Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus Part IV: 1981 – 1989

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part IV: 1981 – 1989


Howard Adelman

Nong Samet Camp in Thailand became home to about 700 Vietnamese refugees who had crossed Cambodia from Vietnam into Thailand on 18 December 1981. Refugees fleeing Vietnam were no longer exclusively Boat People. By September 1982, the numbers had grown to 1,804 who had crossed by land from Vietnam. Initially, Thailand prevented Western Countries from interviewing these refugees lest, in the minds of Thai authorities, Thailand be turned into a magnet for refugees traveling on this new route. International pressure, a commitment by Western states to resettle the Vietnamese refugees and intervention by the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross), led to a reversal of this policy. ICM, the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration, interviewed the refugees as the intermediary for the 15 Western countries offering asylum. By 28 January 1983, 1,713 of the refugees had been offered resettlement, 60% going to the U.S. On 9 February 1983, the processing centre was closed providing a definitive mark for the onset of the final stage in dealing with the Indochinese refugees.

The remaining refugees, by then increased to 122, were transferred to the Khao I Dang near Ban Nong Samet. Given this narrative, one might gain the impression that the refugee crisis was diminishing. The net numbers left were decreasing, but refugees kept flowing into camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia and even Indonesia. However, donor fatigue was on the horizon and the kickback against resettlement had begun. Initially it was directed only at Laotian and Cambodian refugees traveling by land with relatively the lowest barriers to flight.

Just before a book appeared by Larry Clinton Thompson entitled Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982 documenting the role of American mavericks and malcontents from the State Department, military, USAID, CIA, and the Peace Corps who used their commitment and expertise to undertake the actual work on the ground in resettling the refugees, the same work that only 16 formal employees from the Department of Immigration in Canada were doing, a four-member panel headed by Marshall Green, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, reported in August 1981 directly to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig and poured cold water on Laotian and Cambodian migrants. The report claimed that those currently crossing from Cambodia and Laos into Thailand were almost all economic migrants. Though flows were predicted to continue from Laos and Cambodia and even increase, the panel recommended a policy shift and that, henceforth, Cambodian and Laotian migrants no longer be treated as refugees but as economic migrants.

Initially, only the Vietnamese Boat People were to be exempted from this policy shift. My colleague and later writing partner, the Norwegian scholar Astri Suhrke, published an essay, “Indochinese Refugees: The Law and Politics of First Asylum” in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (vol. 467) in a special issue focused on The Global Refugee Problem: U. S. and World Response (May, 1983, pp. 102-115). When the flow of Indochinese refugees seemed to have become self-perpetuating, she noted that receiving countries were now positioning themselves to both resist taking more refugees and reduce the flow. It would take another six years to complete this task, and it would be applied to Vietnamese as well as Khmer and Laotians in flight. The Orderly Departure Program (ODP) had been initiated the year before in an agreement with the government of Vietnam as the first phase of the shift in policy applied to Vietnam.

Essentially, as Astri pointed out, the mode of exodus rather than the reasons for flight had become the criterion for determining refugee status. The backlash against a system that made the perils of flight, perils played up in media reports, the grounds for determining refugee status, had begun. By negotiating changes in the push factors, by allowing sponsored relatives to emigrate directly from Vietnam, by classifying Laotians and Cambodians now as economic migrants, and, most of all, by closing down selection and processing facilities in countries like Thailand, a process discouraging a further exodus had begun to be put in place.

One of the effects of this new policy was that countries of first asylum, fearing they would be left with residuals, now pushed back as well by preventing Cambodians and Laotians from crossing the border and sending them back when they did, justifying such measures by the decision of the United States, seemingly supported by other Western governments, to classify these people now as irregular migrants rather than refugees. These steps further inhibited the new flows and began to slow down the exodus significantly.

Thus, the predictions of the American State Department special panel mentioned above that the United States must be prepared for continuing and possibly increased flows of refugees from Indochina, particularly Vietnam, turned out to be not so much a prediction as a rationalization and motivation for a policy shift which, when implemented, prevented the prediction from being realized. In foreseeing ”a long-term continuation of the exodus of boat people from Vietnam” and ”the potential for increased land refugee flows from Laos and Cambodia, in view of worsening conditions of life and the threat of widening hostilities,” in effect, these worsening conditions became the rationale for beginning to close the door to Indochinese refugees. The Panel confirmed that the widespread belief that the new refugees were different than those who fled between 1975 and 1980 was accurate. As Senator Walter D. Huddleston (D. Kentucky) charged, ”the great majority of those claiming to be political refugees are, in reality, economic refugees.” He went further and accused State Department employees of actually recruiting refugees to fill quotas set by Congress.

