Resolution Of The Problem Of Boat People: The Case For a global Initiative

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Resolution Of The Problem Of Boat People: The Case For A Global Initiative

A. Lakshmana Chetty*

Though the 20th century was described as the “Age of the Uprooted” and the “Century of the Homeless Man”, the refugee problem became a critical issue affecting the international relations in the late 1970s largely owing to the unfolding of the Vietnamese refugee crisis which lasted a quarter century. The Vietnamese asylum seekers distinguished themselves from their counterparts in other parts of the world by using small, rickety and hardly seaworthy wooden boats to flee the country and hence came to be called as the “Boat People”. Although initially certain nations encouraged the exodus from Vietnam for reasons of narrow perceived politico-strategic interests, it was not too long before every one — including Vietnam, the country of origin — dictated by domestic and external compulsions, seemed to be inclined to find a way out or even came up with the blueprint for a speedy but satisfactory denouement. The basic thrust of the paper is in unravelling the process leading to the eventual termination of the Boat people problem, having the Geneva Conference on Indochinese Refugees of 1979 as a starting point. What kind of inroads were made — the scope of the various initiatives and their limitations? If the settlement of the problem seemed so near and yet so far apart, what was the stumbling block?


Vietnam’s long drawn wars against France and the US, and its military intervention in Kampuchea and the Sino-Vietnamese conflict culminating in China’s invasion of Vietnam in February 1979, had telling effect on the Vietnamese society and economy. After a decade of reunification, in a candid admission of the “weaknesses”, “errors” and “shortcomings” of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Government, General-Secretary Truong Chinh said in December 1986:

The people’s life is beset with many difficulties. Millions of working people are unemployed or are not fully employed. Many legitimate and material and cultural necessities of life of the people are not met. There is a great shortage of common consumer goods and medicines in the countryside. Housing, hygienic conditions and cultural life in some areas still leave much to be desired.1

Pham Xuan Thuy, who fled his home city Hai Phong, noted:

We left the country because we had no jobs. We could not earn money here and we heard that many people were having good life in other countries after they left.2

After American withdrawal and the fall of anti-communist regime in South Vietnam in 1975, Vietnam launched in the south a programme of integration of two very different socio-economic systems3 affecting not only former civil servants and military personnel who served the Americans, but also traders of whom majority were ethnic Chinese who dominated trade and were not sympathetic to the communist regime.4 The ethnic Chinese feared that their interests were in jeopardy and more so after the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed between Hanoi and Moscow in November 1978 and the consequent deterioration of Sino-Vietnamese relations. Hoan Van Hoang, Deputy Chairman of National Assembly of Vietnam, who defected to China on July 5, 1979 charged that Vietnam’s treatment of its ethnic Chinese was “even worse than Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.”5 In the New Economic Zones (NEZs) launched to develop under developed areas, the ethnic Chinese, who formed bulk of the one million recruits, were forced to take up “tuff jobs” like farming to which they were not accustomed.6

After reunification, Vietnam set up re-education camps in the south for indoctrinating all those who in the past were associated with the non-communist South Vietnamese government opposing communism.7 Since life in the camps was intolerably bad many preferred to flee.

The part played by the US was no less important. Initially Americans showed much “concern” and compassion” for the Vietnamese refugees as a part of their vicious campaign against the communist regime in Hanoi. Prompted by the plight of the Boat people which had received enough international attention President Carter ordered the 7th Fleet to seek out vessels in distress in the South China sea.8 Outlining the US policy towards the Boat people, US Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, said in July 1979:

We are a nation of refugees. Most of us can trace our presence here to the turmoil or oppression of another time and another place. Our nation has been immeasurably enriched by this continuing process. We will not turn our backs on our traditions. We must meet the commitments we have made to other nations and to those who are suffering. In doing so, we will also be renewing our commitments to our ideals.9

American administration’s policy was fully endorsed by the American media. Newsday observed on June 20, 1979:

Every generation knows what the previous one should have done about its refugees. Who is not ashamed in hindsight of the world’s feeble response to the Nazi persecutions nearly half a century ago? Will our own children be any prouder of our response to Indochina’s holocaust. 10

Similar sentiments were expressed earlier by another American daily, The Wichita Eagle, on March 6, 1978:

If this nation was willing to commit billions of dollars and 55,000 young Americans’ it should be willing now to offer its precious soil as sanctuary to those who are left behind.11

