I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – Part IV of V: Foreign Policy as a Motive for Accepting Refugees

Miliband offered four other reasons for accepting refugees having more to do with international relations than domestic reasons. The development of new international institutions and instruments for sanctioning and delivering global responsibilities beginning with the Atlantic Charter during WWII was one. On this Miliband seemed to be on firmer ground and it accords with Molloy’s tale of the postwar development of Canadian refugee policy. I will come back to the fourth reason in a moment, but the fifth and sixth reasons, the search for security in an interconnected world where refugees were viewed as a source of instability and the strategic interest in winning friends by sharing the burden of first receiving countries least able to support a large refugee influx, both seem a propos and in accordance with the narrative of Mike Molloy and his co-authors, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka.

What about the fourth reason, that a state accepted refugees when they were the result of foreign policy mistakes of the state taking in the refugees? “Among the reasons for giving them (the Vietnamese boat people) refuge was the United States’ role in the Vietnam War.” (Miliband 55) But why was Canada so forthcoming? It had stayed out of that war. Most Canadians were critical of the whole war effort. In fact, I used to believe, until I read Molloy’s book, that from 1975-77, Canada offered only token support for resettling the refugees to appease our partners more than out of any concern for the refugees. Canada only became involved in 1978 when government officials became convinced that the refugees were not fleeing because they had worked for or allied themselves with the Americans, but because of the intolerance of the government. That proved not to be the explanation for the Canadian initiatives.

When Canada evacuated its embassy in April 1975, the mission was small, lacked any security arrangements to deal with the huge mobs seeking to escape and would or could not waive the requirement that Vietnamese wishing to leave with them would have to have a passport and exit permit. Canadian officials claimed that the South Vietnamese government enforced these requirements at gun point until the very last minute. But the American evidence and other accounts indicate that money (and one’s own guns) could determine a different outcome. Canadian officials were not in a position to use either device to get the exit permit requirement waived. However, the Canadian behavior contributed to the widespread belief that Canada wanted to completely dissociate itself from Vietnam and the Vietnamese refugee problem.

One exception was the Canadian baby lift of 120 (of the 2,547 orphans taken abroad) that came to Canada, many of mixed race abandoned at orphanages. The Canadian contingent, however, consisted mainly of Cambodian orphans as well as some of the Vietnamese orphans who survived the crash of the US Air Force C-5A that killed 135 of the orphans and escorts on board.
The very high percentage of Cambodians also reinforced the image of Canadian detachment from Vietnamese refugees. But if this was the case, why did Canada admit nearly 7,000 refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam in 1975-76? One answer was that 4,200 were sponsored relatives of Canadian citizens. 2,300 were considered to be genuine Convention refugees. Further, as Molloy pointed out, “The general feeling of Canadian commentators was that the war in Indochina was the United States’ war and that it was up to the Americans to deal with the results of war’s lost.” (43)

That was my understanding – tokenism, minimalism, legalism – not compassion and commitment. Molloy’s book shifted my perspective. The make-up and work of the immigration processing teams tell a very different story. Nick Kyriakides, a Canadian Health and Welfare doctor, died from dengue fever contracted in the Guam processing centre. To grossly understate them, the working conditions were challenging. What pushed those officers? Duty? A moral imperative? Certainly a high sense of responsibility to get the job done in as efficacious and professional a manner as possible. But more than any or all of these was “the sense of adventure, comradeship, and teamwork.” (46) They were having a good time doing good work, good in its accomplishments and good in its implementation in ensuring every chartered flight was full, even though simple tasks like counting were very difficult under the circumstances. In every single location in which they worked, they seemed to be able to combine hard work and joy. Instead of 7 files a day as the norm, the immigration officers processed 80. The 1976 new legislation delegated to those officers discretion and flexibility based on that pilot demonstration.

The real challenges to the nascent program came out of left field. Lieutenant General Dăng Van Quăng, who had a very questionable reputation, had been admitted. One unsavory character did more to blacken the prospect of any increased intake than any single cause. With innovation come risks – “there was little appetite, public or political, for serious engagement.”