The motivation for these shifts, in addition to the perception that these new flows consisted of economic migrants rather than refugees, included a fear that these new migrants would be more difficult to settle because they lacked any ties with Americans dating back to the war in Indochina and also had no family connections in the U.S., hence the exemption for Vietnam and the introduction of the Orderly Departure Program. There had also been a backlash in North America as the recession of the early eighties enhanced the voices of those who complained that the so-called refugees were putting an additional drag on the welfare system when dollars were in desperate short supply to take care of the increasing numbers thrown out of work and that had been added to the welfare rolls. Further, there was the sense that the United States had fulfilled its obligations connected with the Vietnam War and its citizens felt that it was being left with a disproportionate share of the problem. The complainants about burden sharing cited the fact that the U.S. had resettled about 50% of the Indochinese exodus, eventually 504,000 of the final total of about 1,060,000.

At the time the Panel report was published, Lao, Hmong and Khmer flows of migrants had begun to decline significantly, but Vietnamese refugees continued their exodus at a rate of 8,400 per month. As predicted, as the economic situation became worse in Vietnam, the monthly exodus stopped declining and began to get worse again in 1987. For seven years, resettlement opportunities had more than offset the new flows into the camps. In 1987 this was no longer the case as numbers in camps in Hong Kong and Thailand once again began to increase.  When 18,000 Boat People arrived in Hong Kong by mid-year of 1988, the Hong Kong authorities decided on 15 June that henceforth Indochinese refugees would be placed in closed camps – actually the skeletal structures of high rise buildings – and would no longer be allowed to leave the camps for irregular labour on the job market. Further, the educational and other programs previously offered to the refugees were halted.

An international refugee conference was held in Geneva in 1989 to deal with the new version of the Indochinese exodus that was no longer characterized as a refugee crisis. Henceforth, each so-called refugee was to be subjected to an individual screening to determine whether he or she qualified as a Convention Refugee. The migrants were no longer to be treated as humanitarian refugees. They would have to satisfy the much stricter definition and prove that they had a well-founded fear of persecution because they were members of a group targeted by the government and subjected to human rights abuses. The new Comprehensive Plan of Action entailed a program of “:forcibly” returning refugees to their home country while calling the return voluntary.

In 1989, 70,000 Indochinese had fled their countries of origin, many after the cut-off date of 14 March 1989 when the repatriation program became applicable. By 1992, that number had dropped precipitously to 41. The Indochinese refugee crisis had ended in a whimper, but the program of resettlement continued using the Orderly Departure Program for relatives of those who had been resettled, for mixed-race children whose fathers had been American soldiers and for former inmates of re-education camps. In the post-1989 era, Vietnam promised not to send any of the returned migrants to re-education camps.  Westerners, particularly those deeply suspicious of the government of Vietnam, traveled to that country to observe whether Vietnam was keeping its commitments. They confirmed that Vietnam was indeed being true to its word. When such confirmations were received, the conscience of returning those who still chose to leave, now deemed to be illegal economic migrants, was totally eased.

Between 1975 and 1997, 750,000 Indochinese refugees had been resettled abroad, over half in the U.S., in addition to those who had been resettled in China. Canada took approximately 100,000, a disproportionate share. A further 900,000 had been resettled under the Orderly Departure Program, many of those in Canada. Over 100,000 had been repatriated. As part of a commitment by Norway, Canada and the U.S. to deal with 200 remainders, the arrival in 2015 of a small coterie of 17 Vietnamese refugees in Canada who had been in camps for 18-25 years marked the definitive end of the program.

The story of the Indochinese refugee crisis was, on the one hand, a narrative of desperate people fleeing a mixture of economic desperation, prejudice and persecution. That story continues with the flight of the Rohingya from Myammar, where they are targeted for persecution, and from Bangladesh, where the Rohingya have lost hope given their relegation to the bottom of the economic ladder. The picture of packed and unseaworthy boats, of boats being pushed back out to sea, of boats abandoned by the people smugglers once they have collected their money, fill the newspapers these days. No, that is not accurate. There are stories, but they no longer fill the newspapers. Otherwise, the situation bears very little difference with the Boat People crisis of the late seventies. Except what we hear as a response is the sound of silence.

