Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s (Getty) 

Opinion

What does it feel like to flee your country in an unsafe boat?

Thousands of migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean, as they flee persecution. It’s a devastatingly familiar predicament to the British-Vietnamese community

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By Julie Vuong on

I have a friend whose country of origin on his passport reads “Born at Sea”. He and I share a similar story. We are both British-Vietnamese, having arrived pink and screaming into the world as one of almost 800,000 resettled “boat people”. Our families fled Vietnam on overcrowded fishing vessels, and were left to the mercy of pirates, rapists, murderers, disease, starvation and the unforgiving seas in search of safer shores. 

That was in 1979. But today a similar story is playing out – this time in the Mediterranean instead of the South China Sea. Some people would have you believe that these migrants eager to reach the coastlines of Italy, Malta and Greece are parasites determined to live off the riches of Europe. These benefits-hungry scroungers or “cockroaches” (copyright Katie Hopkins) are cruising warm waters to put you out of pocket, take your job and put extra strain on our embattled NHS. 

In October last year, the UK government paid lip service to this train of thought and withdrew its support of EU search-and-rescue efforts in favour of a coastguard service, believing it would deter would-be migrants. But this policy is now under intense scrutiny in light of the deaths of 1,750 people this year alone. Even so, the hands-off approach is buoyed by tough attitudes, like those of the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who urged Europe to follow his lead, saying: "The only way you can stop the deaths is, in fact, to stop the boats."

After all, let’s not encourage them, right? Wrong. The philosophy implies that people set sail rubbing their hands with glee with easy cash in their sights. Substitute the pursuit of plunder for survival and you get somewhat closer to the truth. Many are fleeing Syria, where war has raged for more than four years. They will have faced the same heart-wrenching choice as my parents: leave your homeland or face poverty, persecution, prison or perhaps even a fate far worse. It is, after all, a story that history has served up before. 

 

My sister was so close to death fellow passengers urged my mother to throw her overboard

Growing up in Rugby, Warwickshire, I knew this of my origins: after the invading Chinese army was forced out of North Vietnam in 1979, any Vietnamese person with Chinese ancestry needed to look sharp and leave. The government seized our family home and businesses and my grandmother was thrown into jail. A bribe was paid to a state official in exchange for passage out. My father and mother, who was pregnant with me, boarded a fishing boat with my two sisters, who were aged four and two respectively. 

It was not plain sailing. I was told how the boat came close to sinking, taking on so much water it reached chest height; that the captain abandoned ship somewhere along the Chinese coastline; and how one of my sisters was so close to death fellow passengers urged my mother to throw her overboard. 

After weeks at sea, my whole family reached Kowloon, Hong Kong, and was interred at a refugee camp where I was born. But their ordeal didn’t end there: conditions were almost as poor as the stinking boats they’d fled on and daily life was enforced with an iron fist. 

However, they were safe, and months later started a new life in the UK thanks to a unified global response, which encouraged countries including the US, Australia, Germany, France and Canada to open their borders. There are parallels to be drawn from that crisis more than 30 years ago and the one flooding the headlines today. Lessons from the past call for a consolidated effort from leading EU countries, one that won’t allow more migrants to drown on the doorsteps of Europe’s developed nations. Let us find a way to save not stop the boats and provide – as my family once was given – hope on the horizon.

Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s (Getty) 
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