Response of the Global Community

The outflow of Vietnamese asylum seekers to the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines and the British Colony of Hong Kong, began following the fall of the Saigon government in April 1975. The Boat people crisis was deepened by the “unprecedented promises” guaranteeing asylum by the US, France, Australia and other nations – “call it a kind of guilty generosity or atonement – or a less — than – canny tactic to embarrass an enemy” or a show of sympathy for the Vietnamese who were “so desperate to get away that they risked their lives on barely seaworthy vessels”, 12 deepened the Boat people crisis. The Vietnamese refugee arrivals which averaged 500 per month during 1975-77 jumped to 1700 during April 1977 – May 1978. By July 1979 well over 200,000 Boat people had reached the shores of ASEAN countries and Hong Kong. The problem was compounded as the rate of resettlement did not keep pace with the rate of arrivals. For instance, in May 1979, of the 51,139 Boat people arrived in the first asylum countries, only 8,500 were offered places of resettlement. 13

Believing that they were unduly victimized, the first asylum nations, particularly the ASEAN states, cried foul. In a joint statement issued at the end of their “Special Meeting” on January 12-13, 1979, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers expressed “grave concern” over the rising inflow of refugees and warned that the perpetuation of refugee problem would not only seriously affect the peace and stability of the region but also would give rise to “serious economic and social dislocations among the ASEAN countries.”14 They, therefore, appealed to the world community “to recognize the heavy burden borne by ASEAN countries which have been forced by circumstances to become countries of transit.”15 Disenchanted ASEAN countries also resorted to turning away the boat people even before thy landed. During May-June 1979, Malaysia alone expelled about 25,000 boat people from its shores.16

First Geneva Conference on Indochinese refugees, July 20-21, 1979

International community could not remain unconcerned to, what the then US Vice-President Mondale said, “a world problem which requires a world solution.”17 Boat people problem was discussed at several international conferences – UN sponsored conference at the Hague in December 1978, meeting of the Heads of Government of the Developed Countries in Tokyo in June 1979 and ANZUS Council meeting in Canberra on July 5, 1979.

A major step in mobilizing international effort to find a viable solution to the Vietnamese refugee problem was taken by the UN under whose auspices the Conference on the Indochinese refugees was held at Geneva on July 20-21, 1979. Going by the outcome of the conference, which was represented by 65 countries, including the first asylum countries and resettlement countries besides Vietnam, the country of origin, it could be said that the conference was more than a success. The countries of resettlement including the US, the UK, Australia, France and Canada pledged to increase the places of resettlement of Boat people from 125,000 to 260,000.18 On their part, the ASEAN countries and Hong Kong undertook to “fully respect the principle of first asylum.”19 Vietnam promised that “for a reasonable period of time it will make every effort to stop illegal departures” and to implement the Orderly Departure Programme (ODP), on which a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by Hanoi and UNHCR earlier in May 1979.20 Under this programme UNHCR “had helped more than 333,000 people to emigrate from Vietnam safely and legally” before the agency turned the “programmes for family reunification and other humanitarian cases” over to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) in 1991.21

The participants also made generous offers of enhanced financial contribution to shore up funding for UNHCR’s Vietnamese refugee programme.22 The Philippines and Indonesia volunteered to offer new sites which would serve as temporary transit centers for the Boat people.23 Elated UN Secretary-General Waldheim noted:

The response during our meeting has been significant. A remarkable spirit of cooperation has marked our deliberations. Many countries have put forward concrete and imaginative proposals. Generous offers of contributions in places of resettlement, in funds, and availabilities for holding centers have been made.24

The impact of the conference was clearly seen in the steep fall in the refugee exodus from 56,941 in June 1979 to 2,745 in December of the same year.25 It was said that the euphoric atmosphere created by the conference did not last long. The crisis peaked again in 1981. According to UNHCR officials, in April, May and June 1981 outflow of Boat people leaped by 80 per cent over the same period in 1980.26 However, much to the relief of the first asylum countries, since 1983 the arrivals of the Boat people diminished each year by some 15 per cent.27 In 1987 Boat people exodus once again reached alarming proportions while resettlement opportunities kept diminishing.28 It appeared that asylum seekers, blinded by the desire for a better life in the West, failed to take cognizance of either the growing impatience of the resettlement countries with the continuing outflow or the brightening economic scenario in their own homeland.

The Vietnamese refugee arrivals in Thailand galloped from 2,807 in 1984 to 13,627 in 1987.29 By May 1988, the rate of Boat people arrivals in Hong Kong shot up by 700 per cent.30 On the other hand, the resettlement rate had fallen to a quarter of its 1980 levels.31 The fact that the Vietnamese continued to flee even fourteen years after the end of the civil war in their homeland, and the successful implementation of the ODP convinced the international community that not all the Boat people qualified as refugees under the 1951 Convention and many were “economic migrants”. In a joint press statement issued in Bangkok on June 14, 1987, after their Special Meeting on the Indochinese Refugees, ASEAN Foreign Ministers “reiterated their firm conviction that the influx from Vietnam… would continue to cause severe economic, social, political and security problems in the ASEAN countries, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia which have had to bear the main brunt of the refugee problem.”32 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ statement was duly endorsed by ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners including the US, Canada, European Community, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.33