There is another major difference. Operation Lifeline in Canada was constructed on a model of networking pioneered by the sixties generation in their protests for peace and racial and social justice. That networking, once on the margins of society, has now become a central motif of economic organization as some of the newest and largest economic enterprises specialize only in networking. Whether the company is a new form of providing a taxi service like Uber without any taxis, or social connections like Facebook without any milieus, or connecting consumers with producers or home and hotel owners with travelers, in a new system in which connectivity, rather than productivity and manufacturing, has become the core economic mechanism for the new age, we have still not figured out how to institutionalize and transfer the lesson learned from the connectivity between citizens in one world with humans without a state in another world that was pioneered in the late seventies. In this age of connectivity at the core of the economy, the system should be applicable to the crises of the present. We can accomplish the feat with consumer goods and services in a post-modern world but we are still unable to do so in linking the pre-modern and post-modern worlds.

E. M. Forster in A Passage to India, included one very memorable imperative, “Only connect.” We must learn how to establish and institutionalize connections, not only between providers and users in a new post-modern economy, but between post-modern and pre-modern societies. Perhaps if the state stood aside, new networks for resettlement of refugees could be established. While the state retained its determination to preserve a monopoly on coercive power, it could surrender its monopoly on the controls of entry and egress to a state by sharing that responsibility with its citizens. Real networking connections could be established between citizens of the World of Order and stateless people, and members of the World of Disorder. Perhaps if the selection of new citizens were allowed to be assumed by small groups of existing citizens linking up with those needing and asking and risking to come, subject only to a veto by state authorities, then the modern era of networking could be applied to humanitarianism for a new age.

As Tom Friedman wrote in The New York Times, we need to be able to connect people from the new World of Disorder and those who are privileged and belong to the World of Order. For the New World Order is not a unity but a deeply divided global polity split between Order and Disorder, between good, responsive and responsible governance and bad, unresponsive and irresponsible governments. Only if some form of networking is established will we be able to deal with the current total of 50 million displaced in the world.


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

Canada’s Inhumanitarian Record Part 1 on The Indo-Chinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program

Canada’s Inhumanitarian Record

Part 1 on The Indochinese Refugee Private Sponsorship Program


Howard Adelman

This is the first of a series of blogs on the Indochinese refugee movement in which private sponsorship became a major force and with which I had become deeply involved in the foundation and development of Operation Lifeline. On the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I have been treated royally by the Vietnamese community and presented with awards. Many memories have been brought to the surface. In another time and place I will deal with those direct experiences and invite readers to share their memories and reflections with me. This series of blogs has another purpose and will form part of a published academic paper. Feedback, comments and criticisms of the blogs would be most welcome.

The series will focus on a description, analysis and explanation of the rise of the private sponsorship movement in the late seventies and early eighties that was so essential to both the numbers and success of the resettlement of Indochinese refugees in Canada. In the Private Sponsorship Refugee (PSP) program of the Canadian government, Canada Immigration and Citizenship (CIC) facilitates the arrival of the refugees into Canada while sponsors provide care, lodging, settlement assistance and financial support. In the first thirty years of the program, almost 200,000 refugees and persons in refugee-like situations were resettled in Canada of which the Indochinese refugee resettlement constituted by far the single largest portion of the PSP program. While at the height of the Indochinese refugee movement, 6,000 were being resettled per month, in the twenty-first century that number has ranged from 230-330 per month (2,800 to 4,000 annually).

The blogs are less concerned with formulation of the policies, their precise expression at different stages and the role the private sector played in the successful integration of those refugees, about which I have written before (see, for example, Howard Adelman (1982) Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, Regina: L.A. Weigl Associates), but rather about the social and political context. The paper will analyze the global situation and the spirit or “geist” of the times in Canada, how that was expressed through religious institutions, the government, media and at the grass roots of society, and how that spirit allowed all sectors to come together to produce such a unique and extraordinary outcome.

