`Lost people' adrift in an alien world

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The 25,000 Vietnamese refugees in Britain have been described as one of the "most disadvantaged groups" to come here.

They have had a struggle to build new lives but the multitude of health and social problems afflicting a community of about 300 families in Deptford, south-east London, has shocked even the most hardened health workers.

There is a hopelessness in their voices as they try to convince visitors through an interpreter that life is not so bad, and of their gratitude to the Government for taking them in. None will give a name because they are anxious not to offend - and they fear "reprisals".

My Tang, a social worker, has run the Deptford Vietnamese Health Project, backed by Save the Children, for two years and is responsible for uncovering the crisis. It is only now she feels that she has won the community's trust. For months, the people sheknew were enduring hardships - beatings, ill-health, coping with mentally sick relatives or burdened by debt - while assuring her nothing was wrong. "They are embarrassed by their problems. They like to put on a brave front but they are a lost people. They are suspicious of authority, they don't know where to go for help, and they have no resources.''

Unemployment in the community is 100 per cent and with the women bearing the brunt of child care - about one in five are single parent families -some men have turned to drugs (8 per cent) and alcohol (4 per cent). Gambling and drug dealing in heroin and cocaine, a legacy of the "closed" holding camps of Hong Kong, are further destroying family life.

One in 10 adults is suffering mental health problems from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia. Domestic violence is reported by one in five families; child abuse - physical and emotional - affects 9 per cent of families. Six per cent are homeless; the rest receive housing assistance.

It is language Vietnamese women view as the biggest barrier. Few will travel beyond Deptford market, about half a mile away, being scared of getting lost. "What I fear most is if my children get sick in the night because I don't speak English. I don't know who to call for help," one woman says.

English classes are available but, with no Vietnamese-speaking teachers, beginners feel it is pointless, My Tang says. Children who have heard no English at home face problems at school. "One little boy used to run home every time he wanted to go to the toilet because he didn't know how to ask," she says.

Another woman, more outspoken than the rest, says her British neighbours are cold. "Only one or two will say hello," she says. None of the women speaks of racial abuse but My Tang says it is widespread.

Although Vietnamese settlement in Deptford began in the early Eighties, an estimated 40 per cent of the 100 families in the survey arrived in the past two years. They had spent up to 10 years in Hong Kong camps; many married and had children there. They know little beyond institutionalised living.

They arrived at the tail-end of the UK refugee resettlement programme, and several families went to Deptford direct, by-passing reception centres. They had little opportunity to learn basic English or how to find jobs. My Tang points to reports in her files of families living in flats without heating or water and surviving on bread, milk and cornflakes.

In March, funding for My Tang's project runs out. Her final report, published last month, makes 19 recommendations to Lewisham social and health services. There has been little response, and the Vietnamese women are resigned to life as it is. Their hope for the future rests with their children.

9 Vietnamese refugees: towards a healthy future; Deptford Vietnamese Health Project.