Bearing the “intolerable burden”, the first asylum countries pursued deterrent policies with a view to reactivating international attention to the ceaseless flow of the Boat people and for diminishing the rate of resettlement in third countries due to “compassion fatigue”.34 In January 1988 Thailand announced that it would turn away the Boat people. Malaysia notified that its transit camp, Pulau Bidong, would be closed from April 1989.35 In June 1988 Hong Kong announced that all those Boat people who arrived in Hong Kong after June 16, 1988 would be treated as illegal immigrants which meant the abandonment of the policy of granting asylum automatically to all the Boat people arrived in Hong Kong till then. Further, in order to distinguish factual and authentic asylum seekers, Hong Kong introduced the screening policy from June 1988.36 Following suit, ASEAN countries also announced that they would adopt screening policy from March 1989.37 It was in this background that the call for an international conference, on the model of the 1979 Geneva Conference, was given by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers at the end of their Ministerial Meeting in July 1988. 38

Second Geneva Conference on Indochinese Refugees, June 13-14, 1989

Responding to the call of the ASEAN countries, UN Secretary-General Javier Perez Cuellar convened Geneva conference on June 13-14, 1989. The main aim of the conference, attended by 56 nations, was, as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Eagleburger had said, “to gain control over the problem with a comprehensive set of policies and principles.”39 In his opening speech the UN Chief said that the reconvening of the Geneva conference on Indo-chinese refugees after ten years was a “sad measure” of the inability of the international community to address and resolve the “root causes” of the refugee exodus. However, he appealed to the first countries to exercise restraint and resist the temptation to tackle the problem unilaterally. “No issue of this kind can be successfully and durably resolved in isolation” said Cuellar. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Jean-Pierre Hocke called for a humane approach to solve Boat people problem. To quote him: “Any other less humane or less principled approach may well call into question and indeed render impossible the participation of UNHCR”.40

The one concrete result of the conference was the adoption of the draft Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) which called for effective steps in the country of origin to deter “organized clandestine departures”; expedition and expansion of the ODP; temporary refuge to all asylum seekers; determination of “bona fide refugees” through screening and their resettlement; and the repatriation of non-refugees “preferably voluntarily, but by force if necessary.” The CPA also provided for the creation of a regional holding center for the ‘screened out’ (meaning those who had been denied asylum) pending their eventual return to the country of origin and a Steering Committee based in Southeast Asia in order to ensure effective implementation of the plan.41

The outcome of the conference was “positive”. For its part Vietnam agreed to intensify its efforts to accept back “economic refugees”. The Philippines volunteered to offer a regional holding center where 5,600 refugees would be resettled pending the determination of their status.42 Third countries made generous offers of resettlement. The US was committed to resettle 22,000 of the 52,000 Vietnamese who had arrived in first asylum countries as of mid-March 1987.43 Commending the American gesture Calabia, Director of the US Catholic Conference in Washington, noted: “Without this generous commitment from the US, the similar generous offers from Australia or other countries would not be forthcoming.”44 Australia pledged to accept 11,000 refugees and Canada 15,000 over the next three years.45

By March 1995 the CPA Steering Committee met six times. At its sixth meeting in March 1995 the Committee agreed to empty the refugee camps in the countries of first asylum by the end of 1995.46 However, this was not possible because of “rapidly declining voluntary repatriation rates.”47 Therefore, the Committee, at its seventh meeting on January 14-15, 1996, changed the target date to July 1996 after which UNHCR would stop supporting about 20,000 refugees in Southeast Asian camps.48 However, for Hong Kong the target date was extended by one year “due to the large number of screened-out Vietnamese there.”49 According to a UNHCR report, “nearly a half million people had settled before the CPA ended in 1996 at a cost to the international community of $350 million.”50

The target date could not be realized because of violent outbursts in camps as the deadline for voluntary repatriation approached.51 Scenes of mayhem and bloodshed were reported in different camps in different first asylum countries.52 Many Boat people preferred death to returning home.53 The apprehension was, back in Vietnam they would end up either in jail or in labour camps. The prospect of their struggle to eke out their livelihood frightened them. Resistance to get back to Vietnam was also largely attributed to “flip-flops in the United States policy on the resettlement of the boat people.”54

US Congressional legislation factor

In May 1995 Christopher Smith introduced in the House of Representatives a bill requiring to earmark a sum of $ 30 million for resettlement of 20,000 Boat people in the US and also prohibiting the use of American funds for involuntary repatriation. While the first part of the bill was rejected because of strong anti-immigration sentiment among US lawmakers, the House passed the second part to become law on June 8, 1995. 55 Smith’s contention was that “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of the refugees had been unduly denied asylum in the US because of the “egregiously flawed” screening process.56 It was widely believed that Smith’s legislation helped “inflate expectations” among a section of the camp dwellers who expressed their opposition to repatriation through violent demonstrations. The net result was, “voluntary repatriation came to a standstill.”57

