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Articles Blog

Vietnamese Boat People

Karyn Planett

The Flotsam Of War

The term boat people has come to refer to illegal immigrants and asylum seekers sailing from such diverse countries as Cuba, Haiti, Morocco, Indonesia, even Albania. Curiously, affluent Chinese immigrating to Canada and the U.S. have even been referred to, in a somewhat cruel parody, as yacht people. 

Nonetheless the term came into common use in the 1970s with the mass exodus of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia following the Second Indochinese War (known in the US as the Vietnam War). These desperate souls put their lives at risk from unscrupulous operators, unseaworthy vessels, treacherous weather, rapacious pirates, and uncaring countries of asylum in order to escape the retribution of the victorious communist forces after the fall of Saigon in 1975. 

Re-education Camps 

The new communist government in South Vietnam imprisoned an estimated one million people who’d been loyal to the old leadership. Often these were educated, white-collar families who were thought to be intractable or even subversive to the new order. The threat of the camps and the poverty that swept the country after the war led millions to flee. Their escape routes were varied but the dangers were universal. 

Danang became an exit point for middle class refugees from Saigon. With forged IDs they boarded any decrepit boat that would take them into international waters. There they hoped to be “rescued” by a commercial vessel headed for Hong Kong, Australia, the Philippines—anywhere safe. 

These desperate attempts continued into the 1990s and beyond. There was another wave after the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 when ethnic Chinese in North Vietnam fled what they felt was an unsympathetic regime looking for revenge. The Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia resulted in millions of dead and thousands more escapees. Sometimes their only crime was having uncalloused hands unlike those of the peasants, farmers and ordinary workmen. Soon the victims of war were joined by people from other Southeast Asian countries simply seeking a better life. But the perils they endured were not always rewarded by the nations where they sought asylum. 

The Pacific Solution 

Many boat people found their only sanctuary in refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. These camps were in a few cases little better than the horrors or hardships they had fled. Inmates in Thai camps, some of whom had escaped by land across the Cambodian and Thai borders, suffered rough treatment by camp guards. Generous aid money rarely found its way to those who needed it most. 

Ethnic Chinese from North Vietnam headed for Hong Kong and were considerably better treated by their Chinese cousins. In fact, Hong Kong later indicated a willingness to take the remaining people still in refugee camps though many declined. 

By the end of the 1990s, boat people were actually traveling from as far away as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. A Norwegian cargo ship, MV Tampa, rescued 439 Afghans from a sinking fishing boat. Indonesia wanted to have the survivors brought to their port of Merak (exactly why they wanted 439 Afghans is an open question). Citing International Maritime Law, the Afghans wanted to be taken instead to the nearest port offering medical treatment, which happened to be nearby Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. There they would have been allowed to ask asylum from the Australian government. Australia refused and as a result of the Tampa Affair the government established a policy, called the Pacific Solution, whereby asylum seekers were intercepted and taken to detention camps on small islands like Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or the Republic of Nauru, a Micronesian state so small it has no capital city. Once there, their refugee status was decided before actually being admitted to Australia or sent elsewhere.            

The Orderly Departure Program 

In 1980, the United States established an office in Bangkok to facilitate the immigration of Vietnamese refugees to the US. These included former South Vietnamese government workers, South Vietnamese employed by the US, and children of US servicemen. This last category resulted in an unfortunate practice whereby some wealthy Vietnamese paid to “adopt” these half American children from their often illiterate, sometimes former prostitute mothers, then apply for immigration status. The Orderly Departure Program eventually helped nearly half a million Vietnamese resettle in the US. 

In an odd coda to this humanitarian story, many refugees who languished for years in detention camps throughout Southeast Asia would have been accepted as citizens in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, yet refused. We can only speculate on their hesitation. Eventually, political and social reforms, a new economic resurgence, financial incentives and perhaps plain old homesickness convinced many former boat people to voluntarily return to Vietnam in the 1990s. Only then did their sad and desperate journey come to a close.