Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus Part I of IV: 1975-1978 Refugees from Vietnam

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part I of IV: 1975-1978 Refugees from Vietnam


Howard Adelman

I completed an essay on the private sponsorship of refugees into Canada. Several who read it asked why the refugees were forced to flee. I had not dealt with that issue in my essay. I had either taken the issue for granted or simply thought that the resettlement story was separate from the story of the flight and the impossibility of settlement in countries of first asylum. In any case, although there was some overlap, they were two different issues. Further, I think I presumed that everyone knew the overseas part of the story. Of course, one of the interlocutors was too young to have known; the Indochinese refugee exodus narrative fell into that black hole of knowledge between the history that you are taught at school and when personal historical memory begins. Besides, as I discovered when I wrote the essay, even I had forgotten significant parts of the story, or, at least, stored that knowledge in a deep cavern in my mind.

Understanding the source of the flow of refugees is important in determining which policy to follow in addressing the issue. The ideology of the regime may be incompatible with the beliefs and practices of those who go into exile. Some flows are temporary and people are simply escaping from the terrors of war and will return home as soon as the fighting stops; in other cases, conflict seems interminable. In still other refugee movements, there is a sorting out of populations along ethnic and/or religious lines; in such cases, when there is an area of the country that remains hospitable to a particular ethnic or religious group, return serves as the primary solution rather than settlement in first countries of asylum or resettlement in more distant lands.

When return is not realistic, refugees try to flee to an adjacent or nearby country, perhaps one sharing the ethnicity of the group pushed into exile. When there is no such area within the country or in countries of first asylum which do not share the ethnicity or religion of the population in flight, especially when first asylum countries reject receiving any more refugees, then resettlement abroad seems to be the only solution. The latter was the situation of Indochinese refugees who fled a combination of general oppression, ethnic cleansing and targeting of particular groups for persecution.

The first phase of the exodus began in Cambodia with the assumption of power of the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975 when the communists captured Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Very shortly after that, Saigon fell to the Viet Cong and North Vietnam on 30 April 1975 and the large exodus began; many managed to escape with the departing Americans. The inevitable then followed in Laos. The long Laotian Civil War that had lasted (with some intermissions) from the withdrawal of the French in 1953 to the conquest of Vientiane by the Laotian communists, the Pathet Lao, backed by Vietnam, had ended in 1975.

The first phase of the exodus from all three countries in Indochina ran from 1975 until 1978.  The second phase took place between the end of 1978 until 1980 in a period of vast resettlement from countries of first asylum to countries of resettlement. The third phase took place from 1981 until 1989 when resettlement from refugee camps in South-East Asia ended for most with the creation of the Orderly Departures Program. In each of the phases, the numbers resettled in Canada varied greatly depending on “pull” factors as much as “push” factors. When taken all together, the population of Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese from Indochina who came to Canada between 1975 and 1989 is estimated to have been 160,000.

By 1996, there were estimated to be over 100,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in Canada: Toronto (41,735); Montreal (25,340); Vancouver (16,870); Calgary (10,110); Edmonton (7,775); Ottawa (6,615) as well as many additional ones in places like Kitchener/Waterloo as just one example. This figure does not include Laotian, Cambodian or ethnic Chinese refugees from the three countries in Indochina, but does include ethnic Vietnamese who came under the family reunification category. From 1,500 Vietnamese in 1975, overwhelmingly in Québec, who mostly came to study and were cut off from returning, the population had grown enormously.

With the flight of the refugees from Vietnam, which included not only ethnic Vietnamese but ethnic Chinese as well, Canadians rooted in the protest movements of the sixties and seventies came face to face with their nemesis, the Indochinese refugees who fled the very regime that the Americans had fought in a war which the sixties generation so opposed. In 1975, after the termination of the Vietnam War, dubbed by the Vietnamese as the “American War”, Americans felt a special obligation to assist Vietnamese who had been associated with the American side in the conflict. The U.S. put pressure on its allies to assist in the humanitarian endeavour called Operation Frequent Wind. Canada was one of those allies which, unlike Australia, had remained aloof from any military involvement in Vietnam. Canada offered a token response and took in 3,100 migrants from Vietnam in 1975 and 2,500 in 1976 for a total of 5,608 over two years. By the end of 1977, the total taken in had risen to 7,500. The Refugee Convention was used as a guideline for selecting refugees for resettlement. Given that the general Canadian attitude was an assignation of blame to the United States for the responsibility for both the war and the refugees resulting from that war, this number was considered more than sufficient to demonstrate Canada’s humanitarianism without identifying the problem as a Canadian one.