Smith’s move was opposed by many. Doung Bereuter, Republican Representative, who tried in vain to block the Smith proposal, warned: “The results, the bloodshed, the tragedies that will result from this reversal of (US) policy are just going to be extraordinary.”58 A State Department official was still more forthright when he cautioned:

We are opposed to the proposed legislation, which at the 11th hour, seeks to abrogate an international undertaking. It would reopen large-scale screening of those already found to be ineligible for refugee status. It will end voluntary return to Vietnam and create new levels of false hope and result in further disturbances.59

Obviously blaming Smith’s move for provoking refugee camp riots, Brian Bresnihan, Refugee Coordinator, Hong Kong, fumed: “you are talking about people clutching at straws and here is the US Congress providing them with more straws.” 60 UN officials were worried for two reasons: first, the legislation factor might “set off another exodus of Boat people.” Second, it might encourage the Boat people not to return to Vietnam by creating “false hopes among the migrants that they would be allowed to come to the United States.” 61 UNHCR’s Asia Director, Werner Blatter, observed: “with this new hope of resettlement in the US, people are just in a waiting position.” 62 Pointing out the adverse effects of Smith’s proposal Time wrote:

Since then voluntary repatriation to Vietnam has all but ceased. In Hong Kong 256 of the 260 people who expressed willingness to go home in early June (1995) on a flight arranged by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have changed their mind. 63

According to Jahanshah Asadi, the Representative of UNHCR in Hong Kong, only about 1,600 boat people voluntarily returned home in 1995, a huge drop form the 5,600 in 1994. 64 By the end of 1995 there were still 36,339 screened-out and 2,048 screened-in Vietnamese in the nations of first asylum and “their fate as well as that of the CPA itself, was in limbo.”65 Nonetheless, American administration’s basic stand was forcefully presented in a statement issued by the US Consulate in Hong Kong. To quote the statement in part:

The US government is unequivocal in its belief that (a) return home is the sole remaining option of those who are not refugees.66

Track II Plan

In September 1995, in the wake of growing criticism of Smith’s move, the US Department of State and Justice and National Security Council came up with a plan, which came to be called as Track II Plan. The objectives of the Plan were:

To undo the damage caused by “false hopes” raised by Smith’s resolution;

To empty the detention camps as early as possible peacefully;

To help those Boat people for whom the US had a “special concern”;

To identify the ineligible refugees and encourage them go home;

To satisfy some US congressmen, NGOs and activist lawyers who contended that the UNHCR’s screening was flawed. 67

The salient features of the Plan were:

Boat people, who were in the detention camps by October 1, 1995, were required

To submit their applications on or before June 30, 1996 for a final screening;

The applicants would be transported to Ho Chi Minh City;

After two months, the boat people would be informed whether they were eligible or not for interviews with American immigration officials in Vietnam;

While the successful ones would be allowed to resettle in the US, the rejected would be required to get back to their native place.68

This new proposal clearly indicated that the US, while opposing forced repatriation, hoped to give human touch to bring 20-year old problem to a “dignified ending.” New York Times, which described American administration’s proposal as “a fair and practical alternative”, observed:

Despite historic obligations to anti-communist Vietnamese, Washington can no longer insist that other countries shelter them unwillingly and indefinitely in camps. 69

However, UNHCR was sore about the plan. It felt that by proposing the new plan the American government had doubted its integrity. UNHCR contended that rescreening of about 37,000 Boat people already screened out implied that its screening process was not foolproof. Catherine Bertrand, Head of UNHCR’s office in Hanoi, quipped: “If the US wants to take these people for their own historical reasons, then why not. But this has nothing to do with refugees.” 70

Further, those who had already voluntarily returned may demand that they too be brought under the scope of Track II Plan and extended the benefit of final screening. One American analyst said: “It’s an equity issue. The ones who already came back were told they had no more chance at resettlement. That’s turning out to be a lie.” 71 If their demand was conceded, the screening process, already completed by UNHCR in association with the first asylum nations, would become a futile exercise.

When the Plan was presented to Vietnam in November 1995 Hanoi disapproved of the idea. Argument was, the US proposal which envisaged the creation of a transit camp in Vietnam under US protection until the claims of the returnees were considered, would be in conflict with Vietnam’s territorial rights. An NGO worker in Bangkok said: “The Vietnamese say an extraterritorial base would violate their sovereignty.” 72 Hanoi was also concerned of those whose applications would be rejected. A UN official thus said: “What kind of problems would they cause if they don’t get accepted into Track II?”73 To be precise, as an American reporter had pointed out, Vietnam was worried that the rejected would become violent and remain “actively disgruntled.” 74 In any case Hanoi finally gave in, the reasons for which are not far to seek. By opposing the US move Vietnam could not afford to displease its partners in ASEAN which it joined in 1995. Further, at that time Hanoi was “aggressively seeking foreign investment”. What is more, Vietnam, as Phillis E. Oakley, the then U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, had pointed out, was “preparing to begin a new and positive relationship with the US in the wake of the recent establishment of full diplomatic relations.” 75 Endorsing the American Plan, Bui Hong Phuc, Assistant to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Director of the Ministry’s Consular Department, Hanoi, said in March 1996:

To expand opportunities for the people to legally resettle in other countries is a way to encourage the returnees to come home and prevent others from leaving the country illegally.