What changed between 1976 and 1978? Canadian foreign service and immigration officers delivered intelligence. Small boats filled with refugees continued to arrive. The receiving countries were not only not integrating the refugees, they were voicing growing reluctance to even allow the refugees entry. The numbers had grown enormously, placing an unsustainable burden on the economies and capacities of those states. Politicians (Jake Epp and Doug Roche) and the Indochinese ethnic associations in Canada kept up the pressure. UNHCR added to that pressure. And a wise and perspicacious Deputy Minister, Allan Gotlieb, offered the analysis and the sympathy to make the first tentative steps towards a new Canadian initiative. These refugees were not fleeing because of the American involvement in the Vietnam War but because of the harsh and discriminatory rule of the new regimes now in power, regimes that now were at war with one another.

As indicated in Part III, the biggest difference resulted from the new 1976 Immigration Act promulgated in 1978. Legislative foundations matter, especially when “the new act created, for the first time, a legislative and regulatory framework for Canada’s refugee resettlement programs.” (62) Canada had previously admitted refugees who were technically not Convention refugees. Now grounds were provided to make that part of Canada’s mission as the means were provided to carry it out. Humanitarianism directed at refugees had now been ensconced as a “tradition” within Canadian law. This is who we were as Canadians. In addition to the Political Prisoner and Oppressed Persons Designated Class (Chileans and Argentinians) and the Self-Exiled Person Designated Class (Jews and others from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe), the Canadian government named the Indochinese as a Designated Class, as refugees who could be admitted without determining whether they met the criterion of the Refugee Convention.

Even before the legislation was promulgated, Immigration Department officers began to gear up in 1977 in anticipation of an inevitable new and large resettlement effort. The requisite regulations were drafted in the spring of 1978 and the Indochinese Designated Class came into effect in December 1978.

Ideals were at work. So were interests. But government civil service experience and professionalism, legislation and regulations, the necessary tools for a large-scale refugee resettlement program, were indispensable. However, I had previously believed that the most significant innovation was due more to serendipity than anything else – the creation of the Private Refugee Sponsorship Program. I had thought that this initially minor change in the legislation was made to satisfy the Jewish community which wanted to sponsor one or two hundred Soviet Jews. Molloy documents, as indicated in Part III, that this initiative was very deliberate. It was introduced to assuage critics from the left about Canada’s handling of the Chilean refugees. The program for the Soviet Jews was not the impetus; rather, the latter established the operational principles: efficiency, no cost to the taxpayers, local groups responsible for resettlement, sponsoring organizations guaranteeing the local group commitment, and defining the package of services to be provided.

Chance without a push to take advantage of that opportunity might prove irrelevant. Far-sighted civil servants saw that opportunity. In the spring of 1978, they initiated a public relations program to educate the public and to bring the churches on board to apply the program to help the anticipated influx of Indochinese refugees. It was an opportunity for Canada. (Gerald E. Dirks, Canada’s Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977) As well, politicians and civil servants had created a mechanism to act. One year later, the effort yielded its first results when the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada came on board and signed a master agreement. The Christian Reformed Churches of Canada followed suit a month later.

Molloy does not raise the question why it took many of the mainline churches – Anglicans, the United Church, Catholic dioceses – until the summer of 1979 to join the private sponsorship movement. This is one of the few weaknesses of the book. However, Molloy is not writing critical history; he provides a detailed chronicle, one shaped by his diplomatic background. He probably saw no benefit in investigating this question closely, especially since his focus was on the role of mandarins in the program. But it was widely known at the time that the mainline churches were wary, some believing that the private sponsorship program was a conspiracy to dump the responsibility for resettlement of the refugees on the private sector. Further, there was a degree of racism among some of the congregants of one at least of those churches. By chapter 5, the text makes clear that there was “opposition from refugee advocates in a couple of mainline churches.” (91)

The book narrates how the government overcame religious institutional wariness, fears of a large intake given rising levels of unemployment and suspicion that the refugees were just rich immigrants buying their way out and their passage to Canada. Further, even a left-of-centre newspaper like the Toronto Star initially opined that Canada was not a suitable environment for resettling Indochinese refugees.

To be continued with a final section…