Since the purpose of these blogs is not to offer a historical account of the rise of the refugee sponsorship movement, but rather to paint an in-depth cultural, social and political portrait of the times, I will be writing history both forwards and backwards at the same time, but not much about the forward developments to the emergence of the sponsorship movement, but forward from that emergence to the present to examine how much has changed. Further, based on a few contemporary focus groups and a more extensive social survey, and in the face of the enormous current refugee crisis, especially that of the Syrian refugees, these blogs will attempt to analyze why there has not been (and there is highly unlikely to be), a recurrence of such a large private sponsorship movement (as distinct from a number of sponsorships) in the present. I wish it were not so and I will continue to try to make it not so, but the analysis leads to the conclusion that such efforts will largely be quixotic. I begin by setting the stage of traveling backwards in time with “Now,” with current Canadian attitudes and approaches, contemporary Canadian policy and the regional and global refugee crisis.

Though not as consistent or repetitious as in the Boat People crisis of 1979, the media in the spring of 2015 has been filled with stories of boat people. Though there have been no stories of pirates preying on the refugees or of a plethora of rapes, the narratives of unscrupulous human smugglers, of unseaworthy and overloaded boats and of large numbers of drowned refugees have filled the news wires and the internet. In one single weekend alone at the beginning of May, the Italian coast guard assisted by French vessels rescued more than 6,800 refugees. In seven small wooden boats and nine dinghies that normally hold a maximum of 20 persons each (maximum 320 in total), there were 3,690 refugees rescued in one day on 2 May.

In 2014, over 170,000 refugees who risked the crossing from Africa to Europe were rescued.  In the first three days of May this year, the numbers rescued are already half of the number rescued in the whole of May last year. In April, an estimated 1,200 drowned, 800 in one incident that received worldwide publicity. In November of 2014, Italy ended its Mare Nostrum Mission on the argument that rescues promoted increased smuggling. The result, far more migrants drowned and still the flow kept increasing. Risk at sea is not a sufficient deterrent. Europe then launched Triton to rescue the migrants.

Canada, unlike Europe, does not have wave after wave of migrants trying to reach Canadian shores by sea. Yet our record of resettlement of refugees recently has been dismal. An op-ed published this past spring by Geraldine Sadoway and Andrew Brouwer (S&B), two prominent immigration lawyers in Toronto, began with a depiction of Canadian self-perception as a generous and humanitarian people and noted how Canada in 1986 was the only country ever to have been awarded the Nansen Medal – actually the only people, for the award had been given not to the state but to the people of Canada as a whole. Though Canada’s work on behalf of resettling Indochinese refugees was undoubtedly a catalyst in winning the award, formally the award was presented to “The People of Canada, in recognition of their essential and constant contribution (my italics) to the cause of refugees within their country and around the world. Canada is a leading contributor to international humanitarian and refugee aid programmes. Canada has, from the beginning, supported international efforts on behalf of refugees. It has one of the best records for resettlement of refugees and is a leading UNHCR donor.”

S&B challenged the view that the humanitarian streak had been essential or constant in Canadian history. Rather, it has been sporadic and intermittent, with a strong history of bias against refugees. Humanitarianism had not been much in evidence at all in dealing with Jewish refugees prior to WW II, but even at the height of the Indochinese refugee movement, as S&B pointed out, the Canadian government imposed a visa requirement on Chileans fleeing the repressive regime of General Pinochet that had come to power in a coup in September 1973.

What S&B leave out, and what Eva Salinas documented in a Globe and Mail story forty years later on 8 September 2013, is how Canadian embassy officials in Santiago, particularly the First Secretary Marc Dolgin, with the assistance of his colleague David Adam, helped Chileans, one in particular, Claudio Duran, a colleague of mine hired into the philosophy department of Atkinson College at York University as soon as he arrived in Canada when I was chair. He had initially obtained sanctuary in the Canadian embassy. Canada relatively soon after the coup designated Chileans as a special class of designated immigrants who could enter Canada under very relaxed immigration criteria, the same criteria subsequently applied to the Indochinese refugees.