Our policy is to encourage the detainees to return home voluntarily and accept their home. They will not be discriminated against nor accused of illegally leaving. If they are eligible for exit permits from Vietnam, and accepted by third countries, we are willing to let them go.76

Taking advantage of the new US programme Malaysia acted swiftly to empty its camps in April and May. However, by the time the deadline had come into effect, only about 25 per cent of the refugees in the camps were able to submit their applications and the rest became ineligible. 77 As majority failed to avail the opportunity, critics blamed that the US plan floundered on a rule, viz June 30 deadline. Shep Lowman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Refugees in the Carter Administration, pointed out that “that date has no relationship to the purposes of the new program.” On the other hand, he contended that “it has brought the programme to an end before the people in the camps understood the choices before them or had a reasonable opportunity to sign up.” He added:

Not only were the refugees not given enough time or information to make a decision, but many important aspects of the program itself remain unclear because the State Department has not yet completed negotiations with the Vietnamese government on the plan. 78

Defending itself the State Department maintained that the June 30 deadline was in agreement with the termination of the CPA.79 It may be mentioned that soon after the International Conference on Indochinese refugees in Geneva in February 1996 the UNHCR spokeswoman, Ruth Marshall, announced that the assistance to the detainees in camps would come to an end on July 1, 1996. 80 The State Department argued that it had to have a time limit for winding down the programme and deadlines had to be followed. Stretching its argument the American Administration claimed that it had given an opportunity to the refugees and it was up to them to seize upon the opportunity. 81

Undeterred by the Administration’s firm stand, pressure was sought to be brought on it to enable the maximum number of refugees to benefit by the new programme. In May 1996, eleven organizations that were concerned with immigration and refugee affairs urged the Administration to be flexible so as to bring the programme to a satisfactory end. 82 Three of the five American Presidents, during whose period the Indochinese refugee programme took shape over 20 years, wrote to President Clinton suggesting that the new plan be brought to a close in a humane and peaceful manner. 83 Given the strong anti-immigration sentiment among the Congressmen, President Clinton found it hard to yield. 84 This meant that only the microscopic minority of the refugee detainees would benefit and the rest would have no option except to get back to their homeland since the UN officially turned off the tap of financial assistance on June 30, 1996.

According to UNHCR, of the 160,000 Boat people landed on the Thai soil 146,000 were resettled in the West while the remaining were repatriated. Sikhiu, the last refugee camp for the Boat people was closed in February 1997. Majority of 51,722 Boat people arrived in the Philippines were resettled in the West. While about 2,600 had “voluntarily” returned to Vietnam, about 2,500 who remained in the Philippines were granted refugee status. Of the 254,495 Boat people escaped to Malaysia, about 250,000 were resettled in the West, and the rest were repatriated to Vietnam. Thus by the summer of 1996 Malaysia closed all its detention centres. While a total of 121,708 Boat people arrived in Indonesia, about 112,000 had been resettled in the West, 8,400 people had been repatriated back to Vietnam, and the remaining who had been classified as “non-refugees” were required to be repatriated to Vietnam. 85

Ever since the drama of the Boat people was unfolded in the late 1970’s, a total of 214,555 Vietnamese asylum-seekers arrived in Hong Kong. While the West had accepted to take 140,000, most of the remaining Boat people were repatriated to Vietnam. 86 About 1,400 Boat people comprising ethnic Chinese who were not recognized by Vietnam as its nationals, the children of the asylum seekers in Hong Kong, and those who were not offered resettlement by any country, remained in Pillar Point, the last Boat people camp to be closed in Hong Kong. Hong Kong did not wish to be harsh to the residual case load of Boat people remaining on its soil. Explaining the policy of Hong Kong towards the last remaining Vietnamese refugees, Security Secretary Regina Ip said:

It has become clear…the only effective and durable solution lies in complete integration. Integration is a humanitarian solution, especially for the children of the Vietnamese refugees who were born in Hong Kong.87

Accordingly in February 2000 the Hong Kong Government announced that it would give permanent residency to the Boat people remaining in the Pillar Point, but imposed May 31, 2000, when Pillar Point was slated to be closed, as deadline for them to move into the society. Applauding Hong Kong Government’s gesture Terence Pike, UNHCR representative in Hong Kong, said:

These are the hard-sell cases. We have tried our best. In the last year we haven’t managed to resettle any refugees. We think becoming Hong Kong citizens is a wonderful opportunity for them to rebuild their lives again. 88

Many of the asylum seekers in Pillar Point were not happy with Hong Kong’s offer, because they boated to Hong Kong “risking their lives for a new life in the West.” San Man Weh, who had spent twelve years of his life in Pillar Point gave vent to his feelings of disappointment when he said:

Hong Kong is not where we want to be. We want to go to another country, any other country, anywhere would be better than Vietnam. We don’t have a place of our own to live here (in Hong Kong), we want to go somewhere else, may be America. 89

Though chagrined, vast majority of the residents in Pillar Point applied for residency rights. When the camp at Pillar Point was shut down at midnight on May 31, 2000, around 100 residents vowed to stay put. Hong Kong authorities warned that any who remained would be “trespassers” and would be evicted and denied further assistance. 90


When the Western nations, which at one time enticed the Vietnamese to flee their homeland, “sheepishly withdrew their promises” 91 overwhelmed by “compassion fatigue”, UNHCR acted as a sheet anchor for resolving the Boat people problem by finding places of resettlement, preventing the outflow and encouraging the screened out to return to their fatherland to start a new life. Hence the UN took the initiative in organizing two international conferences in Geneva. While the first conference in 1979 helped find a large number of resettlement places in the West, the 1989 conference adopted the CPA, a “UN-sponsored plan to resolve the Boat people issue in an orderly, fair manner.”92 According a UNHCR report, before the CPA was ended in 1996 nearly a half million people were resettled in the West at a cost of $350 million. 93

Although illegal departure was a crime, Vietnam, for reasons of external compulsions, not only remained sincere to its commitments to accept back the screened out but also cooperated with UNHCR in the process of repatriation and resettlement of the Boat people. In a note sent to all concerned Ministries and offices on November 21, 1996, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet said: “Vietnam is trying hard to complete the return of the boat people … before July 1st 1997.” 94 A report from the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, Hanoi, said that 120-130 new projects with a total investment of $ 3 million would be in place by the end of June 1997 to absorb the returnees. 95 The boat people who had already returned to Vietnam and who lacked professional skills were offered technical training in Ho Chi Minh City and other major cities. Some were given long and medium term interest free loans to start their own business. 96

In order to verify that the returnees were not persecuted by Vietnam and also to follow-up their integration, UNHCR undertook what was described as “the most intensive evaluation of any return movement in its history.” 97 During 1975-2000 UNHCR spent $113 million including $71 million for the return of the screened out of which $35 million was a reintegration cash grant and another $14 million to start about 600 small community projects. 98 In 1989, Goran Rosen, who served long as UN refugee agency’s international staff member in Vietnam, checked out a Malaysian news headline “Lured Back to a very Bleak Future” and found the report untrue. 99 In the middle of 1999, UNHCR’s seven Vietnamese speaking monitors had individually interviewed more than forty per cent of the 110,000 returnees, an exercise which one diplomat described as “stunning”. UNHCR was convinced that the Vietnamese authorities were not vindictive. 100 Demonstrating its real sense of commitment to the satisfactory resolution of the Boat people problem UNHCR continued to monitor the fate of the Boat people repatriated back to Vietnam, even though other pressing refugee problems in Bosnia and elsewhere demanded its greater attention.

Although UNHCR made every effort to unburden itself of the Boat people, at no point of time did it associate itself with the programme of forced repatriation as the use of ‘force’ or ‘threat’ had no place in its humane functioning. When the Steering Committee of the CPA decided on involuntary or forced repatriation in 1995 as a response to the boat people who indulged in violence opposing voluntary repatriation, UNHCR distanced itself from the implementation of that policy. 101 Despite its fair and humane treatment of the boat people, UNHCR came in for criticism. A minority section of American opinion remained unsatisfied with the screening under the CPA plan and argued for “a generous closure of the books”.102 The American moves heralded a new round of hopes as a result of which the implementation of the programme of repatriation and reintegration was interrupted and adversely affected. As Alexander Casella, the Asia Director for the UN refugee agency, said, the poor Boat people who were not political refugees “have become to some degree a football in the internal American debate.” 103 Even after their reintegration, the returnees continued to visit UNHCR’s office in Ho Chi Minh City to explore ways of moving overseas, particularly to the US.

