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Refugee’s epic journey to freedom

4 June 20240 comments

This month marks 50 years since the beginning of one 20th Century’s major refugee crises when large numbers of so called ‘boat people’ began to flee Indochina.

In May 1974, tens of thousands of people began in large numbers to take to small, often unseaworthy, boats making perilous journeys on the open ocean, braving storms and pirates in a quest for freedom and opportunity.

A year earlier, US forces left Vietnam after the US Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment which prohibited further military activity in Vietnam.

One of these boat people was ‘Thanh’*. 

Prison, shipwreck, hunger, pirates and a letter from Paul Keating are the incredible elements of Thanh’s epic refugee story.

His journey from post-war Vietnam to Australia would read like a boys own adventure were it not for the death, hardship and loss of family he witnessed and experienced along the way.

A victim of the bitterness that remained in the aftermath of the war, Thanh was forced to flee his homeland to find safety and a decent life.

“My father and uncles worked for the South Vietnam government. In 1975 the war ended but my story starts from there,” Thanh said.

“My father was in prison for 14 years and after that was still under surveillance for even more years.

“At the time there were eight kids in our family and the youngest was four months old. I was the middle one – I was 11 years old.

“When my father went to jail we struggled to survive we lost everything, even our house. We had to labour to earn money to survive and I tried complete my studies as well.”

Eventually, Thanh managed to finish Year 12 but the next step, a place at university, was more difficult.

“I could not go to university because of my background and my connection with my father,” he said.

Thanh changed his name and buried his family background to be able to take up his studies.

“I changed my history so as not to be my father’s son and finally I got to study. I finished university at 21,” he said.

“I became maths and physics secondary teacher.”

Thanh was recognised for helping his school to improve results and he was made principal at just 24.

“But this meant I was forced to join the Communist Party. I had no choice,” he said.

“When you become a party member they look into your history going back three generations.

“Very soon they found out about my history and they took me to a police station. I spent six months in prison.

“I was under the party’s control. Sometimes I was kept awake all night. Sometimes I was tortured and beaten. They were trying to coerce me into signing papers that were admissions that I had done things that I hadn’t.”

One beating saw Thanh end up in hospital which provided an opportunity to escape.

“A nurse at the clinic knew my family and helped me escape. She took me 70 to 80 kilometres to a small village on a beach,” he said.

“At the village there were people gathered all wanting to escape the country. We were hoping to get to a refugee camp in Malaysia or Hong Kong.”

Thanh was one of a hundred people aboard a small fishing boat that set out from the coast late one night in 1989 braving monsoon weather and naval patrols.

“One the first day there was a heavy rain storm that threatened to sink us. Somehow we survived and finally got into international waters,” he said.

“But we still faced a lot of problems. We had very little water and we were rationed to one cup of water for two people each day.

“It was not long before the water ran out. Then the food ran out. Then the hot sun came out in the middle of the sea. It was not a good time.

“We saw another boat and people covered their faces with the clothing out of fear. But the other boat gave us a little water and food and we continued our journey.”

Thanh said that two or three days’ later disaster finally struck when the small boat hit a rock in the early hours of the morning.

“The people steering the boat were guessing where they were going. They had no navigation. Suddenly we were in the water. I don’t know how many people drowned but many did,” he said.

“About an hour later the sun came up and few hundred metres away was an island and we managed to get ashore.”

But the island offered only brief relief and Thanh and his companions’ problems were just beginning. What lay ahead was a 40 day ordeal of hunger, heat and pirates.

“There were 122 people on the island and we had no food. We were eating grass but more people – I think about 45 – died,” he said.

“Some of us managed to swim to the next island where there were banana trees. We were on the island for 40 days.

“At one point, a group of about 20 gunmen came to the island. They took everything and all of our money.

“They made all of the men stand up to their necks in the water but we had hidden all of the women in the forest.

“The gunmen came again and when they couldn’t find the women they beat us. Luckily, a few days later the UNHCR came in a big boat and we were taken to a refugee camp in Indonesia.

“We were safe but life in the camp was tough. Food was short and four people were living in a two metre square area.”

Thanh spent seven years in the camp and volunteered with the UNHCR teaching children maths and science.

He applied unsuccessfully for a refugee visa with several governments, including the US, France, Italy and Singapore.

At one point he faced being repatriated to Vietnam by the Indonesian government.

And local officials demanded a $15,000 bribe to progress his asylum application in Indonesia.

In desperation, he wrote letters to the leaders several western countries.

Amazingly, a response came from the then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating.

“Paul Keating wrote back to me saying he would support my application. I was amazed. I still have the letter.

“I learned later that he instructed the Immigration Minister Nick Bolkus to process my application. I arrived in Australia in 1997 after eight years in the camp.

“I lost twenty years of my life, my country and career and I lost contact with my family.

“But in the end I made it to Australia and it was like being reborn. The first thing I that struck me was the freedom I had and the lack of fear,” Thanh said.

After arriving in Australia Thanh fell in love with technology as the industry began to burgeon.

“I studied and worked at the same time. I started working with an organisation on work experience and I’m still working there as a Network Engineer,’ Thanh said.

“I have been lucky to be able to rebuild my life here in Australia,” he said.

*Thanh’s name has been changed to protect family members still living in Vietnam.