This was in spite of the fact that Andrew Ross, the Canadian ambassador, who was stuck abroad at the time of the coup and was not in Santiago, supported the new Pinochet regime and called Chilean leftists “riff-raff” and rationalized their killing as “abhorrent but understandable.” Perhaps that is one reason why Canada between 1973 and 1978 only took in 13,000 of the 200,000 Chilean refugees who fled the country. However, in that case, without the pressure of the mainline churches, without the pressure from opposition New Democrats like Andrew Brewin and another colleague, John Harney who was then an NDP member of parliament, without the November report of a highly respected External Affairs bureaucrat, Geoffrey Pearson, contradicting the views of Andrew Ross, without the leadership of the then Minister of Immigration, Bob Andras, without a Liberal Cabinet that quickly discredited the views of Ross, and without widespread support by the media, the Canadian program “Special Movement Chile” would never have achieved “lift-off”.

As John Foster and Bob Carty noted in their 12 September 2013 on-line article, the Canadian response to the Chilean crisis was “a contradictory mix of official resistance, personal courage and citizen activism energized by Canadian churches with a persistence that outpaced government refusals.” On the other hand, the government of the day became convinced of the need to act. They did so using the full range of tools at its disposal: the refugee program for those who got out of Chile, the oppressed minority policy for people still in Chile, and a special program for  political prisoners that managed to spring something like 200 political prisoners and their families and bring them to Canada. The  last two morphed into the Latina American Designated Class  as soon as the 1976 Immigration Act made that tool available. When the Indochinese refugee program began in 1978, some cabinet ministers expressed the fear that engagement with the Indochinese refugees might be at the cost of the Chileans.

This has been the record, inconsistency rather than constancy, contradictory rather than essential behaviour. Although the 1986 Nansen Award was for the people of Canada, and was presented to Governor General Sauvé by the High Commissioner of the United Nations, on the dais were the Honourable Flora MacDonald, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Gerry Weiner, then Minister of State (Immigration) and Michael Schelew, then President of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) that had worked most assiduously primarily on the asylum side of the refugee issue, though his cousin, Wendy Schelew, became the senior official in charge of Operation Lifeline. There were no representatives of the Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church or Operation Lifeline that had led in the private sponsorship of refugees, though Michael Schelew personally had been active in private sponsorship and the CCR strongly supported refugee resettlement whatever the route into Canada.

What S&B highlighted was that, even during the height of the Indochinese humanitarian impulse, the Canadian government (along with its western allies) had begun to put in place a system of visa controls, penalties on carriers that transport undocumented foreigners, a system that pushed border controls to embarkation points and not just at entry points, eventually closed the Canadian-U.S. border to the entry of refugee claimants without family links under the Safe Third Country Agreement, put so many refugee claimants in holding centres, then, even if they gained refugee status, prevented them from sponsoring other members of their family because they used an “irregular” route to get to Canada, and even included among those subject to punishment not only or even primarily the people traffickers and smugglers, but those who help refugees reach and stay in Canada and do so for strictly humanitarian reasons.

Vietnam and Canada: Journey to Freedom Day

Vietnam and Canada: Journey to Freedom Day


Howard Adelman

(NOTE: as with all my blogs, receivers are free to circulate this blog. In this case, I hope they will circulate it, especially to other members of the Canadian Vietnamese community. I always welcome feedback.)

Last week I received an email forwarded to me from the Honourable Jason Kenney requesting my signature on a petition in support of Bill S-219, originally called Black April Day, and retitled Journey to Freedom Day (Journée du Parcours). An introduction to the bill, its historical context and the explanation of its purpose of the bill can be found at: The bill was very recently passed by the Senate of Canada and is currently before the House of Commons for its approval. (…) The bill is intended to officially recognize April 30th as Journey to Freedom Day in Canada in commemoration of the flight of tens of thousands of Vietnamese from Vietnam who found refuge in Canada after 1975.

Though Kenney is a senior minister in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, the bill is a private member’s bill rather than a government bill; members of each party are free to vote on the bill independent of the party of which they are a member. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine Conservative Party members voting against the bill when it is strongly supported by a high profile cabinet minister and was initially sponsored by an ethnic Vietnamese member of the Senate, Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, who was appointed to the Senate by Stephen Harper. Senator Mobina Jaffer, a Liberal, also strongly supported the bill.

Why the full press? The Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons and can easily pass the bill. Why has such a bill become controversial? Is it because the bill has led to a spat with the government of Vietnam as newspaper headline writers have suggested in reporting on the bill?;
When I open my laptop daily, including this morning, picture after picture of the beauty of Vietnam, taken by my friend Truc, pass before my eyes. Nancy’s long visit there reinforced a fondness for that country, a fondness that is only somewhat painful for personal reasons – because of the death of a friend of my son in a road accident when my son was traveling with him south of Hanoi. Nevertheless, I feel a great love for that country, even though I have never visited. So I am very bothered by a dispute between Canada and the Government of Vietnam.