The situation changed in 1978 when more than 100,000 fled. Most refugees from Vietnam were not ethnic Vietnamese but ethnic Chinese. The Hoa or Chinese Vietnamese, like the Indo and Pakistani Asians in Uganda, disproportionately dominated the South Vietnamese business and economic sector as well as its educated and upper class; they controlled an estimated 75% of the South Vietnam economy before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Once before in 1956, the Diêm government had tried to break the dominant ethnic Chinese control of the Vietnamese economy but failed. The Ngŏ Dinh Diêm regime in 1955 decreed that all Chinese born in Vietnam would automatically become Vietnamese citizens and in 1956 issued a decree nationalizing all categories of trade. Further, non-ethnic Vietnamese were excluded as butchers and fish mongers, rice or grain traders, in the trade of fuel (coal, charcoal, fuel oil), and from the textile industry at both the wholesale and retail levels. However, the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam circumvented these decrees most frequently by taking on Vietnamese “partners” rather than becoming citizens. By 1961, in spite of Diêm’s “forced nationalization” program, only 2,000 of approximately one million ethnic Chinese in South Vietnam had become Vietnamese citizens.

In 1976, Hanoi demanded that the ethnic Chinese register for the election of the National Assembly. At the time, business for the ethnic Chinese seemed to flourish as usual in spite of Hanoi’s introduction of currency reforms to break the control of the Hoa on the economy as the businessmen managed to use bribes on the Vietnamese communist cadres to allow their businesses to continue. The maintenance of the status quo was also helped by the utility of these businessmen to the Vietnam government in fostering regional trade. The Hanoi government efforts initially seemed to follow Diêm’s failed footsteps.

The crucial turning point was political rather than economic, though the economic crisis of 1977 as a result of crop failures that year and general economic mismanagement did not help. Hanoi’s initiatives were pushed by deteriorating relations with both the Khmer Rouge Cambodian regime on one side and China on the other. Between 1975 and 1978, there had been occasional clashes along the border between the two communist regimes, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and Democratic Kampuchea, punctuated in 1975 by the Cambodian attack on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quȭc and a second major attack in April of 1977 against the Vietnamese province of An Gang and Chāu Dȭc City, killing over one hundred Vietnamese civilians. This coincided with a Communist Party of Kampuchea Central Committee directive instructing local officials to arrest all ethnic Vietnamese, all Khmer who spoke Vietnamese and even Khmer who had Vietnamese friends.

The Pol Pot genocide began with the mass murder of the vast majority of those who had been arrested in the effort to purify Kampuchea of Vietnamese influences and to reclaim lost Khmer lands in Vietnam, primarily in the Mekong Delta. China, given its traditional rivalry with Vietnam over influence on Kampuchea, sided with Cambodia. Hanoi began to fear the emergence of a fifth column and pressure was exerted on the ethnic Chinese in what had been North Vietnam. In February 1978, China accused Hanoi of forcing an exodus of ethnic Chinese, especially in the border area.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese from North Vietnam fled to and settled in China. For many more ethnic Chinese in the south, who had been businessmen and entrepreneurs or who had been identified in any way with the prior regime (the Vietnamese middle class were generally opposed to living under communism), resettlement abroad was a preferable option. For the Vietnamese who had been expelled from Cambodia and were not sympathetic to the North Vietnamese government and for some of the refugees from the north opposed to communism, settlement in China was out of the question.

Pushed by domestic fears of “traitors”, border fears of expansionist and hegemonic neighbours beginning in the Tây Bắc and Việt Bắc autonomous zones along the border with China, the creeping infusion of ethnic-Chinese fostered markets raised the hackles in formerly North Vietnam. Add to that a fear of corruption of the communist purity of the north and the ideological predisposition of the regime. The ethnic cleansing of the Hoa from Vietnam had begun. In March, partly to displace the blame for the 1977 economic failures and partly because ethnic Chinese traders hoarded rice, contributing to the shortages and escalating both speculation and prices, Hanoi decreed the end of bourgeois trade in the south, and raided the shops and businesses in Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City, confiscating goods, currency and gold bars at the same time as Kampuchea escalated its attacks against Vietnam as it cleansed its population of ethnic Vietnamese.

In 1978, Vietnam accelerated its parallel process of ethnic cleansing of Chinese, on the one hand, and incorporating the Vietnamese bourgeoisie into a communist system on the other hand. 30,000 ethnic Chinese households in Vietnam were ordered to move to the New Economic Zones. The New Economic Zones had been initiated in agricultural areas by the Vietnamese government after 1975, ostensibly to relieve urban overpopulation, but, in practice, as a radical way of cutting the population off from its bourgeois roots and “re-educating” them. From 1978, the program of resettlement became serious. Thousands of urban dwellers were forced to migrate to these areas. Though initially resisted and followed by mass arrests, the authorities responded with disciplined determination and ruthlessness. Ethnic Chinese in Vietnam began to pay 10 taels of gold per person to leave Vietnam, a process fuelled by both ethnic Chinese entrepreneurship, government complicity and racism.

