Vietnamese boat people came to Britain for a new life. They found unemployment and despair

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The Independent Online

THEY ARRIVED in Britain having suffered the most appalling traumas. Driven from their homes in Vietnam by war and ethnic cleansing, they risked drowning and piracy by fleeing to the seas in thousands of tiny craft.

THEY ARRIVED in Britain having suffered the most appalling traumas. Driven from their homes in Vietnam by war and ethnic cleansing, they risked drowning and piracy by fleeing to the seas in thousands of tiny craft.

Those that reached Hong Kong were herded into refugee camps where they remained for years, hoping for the chance of a new life in the West.

But two decades after the first refugees arrived at a reception centre at an RAF camp in Hampshire, the 27,000-strong Vietnamese community in Britain is in crisis.

An investigation by The Independent shows that more than 50 per cent of the adults are unemployed and many families are living in chronic poverty. Half the adult community still cannot speak English.

At least 400 Vietnamese in London are having treatment for addiction to heroin or crack cocaine, and mental illness is running at double the national average. Police are concerned at the growing involvement of young Vietnamese men in organised crime.

Professionals specialising in the fields of drugs, mental health and criminal justice are united in believing that support services for the Vietnamese are chronically lacking.

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said yesterday: "The Vietnamese refugees who came here were betrayed. We made an offer to take these people in and they have been badly let down."

Vi Tran, a senior drug worker at An-Viet, a Vietnamese refugee group based in Hackney, east London, said: "There are very serious problems in the community. Adult Vietnamese who have not been educated here have little chance of work and are being struck down by drugs, mental health problems and gambling."

Drug addiction is the most pressing problem. Boat people who were exposed to heroin in the camps of Hong Kong have become important clients for British inner-city drug dealers, who have recently introduced them to crack cocaine.

With drug addiction has inevitably come a crimewave. The Inner London Probation Service said last week that it was "investigating the feasibility of developing programmes specifically targeted at Vietnamese offenders" after a wave of shoplifting crime.

Two former boat people who oversaw an organised thieving racket in London were each jailed for four and a half years in November after a court was told that they used a series of gangs to steal designer goods and jewellery worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Police are also concerned about the activities of Vietnamese gangs modelled on the Chinese Triads, whicho have been linked to a series of violent attacks, including a murder in south-east London.

Many of the refugees have turned to crime because their language difficulties and lack of relevant skills make them almost unemployable. Emma Williams, An-Viet's project co-ordinator, said that up to 75 per cent of Vietnamese in London had no official job. The lack of work opportunities has piled depression on top of the sufferings experienced in the flight from Vietnam.

Jack Shieh, of the Vietnamese Mental Health Service in south London, said that the proportion of people with mental health problems in the community was almost double that of the general population.

He said: "Among the 300 cases we have, half have been diagnosed as schizophrenic and the other half have various levels of depression."

The problems now being experienced by the Vietnamese can be traced to the failings of the original "dispersal" housing programme used by the Government to scatter the boat people across rural Britain.

Many of the families arriving in Britain 20 years ago were ethnic Chinese, forced from their homes in Northern Vietnam after the 1979 border war between China and Vietnam.

Unlike the southern Vietnamese who fled to Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many northerners headed for Hong Kong, then a British dependency.

While the United States and Australia hand-picked refugees from the professional classes of south Vietnam - who have since established prosperous communities in California and Sydney - Britain accepted quotas, mostly from among the rural northern poor. Many were farmers and fishermen, so it was thought that they would feel more at home in villages.

But with no English and no job prospects in the depths of a British recession, the country setting only compounded the refugees' sense of isolation; in the early Eighties, village shops did not even stock rice.

A mass migration began to the cities, with the boat people drawn to the familiar environment of the Chinatowns in Manchester and Birmingham. Of 2,000 Vietnamese who went to rural Scotland, barely a couple of hundred remain.

Most Vietnamese went to London, where they settled in the capital's largest and most notorious estates; the North Peckham, the Kidbrooke and the Pepys, all in the south-east London area.

Daniele Joly, director of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick, said that Vietnamese refugees had fared better in France, where there was already a settled Vietnamese community because of colonial links to Indochina.

She said: "In Britain, there was more of an image of them as victims, which disempowers people. There was a total emphasis on housing, which led to settlement in areas where there is little employment."

But at long last the problems of the boat people are being acknowledged. In Mare Street in Hackney, east London, a batch of Vietnamese-owned restaurants, shops and supermarkets is about to be transformed into Britain's first "Vietnamtown" and decorated with oriental street furniture to act as a focal point for the community and regenerate the economy of the neighbourhood.

Ung Van Luy of Refugee Action in south London said that while older generations of Vietnamese had been sacrificed, there were signs that their children, educated in Britain and fluent in English, would have greater opportunities.

"We are looking to the younger generation and hoping for a brighter side," he said.

But the disastrous effects of the Vietnamese dispersal are now in danger of being repeated on a much larger scale by the Government, which from April begins its official programme under the Immigration and Asylum Act of moving thousands of refugees out of London and relocating them around Britain.

Mr Hardwick said: "We are at the cusp of a critical decision. At this moment, Home Office officials are deciding whether to cluster refugees in communities or scatter them wherever there is available housing."

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