Yesterday, on my first full day in San Pancho, Mexico, as I listened to the Pacific waves crashing on shore, I also opened the 5 December 2014 minutes received by email of the meeting of the Indochinese Refugee Movement Project Steering Committee Meeting of which I am a member. The Project is intended to provide an archive of documents on the Indochinese refugee resettlement, an oral history, a curriculum, a website, a docudrama and initiate commemoration efforts in 2015 on the 40th anniversary of the beginning of that movement. That meeting was coordinated by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. I was unable to attend the meeting, even by Skype, as, at the time, I was en route to Marin County, CA heading for Mexico.

The minutes opened with a discussion of the controversy surrounding the bill with the suggested explanation that the media had framed the bill as an act that would cause a “diplomatic spat between Canada and Vietnam”. The minutes expressed a concern that the controversy might taint the efforts of the project to archive a documentary record of that refugee resettlement by entangling its aims with that of the supposedly “controversial” bill, even though the project had nothing to do with the bill. The concern of the committee seemed not to be the spat with Vietnam over the bill, but the effects of the bill on the other communities of Indochinese refugees (Cambodians, Laotians, ethnic Chinese from Indochina). The Project wanted to be clear that its focus was on all Indochinese Communities represented by our project.

I will give my explanation for the controversy after I discuss the contents and the context of the bill and also offer my evaluation of the bill itself. April 30th is commemorated by the Vietnamese community in Canada because, on 30 April 1975, Saigon fell to the combined forces of North Vietnam, officially called the People’s Army of Vietnam (not North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam (the Viet Cong). (Ironically, Vietnam means southern Viet.) As the members of the sixties generation well recall, the Vietnam War was a defining issue in North America from 1964, when U.S. President Johnson used the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident to get Congressional approval for the USA to send military advisors to the South Vietnam government in 1964 and then intervene with ground troops in 1965. The controversy only ended in 1973. Henry Kissinger, as U.S. President Nixon’s Secretary of State, had worked out a face saving Paris Peace Accord (27 January 1973) to permit the American troops to withdraw from South Vietnam in what many regarded as the faint hope that South Vietnam could survive as a separate country, much as South Korea has.

It was not to be.

Bill S-219

The bill is described in its opening section as: “An Act respecting a national day of commemoration of the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.” In the Preamble, the following contextual items are mentioned:
• the role Canadian forces played in the UN supervising force;
• the bill refers to the military forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front invading (my italics) South Vietnam that led to the fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam War and the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Government;
• cites the UNHCR as blaming deteriorating economic conditions and abuses of human rights as contributing to the exodus of Vietnamese refugees – the Vietnamese “Boat People”
• the privately-sponsored refugee project assisted 34,000 Vietnamese refugees [NOTE: this phrase could mean ex-citizens of Vietnam or refugees from Vietnam who are ethnic Vietnamese not refugees from Vietnam] coming to Canada while the Canadian government resettled 26,000;
• notes the major and sustained contribution by the people of Canada to the Indochinese exodus was recognized by the UNHCR which awarded the Nansen Refugee Award to the “People of Canada” in 1986;
• members of the Vietnamese community refer to April 30 th as “Black April Day”, or “Journey to Freedom Day”
• April 30th should be designated as Journey to Freedom Day to remember and commemorate a) the lives lost,
b) the suffering experienced during the exodus,
c) the acceptance of Vietnamese refugees into Canada,
d) the gratitude of Vietnamese people in Canada to the Canadian people and the Government of Canada for accepting them,
e) contributions of Vietnamese-Canadian people — whose population is now approximately 300,000 — to Canadian society.

