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Our moral duty towards Afghan refugees



I was one of the boat people who escaped from South Vietnam. The escape happened after South Vietnam had fallen to the Vietnamese communist forces in 1975, and my world descended into total chaos with an international embargo, wars against China and Cambodia, forced collectivisation and the insidious spread of what were termed ‘re-education camps’ — but were really communist gulags. My siblings and I grew up in a world of poverty, isolation, oppression and constant fear of what might happen to us or our loved ones.

Finally, my parents, who had escaped by boat themselves from North Vietnam in 1954, encouraged my siblings and me to escape. The boat journey was risky, and there were far more people on the boat than it could carry safely. By the third day, we’d run out of food, water and fuel and were at the mercy of the elements. On the seventh day, we drifted near an oil rig, half alive and half dead. Fortunately, we were rescued, and brought to a refugee camp off the coast of Malaysia, where I stayed for over a year.

In December 1981, I was accepted and brought to a country I knew nothing about: Australia. Here, I built a new life, and worked hard to become a priest, a dream that I had held since I was 13 years old. Growing up in war and later transiting in a refugee camp, all I wanted to do was to help people who suffered, and so in Australia I was finally able to follow that dream properly, eventually even becoming a Bishop, something I never would have imagined when I was clinging to that boat on the ocean.

Today, even though it’s been decades since I fled the war, it all comes flooding back as I see footage of people clambering onto planes. Some of the images of people dangling off the stairs to aircraft in Kabul were eerily similar to what happened in Saigon in April 1975.

My Catholic faith compels me to try to address these kinds of injustices, ones that remind me of what I and my loved ones experienced in Vietnam. I believe in the universal and inclusive love of God, a love that seeks to embrace all people, most especially those at the periphery, who are experiencing poverty and injustice.

I also believe that people of faith, and Australians more broadly, must stand for social and moral issues, because this is the only way that we can build the world we want to see in the future. And this is a pivotal moment for us to step up and support those in need in Afghanistan. I hope to see the same level of bipartisan support for Afghan refugees now as there was for Vietnamese refugees then.


'We must extend the temporary visas of all Afghan citizens in Australia so that they will not be at risk of forced return to a dangerous country, and extend permanent protection to any Afghans on temporary protection visas.' 


We must offer additional refugee resettlement places for Afghan refugees immediately, as we did in 2015 for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Canada has already committed to 20,000 additional places for Afghan refugees, and we could match this offer to show that we are ready to shoulder our responsibility to those in need.

We must extend the temporary visas of all Afghan citizens in Australia so that they will not be at risk of forced return to a dangerous country, and extend permanent protection to any Afghans on temporary protection visas. Finally, we must support family reunion applications for Afghan Australians whose families are in danger.

We need to support the Afghan people. And we need to live up to our international obligations, and also live up to our status as a prosperous society, one with a courageous past that welcomed previous waves of refugees en masse from Asia.

Australia has changed for the better with each successive wave of new arrivals, because people like me have brought our determination and drive for a better future. We need to honour this legacy by showing the Afghan people our compassion and solidarity, because I believe that this is the true identity of the country I have made my home. In view of our involvement in the war in Afghanistan, we also have a moral duty to do so.



Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv STL DD is the Catholic bishop of the Parramatta Diocese in Western Sydney and Chair of the Bishops Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service within the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Main image: Afghan Refugees Arrive At Dulles Airport (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images News)

Topic tags: Vincent Long Van Nguyen, refugee, asylum seeker, Australia



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Existing comments

Thank you Bishop Vincent.We are truly blessed to have you as our Bishop in Parramatta. Let us pray for the people of Afghanistan and for all those suffering there. We pray also for a prompt response to the crisis by our Government.

Lawrence McCane | 31 August 2021  

My God! A bishop who actually talks to real issues in the real world and is spot on. Australia needs many more like you, Bishop Vincent. You are in the mould of the late Joseph Grech, another migrant bishop from a country - Malta - which had suffered unimaginable horror in World War 2. when the Luftwaffe and Italians tried to bomb it into submission. That hardship made him a better Christian and he was a man of real compassion. Unfortunately, many of the politicians in this country are knee-jerk anti-Muslims and potential Afghan refugees are all Muslim. It took the public outspokeness of John Howard to get the government to issue visas to the Afghan interpreters who worked with our forces and who had previously been rejected. Shame! Shame! The Taliban are an evil aberration and do neither represent sane Islam nor the Afghan people.

