Refugee crisis has echoes of the past when Suffolk extended warm welcome to Vietnamese “boat people”

Vietnamese refugees on the site of what is now the Nuffiled Hospital in the late 1970s. (Photo by Je

Vietnamese refugees on the site of what is now the Nuffiled Hospital in the late 1970s. (Photo by Jerry Tuner/Archant. - Credit: Archant

With attention focussed on the plight of refugees fleeing Syria and heading for Europe, echoes of how this area dealt with earlier waves of people seeking asylum have returned.

Vietnamese refugees were housed at what is now the site of the Nuffiled Hospital in the late 1970s.

Vietnamese refugees were housed at what is now the site of the Nuffiled Hospital in the late 1970s. This photograph of the building was taken in the 1930s - Credit: Archant

Back in 1980 the former Foxhall Hospital on the edge of Ipswich – now the site of the Nuffield Hospital – became a reception centre for Vietnamese “boat people” who had fled their home country and were offered safe haven in Britain.

They were given accommodation at what was then an empty building before being found permanent accommodation across the region.

Many have now completely assimilated themselves into the life of their adopted country.

The Vietnamese boat people were widely welcomed, and seen as freedom-loving victims of a tyrannical Communist regime in a country that had been ravaged by war.

The war itself had ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, but it was three or four years later that the first wave of refugees left the country aiming for non-Communist states including Thailand, Malaysia, and The Philippines. Because of the west’s involvement in the war, many were offered sanctuary in the United States, Britain, France, Australia, and other countries.

About a million people are believed to have fled Vietnam, with about 19,000 coming to Britain in 1980. Not a huge number in comparison with the 800,000 accepted by the US and 96,000 by France (which had been the colonial power until the 1950s).

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Former county council chief executive Clifford Smith said his authority was involved with providing social services support for the new arrivals, and worked with district and borough councils in Suffolk who helped with housing.

“But I don’t recall it was a major issue, we were dealing with a few score people – not hundreds or thousands. And there was widespread sympathy for them.”

John Mowles was a member of the borough’s housing committee at the time and remembers little about dealing with the boat people: “It can’t have been a major issue, it doesn’t stick in the mind.”

He is now the council’s housing portfolio holder and is expecting to be involved when the government considers how to distribute Syrian refugees.

He said: “There will be a new system, but we are still waiting to hear exactly how things are likely to work.”

Thao Nguyen remembers her journey to Suffolk, see more here