Some elaboration:
• Other than supplying military supervisors to observe the so-called peace provided in the Paris Peace Accords, the Government of Canada stayed out of that war and did not, as Australia did, contribute troops to the American-led effort to support the South Vietnamese government against the insurgents;
• The Socialist Republic of Vietnam Government was created on 2 July 1976 when North and South Vietnam were formally united, and though North Vietnam did invade South Vietnam, contrary to the terms of the Paris Peace Accord, and captured the province of Phuóc Long in December 1974 beginning a full scale offensive, reputable historians would not describe the National Liberation Army (the Viet Cong) in South Vietnam as “invading” South Vietnam for, though supported by Hanoi, the Viet Cong insurrection was a civil war begun in the late 1950s as a guerrilla campaign to overthrow the corrupt Diệm government;
• The UNHCR rarely enters into a political analysis of the causes of an exodus. It was not involved in dealing with the exodus of Vietnamese, largely Catholic, from the north in 1954 following the French withdrawal from Vietnam and its division into South and North. In Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response, W. Courtland Robinson’s official history of the Vietnamese (and other Indochinese refugees), based on full and complete access to UNHCR documents, Robinson concluded that, in 1974, UNHCR became involved with Vietnamese refugees to assist in the return and reintegration of refugees (my italics) resulting from war. Hence, UNHCR opened an office in Hanoi. In 1975, for example, violence broke out in Guam as several hundred Vietnamese refugees demanded the right to return to Vietnam just as many others began to flee. After the fall of Saigon, UNHCR became involved with helping the refugees (35,000) who, according to UNHCR, primarily left Vietnam between 1975 and 1978 for ideological reasons because they were on the losing side in that war, a view which was strongly at odds with that of the USA, which insisted that it was an exodus of people fearing persecution by the Communist government. Only in 1978, when the renewed and much more massive outflow was the result of many factors, including intolerance of ethnic minorities (the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam), religious intolerance, government oppression and the dislocation caused by extensive economic “reforms”, did the refugees become the “Boat People”. I have only included this very condensed summary to indicate that the preamble in the bill with respect to UNHCR’s involvement really refers to the massive exodus after 1978;
• Though Canada took 5,608 Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1978, 16% of the exodus, it only became a leader in resettling the refugees in 1978 with the arrival of the huge freighter, the Southern Cross, in the Philippines, and the arrival in December of another freighter, the Hai Hong, in Hong Kong; Canada’s involvement escalated to the role of a leader of Vietnamese “Boat People” resettlement;
• In 2006, the ethnic Vietnamese population in Canada was officially estimated at over 180,000 so it is difficult to reconcile this figure with the current estimated population of Canadians of Vietnamese origin of 300,000 or the figure of only 60,000 Vietnamese refugees brought to Canada since 5,608 came in the first wave (1975 to 1978), an estimated 50,000 in the second wave (1979-1980), and many more in the subsequent third wave;
• There is a confusion in Bill S-219 between refugees from Vietnam and Vietnamese refugees, who may either be ethnic Vietnamese or ethnic Chinese from Vietnam;
• The bill seems to be sensitive to the feelings of the Thai, Malaysian and other regional governments, which often pushed the refugee boats out to sea until Western countries pledged to resettle the refugees, for there is no mention of the role of these governments in Canada’s decision to resettle the refugees;
• The bill ignores the other Indochinese refugees and the different causes of their plight and subsequent exodus, including the pushback of 42,000 Cambodians from the Thai border in June 1979.

The controversy over the bill between the Government of Vietnam and the Canadian government is significant because the current Harper government is one that strongly supports international trade. Since 2000, following its economic reforms, Vietnam’s economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world. That may explain the extreme mildness when referring to the Hanoi government, for there is no mention of the almost 200,000 Vietnamese killed or executed by the Hanoi government after it came to power in 1954 or of the tens of thousands imprisoned.

What did the Vietnamese government say in its protest against the bill? Before I get into that, it is important to note that there were other objections to the bill, though very little about ignoring Canada’s other Indochinese communities. The bill, however, is supposedly controversial within the Vietnamese community; the Canada-Vietnam Friendship Association and the Canada-Vietnam Trade Council suggested the bill would create tension. They wanted cordial relations with Vietnam and also wanted to put the past behind them. In addition, Peter Tran, an old friend, opposed the bill because it had never been supported by a referendum within the Vietnamese community.

Note that the bill says very little, in fact, almost nothing about past causes and circumstances, in spite of the Vietnamese ambassador claiming that the bill provides a distorted view of his country’s history. The bill does ignore Canada’s positive bilateral relationship with Vietnam over the past 40 years, especially the economic relations as they have developed over the last fifteen years, but what relevance does that have to the purposes of the bill?

