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END STORY OF VIETNAMESE BOAT PEOPLE
Subject: END STORY OF VIETNAMESE BOAT PEOPLE (UNHCR, 1995)
/* posted 2 Apr 6:00am 1997 by drunoo@xxxxxxxxxxxx in igc:reg.burma */
/* -------------" Vietnamese boat people: the end "--------------- */
VIETNAMESE BOAT PEOPLE: THE END OF THE STORY
(pp-208, The State of the World Refugees, 1995)
Ha Manh Dug was a nine year-old child in 1989, when he left Viet Nam with
his parents and younger brother on board a fishing boat. He returned at the
age of 15, almost a man, after spending six years in a detention center.
Neither the Hong Kong government nor UNHCR considered that the Ha family
had any claim to refugee status, and they had exhausted every appeal. So
the family faced facts. Unwanted in Hong Kong and with nowhere else to go,
they decided to go home and to rebuild their lives in Viet Nam.
By the end of 1995, almost all of the 840,000 refugees and asylum seekers
who have left Viet Nam since 1975 should have found a solution to their
plight. The vast majority of that number - some three-quarters of a million
people - have been resettled in other parts of the world, primarily in the
USA, Australia, Canada, France, the UK and Germany. The remainder (those
who remain in the camps of South-East Asia and who have not been recognized
as refugees ) will, like the Ha family, go back to Viet Nam. And with that,
one of the most elaborate and expensive refugee programmes in modern
history will come to a close.
With the US withdrawal from Viet Nam in 1975 and the fall of the Saigon
government, an apparently endless stream of boat people began to leave
their own country and to land in the states and territories of South-East
Asia: primarily Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore
and Thailand. In the exceptional circumstances which gave rise to this
movement, including the risk that these first asylum countries would push
the boat people back to sea, the world's more prosperous countries agreed
to provide resettlement places for Vietnamese who succeeded in leaving
By the end of the 1980s, the Vietnamese were still leaving. By now,
however, 14 years after the end of the war, it had become increasingly
clear that not all of the boat people had a valid claim to refugee status.
Hundreds of thousands had already been resettled, and the promise of
prosperity in California or Canada, coupled with the poverty of their own
country, acted as a powerful incentive to leave. In may cases, the desire
for a better life, rather than a fear of persecution, had become a primary
motivation in the decision to leave Viet Nam.
In 1989, an international conference was convened to seek a solution to
this problem. The result was the CPA - the Comprehensive Plan of Action for
Indochinese Refugees - a package of measures intended to reduce the flow of
economic migrants from Viet Nam, while providing protection to those who
had a valid claim to refugee status.
Within Viet Nam, boat departures were reduced by means of a mass
information campaign, designed to persuade people of the dangers of
clandestine migration, coupled with the expansion of an organized
emigration programme to a number of resettlement countries. At the same
time, a credit and community development programme, funded primarily by the
European Union, was established in Viet Nam, with the purpose of 'anchoring'
would-be exiles in their own community and promoting the reintegration of
Vietnamese who opted to return from the first asylum countries of
Within those countries, procedures were introduced to determine which of
the Vietnamese qualified for refugee status. Those who were accepted, the
so-called 'screened-in', would be offered resettlement places, while those
who were rejected, known as the 'screened-out', would be expected to return
to Viet Nam with assistance from UNHCR. Counselling campaigns were launched
in the camps and detention centres of South-East Asia, encouraging
unsuccess ful asylum seekers to go home voluntarily and with support from
UNHCR. The organization also established a programme within Viet Nam, in
order to monitor the welfare of these returnees and to encourage the return
of those who had been screened out.
Impact of the CPA
The CPA has undoubtedly worked. In 1989, more than 70,000 Vietnamese
arrived in South-East Asia. this stream has now been reduced to an
insignificant trickle. Some 80,000 Vietnamese have been resettled during
the past six years, while 72,000 have returned safely to their homeland.
The camp population, which stood at 113,000 at the beginning of 1991, has
been reduced to 50,000. More than half a million people have been able to
emigrate from Viet Nam in a legal manner. While the screening procedures
introduced in the first asylum countries have been subjected to some
criticism, nowhere in the world have asylum seekers benefited from such
close UNHCR monitoring and such extensive rights of appeal.
This is not to suggest that CPA has been a simple or trauma-free exercise.
Many of the Vietnamese have had to live in very difficult conditions while
waiting for their status to be determined. Having staked everything on the
bid to leave their own country, it has often been hard for those who are
screened out to accept that they will have to go home. A hard core of
unsuccessful asylum seekers have refused point-bland to volunteer for
repatriation, and have use violent means to press their case for
resettlement. Finally, in March 1995, the Steering Committee of the CPA
recognized that 'orderly repatriation' - in other words involuntary return
- was an 'appropriate' means of breaking the deadlock.
As a matter of policy, UNHCR does not participate in actions which involve
the use or threat of force. Within Viet Nam, however, the organization
monitors the welfare of involuntary returnees as well as those asylum
seekers who have chosen to return. To date, most of the complaints which
returnees have brought to UNHCR's attention stem from economic and
bureaucratic difficulties and delays in the payment of repatriation grants.
With a growth rate of nine per cent in 1994 and the resumption of full
trade and diplomatic relations with all of the industralized states in
1995, the economic prospects for the Vietnamese population now seem
There is now a broad consensus that the blanket resettlement of the boat
people went on for too long, and was sustained more by political than
humanitarian imperatives. As a result, the policy helped to fuel migratory
pressures within Viet Nam. But in the political and humanitarian context of
the initial Vietnamese exodus, the distinction between refugees and
economic migrants was not a relevant consideration.
As a senior UNHCR official explains, 'the flood of people; the pushbacks;
the piracy; the attacks; the robbery; the killing; the rape; the
machine-gunning of boats; the breakdown of the obligation to rescue people
at risk on high seas; the threats of closure of territorial waters - we
faced a problem so peculiar, so specific and so dramatic that we had to act
in this way.' However,' he continues, 'there was certainly no emergency in
Viet Nam by 1989, and conditions there no longer justified the automatic
recognition and resettlement of any person leaving the country.'
Some actors in the Vietnamese situation continue to challenge the validity
of the latter remark. In the resettlement countries, overseas Vietnamese
communities continue to lobby against the CPA and in favour of
indiscriminate resettlement. Furthermore, recent moves in the US congress
to re-screen the rejected cases and to make additional resettlement places
available have reduced the number of volunteers for repatriation and
damaged the prospects of completing the programme by the end of 1995. Even
so, the CPA has provided a striking demonstration of the way in which a
concerted package of measures, based on migration management principles,
can be used to resolve a longstanding and apparently intractable refugee