Edward Fido | 31 August 2021  

Bishop Nguyen. Please make sure your story is told to the current administration in Canberra.

john frawley | 31 August 2021  

Such an inspiring story, and inspiring leader is Bishop Vincent. One who i have admired from a distance and have experienced through his gentle and determined spirit of goodness , unassuming generosity of faith ,with a will power who lives and breathes a Gospel message of love and forgiveness.

PETER ANTHONY TAYLOR | 31 August 2021  

I speak as a migrant from a generation older than Vincent Long's. We share a Catholicism in common as well as an Asian background. My parents saw no future for us in an India that, while newly democratic, revealed all the characteristics of a socialist oligarchy. While we had no gulags, the future for our generation which lacked inherited wealth and social status, appeared bleak. Emigration to Australia was out of the question in my childhood because of the extant White Australia Policy; so we went to the UK or Canada, where at least meritocratic immigration policies applied. Years later, after the colour-bar was removed as a condition to migration, I came here as a teacher. I didn't aspire to be a priest nor, obviously, a bishop but my experience of coming from the relative underside brought my background in Catholic Social Teaching to the fore. This, in addition to everyday commonsense, teaches that it would be just plain wrong for those who got here before Vincent and me to exclude others who come here after us, especially if their human circumstances are more perilous than those of the rest of us. Thank You, Vincent Long! Open the doors, Australia!

Michael Furtado | 31 August 2021  

A clarion call to act, as who knows better than those raised in war that war is no way to live? Our very own children seek their chance to dream because like Bishop Vincent and Dr Arian so vividly describe, they need something to live for. So act, we must. No sanctions, ramp up aid, turn war budgets to meeting social need everywhere. https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2018810562/afghan-refugee-uk-doctor-and-global-charity-founder-waheed-arian

Catarina Neve | 01 September 2021  

Thanks for the article but I am unsure that a (the) moral duty is defined within the context or content. It would be easy for various readers to come away with different understandings of who owns or owes any duty and why. I guess it's possible to recite the UN charter or Australian Bills of Rights which might indicate legal parameters and definitions but the moral duty is a more personal level of obligation. Don't get me started on the difference being obliged or having an obligation...particularly when it comes to morals (collective or individual). I support evacuations of "refugees" but don't necessarily see permanent protection as a necessity or given; it might be frustrating but just as we value individual lives, similarly we must properly evaluate individual cases in the application. I don't think there's any compromise of morality to question circumstances and carefully document evidence accordingly; in fact, I believe that we owe refugees the opportunity to state and document their personal case without fear of reprisal. It would be remiss to throw a blanket over a few thousand people and just tag them as a persecuted collection. The immigration risk implications to extend reunion visas to family are fraught; do you expect they just board a flight in Kabul if the persecution threat is real or hop on a smuggler's boat?

ray | 01 September 2021  

Maybe Bishop Nguyen our social obligations to our first nations peoples should come first, though having been to Vietnam 5 or 6 times I understand where you are coming from. It was Pius 12th who asked Kennedy to send the troops in to protect Vietnam's 27% Catholic population, a request he refused but later acceded to by LBJ.
Until recently we had a Vietnamese priest at Runaway Bay (Fr John) and he too suffered under the regime of Ho Chi Minh.
There is no doubt that the Taliban (at their leisure and after they secure financial backing from China) will recriminate harshly against those who supported democracy and the US, and your argument is sound in respect of their safety and need to seek and be granted unconditional refuge.
MF has a point, My great grandfather emigrated from Scotland during the Highland Clearances and my maternal grandfather emigrated from Ireland on the eve of WW2. So we all came from somewhere.
Perhaps Bishop Nguyen you could transfer to Brisbane as the church could use a sincere and aware leader up here.

Francis Armstrong | 03 September 2021  

Bishop Long correctly states that "We must offer additional refugee resettlement places for Afghan refugees immediately, as we did in 2015 for Syrian and Iraqi refugees".

We still have victims of these earlier disasters approved and holding visas eligible for settlement Australia but detained and kept on hold by Covid restrictions and resource limitations.

New resources must be found for the flush of new Afghan cases so as to ensure existing visa holders and eligible applicants are not passed-over or delayed from coming to Australia.

Kieran H. | 04 September 2021