Some argue that we are on a slippery slope; is Canada to have a national day to celebrate every ethnic group? However, this is not a national day celebration, such as Tartan Day celebrated on the 6th of April. It is more akin to Raoul Wallenberg Day, January 17th that commemorates what Wallenberg did to help Jews escape the genocide of Nazi Germany.

There were also process concerns. The Vietnamese ambassador was not permitted to come before the committee and had to register his objections in writing. When the letter was received, delayed because it had to be translated into French, the Senate committee had already reported back to the Senate and did not consider the letter. Witnesses from the Vietnamese community, especially those opposed to the bill, were not invited to the committee considering the bill. Only three witnesses appeared. Further, the bill, after languishing in committee for months, was hurriedly passed by the Senate. The Vietnamese ambassador, Anh Dung, in his letter, accused Ngo of dredging up the past, painting a distorted view of his country’s history and ignoring its positive bilateral relationship with Canada over the past 40 years. “The government of Vietnam disagrees with this negative and selective portrayal and has expressed its concerns privately and publicly…about the language and intent of this bill.” The ambassador, in addition to his complaints about the portrait of Vietnam painted in the bill and about dredging up the past, claimed that the bill, if passed, will have an adverse impact on the growing bilateral relations between Canada and Vietnam. The bill was accused of inciting hatred between Canada and Vietnam and fostering division not unity. And it was not only the ambassador who complained about the bill. Vietnam’s deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, Pham Binh Minh, wrote John Baird in June to voice his objections.

I have absolutely no problem with the intent of the bill. Commemorating the suffering of the Vietnamese community in Canada, the huge loss of lives in their flight, yet their very successful resettlement in Canada, is commendable. To call this “dredging up the past” is not only an insult to Canadians of Vietnamese descent, it flies in the face of the widespread belief in Canada that the past must not only be remembered, but wrongs that took place must be pointed out and analyzed. History should NOT be forgotten but recalled. Any country that desires to suppress its past, any country that does not confront its past head on, seriously risks a failure to liberate itself from that part of its past that is despicable. The past must be brought into the present and thoroughly debated.

Articulating and explicating the causes of the exodus of the “Boat People”, however, is not Canada’s task, it is Vietnam’s. Nor is a private member’s bill the place to record and analyze that history. And the bill does not do that. It offers only a very brief passing reference to that history that is 90% accurate, and the one minor inaccuracy can be corrected in committee as the House considers the bill. If the bill has a detrimental effect on Canada’s economic and social relations, then that is a problem for Vietnam, not Canada. Canadian policy in relationship to its own citizens is a Canadian issue, not Vietnam’s, and should not be subject to Vietnam government threats or possible blackmail.

However, there are a number of other issues, all relatively minor, which can be corrected in the committee of the House of Commons considering the bill and then passing an amended version that can then be sent back to the Senate for its approval. Which takes us back to the initial question. Why has the bill been handled so poorly and with last minute haste? I can think of only one reason, but there may be others. Aside from the genuine merits of the bill, it is probably intended both to win favour with the Vietnamese-Canadian community as part of Jason Kenney’s larger strategy of shifting ethnic Canadian support from the Liberal Party to the Conservatives and to place the Liberal party in a conundrum, forcing that party, if possible, to be ambivalent about the bill. Whatever the Liberal Party does, it loses by either supporting a quasi-government initiated bill or placing obstacles in its way. The Conservative Party gains whichever path the opposition takes.

The motives of the Conservative Party may be primarily or secondarily political – domestically to secure support from the Vietnamese community in Canada, and, by making it a private member’s bill, to minimize as much as possible any friction with Vietnam. However, that is insufficient grounds for opposing the bill. So is the fear that often plagues Canadian policy in dealing with different ethnic groups. A policy of apologizing to one group may inundate needed apologies to others. A policy commemorating the experience of one ethnic group may result in a cascade of requests by other groups. The argument is often made that commemorating one group’s past suffering discriminates and ignores the suffering of other groups. It does not. It makes one more sensitive to the history of suffering. The more commemorations for more groups, the better position Canadians are in to both understand suffering and to comprehend the multicultural heritage of this country.

I support the bill and hope there will be some fine tuning by the committee of the House of Commons. If there is not, I would still support the bill. Its merits far outweigh any disagreements I have with how the bill was passed by the Senate or the lack of clarity and even errors in the wording.