On 24 October 1978 an event took place which would serve as a catalyst to the change in refugee policy of the Canadian government. The Hai Hong incident had been preceded by the Southern Cross that had docked in Ho Chi Minh City on 24 August 1978, picked up 1,250 “paying” passengers and, after being escorted into international waters, the ship radioed for help claiming the boat had rescued that many refugees fleeing Vietnam. Singapore and Malaysia refused to allow the boat to dock. The Southern Cross dropped its passengers off on an uninhabited Indonesian island and UNHCR convinced Indonesia to put the refugees in a camp.

With an estimated 2,500 ethnic Chinese aboard, but really 3,000. the Hai Hong, a boat initially scheduled to be sold for scrap metal, attempted to repeat the “success” of the Southern Cross in late October. As expected, the Hai Hong was denied permission to dock in Port Klang, Malaysia. But the boat was in much worse condition than the Southern Cross and much more overcrowded when the Vietnamese government forced on board twice the number planned to be picked up. The incentives were very powerful for the Vietnamese officials; they received US$2,000 in gold per passenger while the “boat” entrepreneurs received US$1,200 each. Stranded off shore and lacking food, water and adequate sanitary services, the story received repeated front page news. The passengers were resupplied by the UNHCR and the Red Crescent. The ill-fated boat intended to resume its voyage to Indonesia but ran into Typhoon Rita. The Malaysian authorities, unwilling to take in more than the 35,000 refugees that they had already admitted and unwilling to encourage boat traffickers, towed the boat out to sea.

The news coverage took place in the aftermath of the 1976 changes to the Canadian Immigration Act that in part had established a separate provision for humanitarian movements as Designated Class Immigrants or humanitarian refugees that went beyond the definition of Convention Refugees, individuals who had to prove they had a well-founded fear of persecution. The new movement perfectly fitted into the new government policy and initiative, a situation recognized by Bud Cullen, the Minister of Immigration, as well as his senior officials. It also was totally congruent with the Cullen-Couture agreement, giving Québec the freedom to choose and recruit its own immigrants signed on 20 February 1978. Further, in addition to the 5,600 refugees from Vietnam that Canada had accepted in 1975 and 1976, Canada had accepted Indochinese refugees with little fanfare by the time of the Hai Hong incident and determined that most had been professionals and highly skilled and had successfully resettled largely in Quebec.

Though the Hai Hong incident was initially portrayed in the media coverage primarily as rich ethnic Chinese fleeing Vietnam with enormous stocks of gold bars abetted by boat smugglers, the governments of Canada and Quebec were convinced that humanitarian factors coincided with economic interests and that these “refugees”, like the Ugandan Asians before them, would be of benefit to Canada. Unlikely to have a close relative in Canada, designated class immigrants (humanitarian refugees) from Indochina had to speak English or French, pass a medical exam and have a desirable profession or trade that would benefit Canada.

Here, as with the Hungarian refugees in 1956, the Czech refugees in 1968 and the Ugandan Asians in 1972, ministerial initiative proved decisive. Canada, in light of the emergency, decided that principles of the justice favouring refugees already in camps be set aside; Canada would provide a significant leadership role and raise its intake for the Hai Hong from 200 to 600 refugees, a decision reinforced by the new tone in the media coverage and the positive public response to that coverage. Canada upped its usual commitment from 10% of the targeted population to almost 25%. Of the number presumed to be aboard, though Canada was the first to respond, the US took more, 897 plus the 76 residuals left at the end. Germany, mostly the State of Niedersachsen alone through a special program initiated by the Minister of State, admitted more than Canada – 657; West Germany in total took 1,000. France took 222, Belgium 150, Switzerland 52, New Zealand, 9, Australia 8. Of the refugees aboard the Hai Hong, Canada admitted 604, of what turned out to be over 3,000 rather than 2,500 aboard the Hai Hong with Canada’s share ending up as 20% not 25%.

Vietnam, in part in order to pay the large costs of its war, began to confiscate the wealth of its ethnic Chinese and South Vietnamese entrepreneurs, encouraging their flight while charging them a “tax” to take leaky and unseaworthy boats to escape. The North Vietnamese had evolved into a regime that stole from the rich in multiple ways and pushed the ethnic Chinese minority and subsequently Vietnamese businessmen out of the country.

To be continued


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