnings. Ever since the convict era and perhaps ever since the dream time of the Aborigines, the history of this country has been about the victory of the downtrodden, the triumph of the human spirit. I am convinced that Australia is what it is today because our nation dares to welcome the unwelcomed; we dare to afford the privilege of opportunity to the underprivileged and a “fair go to the underdog”. We have made this saying true for many like Mr Le who came to our shore: “Yesterday’s underdog is today’s champion”.

Apart from the political slogans which I have critiqued above, I am not sure that both the tone and the contents of the present asylum seekers debate measure up to the spirit of our great nation. Many arguments are put forward in order to deny asylum seekers the opportunity for protection which they are entitled to under the United Nations Refugee Convention – of which Australia is a signatory. The recent High Court decision concerning the so-called refugee swap deal with Malaysia not only reveals the weakness in the government policy but also constitutes a summons to us as a nation to honour our legal and moral obligations. The 2007 Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Social Justice Sunday Statement called on the government to abandon the ‘Pacific solution’. More recently, it re-iterated a call for on-shore processing so as to afford asylum seekers an opportunity to live a dignified life while their refugee status was being determined.

It is not my intention to comment on these arguments here. Suffices to say that the asylum seeker and refugee issue is long term and complicated; and there is no easy solution in the context of our contemporary society and indeed our role in the world today. What I would like to appeal to you, though, is that we need to approach the issue from a positive narrative and not from a narrow and negative mentality which demeans all Australians. We all remember the Tampa incident and how it damaged our reputation internationally – even if it might have been politicised domestically. Sadly, in the post-September 11th world, when border protection and national security acquire prominence politically and socially, the rights of asylum seekers become secondary and even expendable. The Tampa and the subsequent “children overboard” incidents are instances, and indeed the epitome of the negative narrative and the base politics that have tainted the debate. 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.

To my mind, we cannot approach the issue of the asylum seekers without reference to the broader context of justice and solidarity. Australia is and will continue to be a magnet for asylum seekers as long as there is an extreme chasm between where we are and where they are on the political and socio-economic spectrum. A positive narrative consists in addressing the issue as primarily a humanitarian and justice issue, rather than merely a political one. In the last analysis, asylum seekers challenge us to consider their plight and the global inequality on the one hand, and on the other, our privilege of enjoying some of the best living conditions on the planet. Can we go on protecting our way of life with little interest in, or regard for our less fortunate brothers and sisters? Can we continue to secure our privilege as our “exclusive right” without confronting the injustice that impinges itself upon us? Can we adopt measures that amount to unjust and inhumane practices against our fellow human beings in order to justify our attitudes? It seems to me that we cannot avoid these and other vexing moral questions that lurk behind the issue of asylum seekers.

In conclusion, I would say this to all fellow Australians: we can do a whole lot better than allowing the politics of fear and negativity to hijack our discourse and dictate our response; we can stop the demeaning of our beautiful country by reclaiming its Christian principle of preferential option for the poor, its fair-go-for-all tradition and its legendary support for the underdog. Australia rose to the challenge in the past with its generous embrace of asylum seekers, migrants and refugees. It proved itself especially courageous during the Indo-Chinese exodus and accepted an unprecedented number of Asian refugees for the first time in its history. The world did not come to an end as some might have feared. On the contrary, Australia changed for the better as it always has with each successive wave of new arrivals. Australia is what it is today because of their love of freedom and fundamental human values. Australia is what it is today because of their determination and drive for a better future. We honour the legacy of this great nation not by excessive protectionism, isolation and defence of our privilege at all costs. Rather, we make it greater by our concern and care for asylum seekers in the spirit of compassion and solidarity that has marked the history of our country from its beginning. I conclude with the Australian Catholic Bishops’ message on refugees and asylum seekers – May 2004 “Australia has the chance to restore its reputation as an exemplary humanitarian country where refugees can rebuild their shattered lives and where, as a nation, we can sing without shame that “for those who come across the sea, we have boundless plains to share”.

Thank you for listening!

Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen OFMConv
Auxiliary Bishop, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Bishop for the Western Region
Titular Bishop of Tala