The UN refugee agency took meticulous care to ensure that the stay of the Boat people in camps was reasonably comfortable. A returnee gushed: “We were fed and supported by UNHCR. There were so many demonstrations, hunger strikes, fighting. Yet the UNHCR people still showed sympathy. It was surprising. We were often very aggressive and demanding.” 104 UNHCR paid such an attention for the resettlement and reintegration of the boat people that the returnees, even after their reintegration, took liberties with the refugee agency to urge its monitors to pay medical expenses and repair their dwellings. 105 Daeng Napaporn, UNHCR official in Ho Chi Minh City, observed: “They come asking for help. Some are crying. They think UNHCR can do for them what we did in the camps.” 106 Perhaps the former Boat people were not aware that UNHCR had already expended on them more than what it did for greater refugee crises in other parts of the globe. For example, in 1995 UNHCR spent about $ 50 million on 36,000 people in camps and the76,000 it monitored in Vietnam. In contrast was its budget of $38 million to aid about 200,000 Afghan returnees and $51 million to help 1.6 million returnees displaced by civil war in Mozambique. 107

Thus the Boat people problem which challenged the international community was ended at long last thanks to the UN refugee agency’s persisting and painstaking efforts in the context of the rising tide of global opinion against the exodus from Vietnam and the Hanoi Government’s positive attitude towards the returnees.


* Prof. A. Lakshmana Chetty is Director, Centre for Studies on Indochina & South Pacific, Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati.

1. For text of the speech by General-Secretary Truong Chinh, see Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB)/FE/8447/C1/1-55, December 16, 1986.

2. Trinh Thi, “Long road ahead for returnees,” Vietnam Investment Review, March 4-10, 1996, p.7.

3. Government of Australia, Australian Foreign Affairs Record, (AFAR) (Department of Foreign Affairs, Granville), July 1979, p.447.

4. Rebecca Allen and Harry H. Hiller, “The social organization of Migration: An analysis of the uprooting and flight of Vietnamese refugees,” International Migration, December 1990, p.441.

5. Facts on File, August 10, 1979, p.604.

6. For a good discussion on this aspect, see Raja Mohan Rao, Problem of Boat People in Hong Kong, (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation), Tirupati, 1994, p.19.

7. Ibid, pp.19-20.

8. Mark Roberts, “Desperation,”

9. See Statement by the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, before the Sub-Committee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law of the House Judiciary Committee, July 31,1979, in Department of State, American Foreign Policy 1977-1980, (Washington, 1981), pp.989-941.

10. See Melinda Maidens (ed.), Immigration: New Americans, Old generations, (Facts on File, New York, 1981), p.83.

11. Ibid, p.76.

12. Jose Manuel Tesoro, “Journey’s end,”

13. James W. Tollefson, Alien Winds: The Re-education of America’s Indochinese Refugees, (New York, 1986), p.9.

14. Statements by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers at ASEAN Ministerial Meetings, 1967-1987, (Jakarta, 1987), p.318.

15. ASEAN Documents Series 1967-1986, (ASEAN Secretariat, Jakarta, 1986), p.120.

16. Janelle M. Diller, In Search of Asylum: Vietnamese Boat People in Hong Kong, (Washington D.C., 1988), p.10.

17. American Foreign Policy, n.9, p.939.

18. AFAR, n.3, July 1979, p.423.

19. Ibid, p.427.

20. Highlights of the MOU reached between Vietnam and UNHCR on ODP which was described as an alternative to the uncontrolled outflow of the Vietnamese refugees, on May 30, 1979 were: Exit of those who wished to leave for family reunion and on humanitarian grounds would be “carried out as soon as possible and to the maximum ODP among potential receiving countries; and to provide “appropriate means of transport” for making “exit operations smooth.” For text of MOU see American Foreign Policy, n.9, pp.1109-110.

21. “Vietnam: End of an era,” Refugees Magazine, Issue No.113, 1999, /11310.htm

22. AFAR, n.3, p.423.

23. Ibid, p.428.

24. For text of the address by the U.N. Secretary-General at the close of the meeting on July 21, 1979, see Ibid, pp.426-429.

25. Gil Loescher and John A. Scanlan, Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-open Door, 1945 to the Present, (New York, 1986), p.146.

26. “Will the Door be Shut,” Asiaweek, July 3, 1981, p.24.

27. “The Tide never turns,” Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), April 7, 1988, p.31.

28. Ibid.

29. Asia 1989 Yearbook, p.28.

30. Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnamese Refugees: Why the outflow continues,” in Amin Saikal (ed.), Refugees in the Modern World, (Canberra, 1989), p.46.

31. “A problem that begins in Hanoi,” Bangkok Post, March 4, 1988.

32. “Joint Statement by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers on Indochinese refugees, issued in Singapore on June 14, 1987,” UN Security Council Documents, A/42/477, S/19048, August 17, 1987, p.9.

33. Annual Report of the ASEAN Standing Committee 1987-1988, (ASEAN Secretariat, Jakarta, n.d), p.11.

34. Stephen Chee, “Southeast Asia in 1988: Portents for the future,” South-east Asian Affairs 1989, (Singapore, 1989), p.24.

