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 III of IV: 1979-1980

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part III of IV: 1979-1980


Howard Adelman

In September 1979, China claimed that more than 230,000 Chinese ethnic refugees from Vietnam had been driven across the border, though some also arrived by sea. However, in the West, the exodus all took place by sea and “Boat People” became the prevailing designation for all the Indochinese refugees, though Cambodian and Laotian refugees had crossed into Thailand by land. The name was reinforced by the predominant imagery of rickety overstuffed boats of desperate people with many of the boats capsizing, running out of fuel and water, attacked by pirates and being shoved back out to sea by Malaysian authorities. If it was not enough to suffer oppression and expulsion, the refugees also soon encountered rejection by others. Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 immediately came to mind. The identification of the Indochinese with the Jews fostered guilt among Western countries that had failed to come to the rescue of those Jews who managed to flee by boat in 1938, forty years before.

Though most passing ships under the International Law of the Sea rescued the human cargo lest they drown, many ships passed without offering aid. Many of those that rescued refugees, tried to offload their passengers at nearby countries which then prevented the ships from landing.

Hence the crisis! Pushed out from their countries of origin, rejected by countries of first asylum, a more systematic policy was needed if the adjacent countries were to allow the refugees to land. (Hong Kong was the exception and never pushed back the “Boat People”.) Barry Wain in his article, “The Indochina Refugee Crisis” in the Fall 1979 issue of Foreign Affairs summarized the causes very succinctly.

Indochina is bleeding. Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea discharge a massive flow of apparently permanent refugees, on a scale the world has not experienced since World War II. No end is in sight to the flow nor is any political solution visible. There is more to the outflow than the aftermath of war-prolonged, bitter and bloody as the 1960-75 conflict was. Of the more than one million persons who have fled or been forced out of Indochina since communist governments took over in 1975, by far the greatest number have left in the last 18 months. Behind the upheaval is Hanoi’s determination not only to bring Kampuchea into line and free Laos of dissidents, but to rid its own territory of unwanted elements and carry out the socialist transformation of unified Vietnam without delay. Anti-Chinese feeling is a major factor; Hanoi’s approach includes forcing out of Vietnam hundreds of thousands of people considered undesirable in the new society, many of them ethnic Chinese, and in the process exploiting their financial resources to its own benefit. If the policies behind this exodus should be resumed – after the short breathing space apparently gained by the July 1979 Geneva conference – another million or more inhabitants of Vietnam might seek refuge abroad. Already the refugees have saddled neighbouring non-communist nations with serious political, economic, social and security problems. Their presence is potentially explosive in several countries, notably Malaysia and Indonesia, which have Chinese minorities and delicate racial balances. Altogether, the stability of Southeast Asia is threatened. But the implications go much further: for the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s main supporter, which shows no inclination to curb Hanoi’s present course; for China, whose hostility to Vietnam may have helped swell the refugee tide it now piously condemns; and for the United States, the only country capable of taking the lead in fashioning a solution and whose handling of the situation will determine its standing in the region in the immediate future.

There is, however, a complementary thesis, one which puts part of the blame on the sixties protesters against the war in Vietnam. The Vietnamese political scientist, Ton That Thien, blamed Western and Vietnamese intellectuals for their mindblindness and refusal to recognize that the Viet Cong, South Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, was not the expression of an indigenous nationalism confronting corruption in government in Saigon, but a puppet of Hanoi. Further, Hanoi and its ideology were determined to wreck havoc with the traditional Vietnamese culture. The chickens were now coming home to roost and those chickens were the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees who had to be settled in the West if the West was to avoid a wider geo-political crisis in the region. The West had made the basic error, not in fighting the war, but through false analysis and failing to win it, thereby setting off the exodus. The interpretive conflict is much more about evaluation rather than about factual disagreements.