35. Suhaini Aznam, “Beware the exodus,” FEER, May 5, 1988, p.40. See also James Fallows, “Boat People Sail into its closed harbours,” U.S. News and World Report, August 1, 1988, p.36.

36. Bangkok Post, June 19, 1988.

37. Rosslyn Von der Borch, The Vietnamese Boat People in 1990, ( a discussion paper, Jesuit Refugee Service, Asia Pacific, Bangkok, July 1990), p.6.

38. 21st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and Post-Ministerial Conference with the Dialogue Partners, (ASEAN Secretariat, Jakarta), p.31.

39. Department of State, American Foreign Policy, 1989, (Washington D.C., 1990), p.211.

40. Bangkok Post, June 14, 1989.

41. For text of Draft Declaration and Comprehensive Plan of Action see Department of State Bulletin, October 1989, pp.71-73. See also Bruce Gilley, “Boat People: the Final Stretch,” FEER, July 18, 1996, p.19.

42. Bangkok Post, June 15, 1989.

43. See the Statement by US Deputy Secretary Eagleburger on June 18, 1989, in American Foreign Policy, 1989, n.39, p.70.

44. Bangkok Post, June 15, 1989.

45. Ibid.

46. See the Statement of Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Phyllis E. Oakley, on July 25, 1995 in U.S. Department of State Dispatch, July 31, 1995, p.601.

47. Ibid.

48. Vietnam News, (Hanoi), January 22, 1996; Indochina Digest, January 19, 1996.

49. “U.S. Committee for Refugees,” World Refugees Survey, 1996, (Washington D.C., 1996), p.82.

50. “Vietnam: End of an era,” n.21.

51. New York Times, March 16, 1995.

52. International Herald Tribune, May 22, 1995.

53. New York Times, March 16, 1995.

54. Gilley, n.41.

55. Michael S. Serrill, “Boat People’s Revolt,” Time, June 22, 1995, p.26. See also Boat People S.O.S. News Bulletin, (Marrifield, V.A; US), September 1995.

56. Facts on File, June 15, 1995, p.436.

57. World Refugee Survey, 1996, n.49, p.95.

58. Ibid.

59. Indochina Digest, May 26, 1995.

60. Serrill, n.55.

61. Tim Weiner, “New effort by US and Vietnam to return Boat People,” New York Times, December 4, 1995.

62. Indochina Digest, January 5, 1996.

63. Serrill, n.55.

64. International Herald Tribune, December 18, 1995.

65. World Refugee Survey, 1996, n.49, p.90.

66. Indochina Digest, June 16, 1995.

67. Weiner, n.61; Shep Lowman, “Vietnamese refugees rose as U.S. Plan Founders on a Rule,” International Herald Tribune, June 29-30, 1996; Adam Schwarz, “Run Aground: The last boat people are stranded in Limbo,” FEER, January 11, 1996, pp.19-20.

68. See Weiner, n.61; Lowman, n.67; Schwarz, n.67, Facts on File, June 13, 1996, p.422.

69. Lowman, n.67.

70. Schwarz, n.67, p.20.

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid.

74. Steven Erlanger, “U.S. Negotiates to send Vietnamese Home Quietly From Asian Camps,” New York Times, March 4, 1996.

75. Oakley, n.46.

76. Trinh Thi, “Policy permits Vietnam returnees to settle overseas,” Vietnam Investment Review, March 25-31, 1996.

77. Lowman, n.67.

78. Ibid.

79. Ibid.

80. “Boat People can have a good life here, says UN,” Vietnam Investment Review, January 22-28, 1996.

81. Lowman, n.67.

82. Ibid.

83. Ibid.

84. World Refugee Survey, 1996, n.49, p.82.

85. “Vietnamese Boat People Connection – The Legacy,” legacy.html.

86. Ibid.

87. 652000/652495.stm.

88. Ibid, 76900/769648.stm dt.30.5.2000.

89. Ibid.

90. Ibid, 771000/771669.stm.dt.31.5.2000; International Herald Tribune, May 30, 2000.

91. Gilley, n.41.

92. Ibid.

93. “Vietnam: End of an era,” n.21.

94. Vietnam News, (Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, New Delhi), December, 1996.

95. Vietnam Investment Review, (Hanoi), January 27-February 2, 1997.

96. Vietnam News, (Hanoi), January 31, 1997.

97. “Vietnam: End of an era,” n.20.

98. Ibid.

99. Ibid.

100. “Vietnam”, UNHCR’s Country Profile, vietnam .htm.

101. “The State of the World’s Refugees,” box5 4.htm.

102. Steven Erlanger, “Final Return of ‘Boat People’ Poses a Moral Dilemma for U.S.,” International Herald Tribune, March 5, 1996.

103. Ibid.

104. “Vietnam: End of an era,” n.21.

105. Ibid.

106. Ibid.

107. Tesoro, n.12.

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