In May 1979, the first longer-term refugee camp for Cambodian refugees was set up in Thailand. Different camps were dominated by various Cambodian warlords and the Khmer Rouge now in exile. The Nong Samet, Mak Mun and Nong Chan refugee camps were just inside the Thai border and within a few miles of one another. It is always difficult to obtain accurate figures of refugees in camps because some refugees leave to seek local work and return, particularly on census days. When camps are controlled by the military, accurate figures are almost impossible to obtain since the military use a plethora of measures to enhance the numbers. They do so in order for more rations to come into the camp that can be re-sold in local markets and, thereby, finance the support of the military and their plan to re-conquer, in this case, Cambodia. That is why the military control the census as well as the food distribution within the camps. The military also use the base for rest and recreation after they return from a raid back into Cambodia. Refugee camp inhabitants are also a source of recruits for the counter-revolutionary forces.

This meant that refugee camps posed a security danger to Thailand because of reprisal raids by the Vietnamese-dominated government in Cambodia and the close proximity of the camps  to the border. The existence of camps controlled by the military also enhanced the security problem because the camps were a source of funds for the militants. On the 5th of October, the military warlords established the Angkor National Liberation Movement, Khmer Angkor for short, and, as an example, informed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that the population of the largest camp, Nong Sanet, totalled 200,000.

The international community suspected exaggeration and cut the figure by 10% and only provided aid for 180,000. But a 10% hype was the normal enhancement of UNHCR-run camps in contrast to military-run camps as those who came and went in UNHCR- controlled camps returned for census days once a year. From our studies in Goma in the Congo, the exaggeration in numbers was probably enhanced by at least 25% not 10% when the military control a camp and do not permit a proper census. There were probably no more than 150,000 in the camps controlled by military forces. Smuggling and black markets flourished as other sources of funds for the military in addition to stealing humanitarian rations.

Further, as most camps were near the border, there were many landmines. Another source of insecurity was not between the camps and the new Vietnamese puppet regime in Cambodia, but within each camp and among the camps themselves as different warlords tried to consolidate or expand the areas under their control. The situation was similar to rivalries between biker gangs who fight to control the drug trade. As recently took place in Texas, that rivalry frequently became violent. The most dangerous source of violence remained the Khmer Rouge, ironically still backed as the official government of Cambodia by both the U.S. and China. For example, on 4 January 1980, from its base in Phnom Chat, the Khmer Rouge attacked In-Sakhan’s controlled camp, Nong Samet, and overran it. But the refugees had fled and an empty camp was of no use to the Khmer Rouge. Under pressure, the latter retreated and the refugees returned, once more under the control of ex-Royalist military officers. An effort in January 1980 by UNICEF and ICRC to bypass the military and distribute rations to the camp’s population, now estimated at 60,000 was a failure. As a consequence, a month later the UNHCR cut off aid, but subsequent follow-up inspections revealed a high rate of malnutrition. So aid was resumed without an accurate census, an impossible effort in itself given the volatility of the situation, the fighting among the camps and the flight of camp populations from one camp to another.

The problem was only resolved when the Thai military became involved between March and July and took temporary control of the camps, in strict terms, a violation of international humanitarian norms. The Thai army redistributed the camp populations into more controllable numbers in each camp, and the remaining population of Nong Samet Camp was moved to a swampy area next to Prasaht Sdok Kok Thom Camp. The only long-term result was that the Khmer Rouge was able to take control and Thou Thon, a puppet of the Khmer Rouge, became chief administrator. However, although the camp remained a recruiting ground as well as a place for rest and recreation for insurgent forces, the camp soon became the model of a well-run and clean camp, but still with exaggerated census figures. Official corruption and theft of rations were tolerated because the Khmer Rouge kept order in the camp. The Khmer Rouge had become the de facto state with a monopoly of control of violence, thereby squelching the sources of interpersonal insecurity that was once an everyday part of camp life.

In contrast to the Cambodian situation where camp life and militant responses co-existed, the Laotian Civil War had ended.  Of the approximately 22,000 Laotians in Canada in the 2011 census, 12,793 arrived as refugees, almost all from camps in Thailand after 1978. Canada also took in a small number of Hmong; the majority of those Hmong re-migrated to the U.S., mostly to Washington and Oregon where the Hmong brought over by the Americans after 1975 had settled in fairly large numbers. There are a large group of ethnic Chinese from Laos in the Kitchener area primarily because of their sponsorship by the Mennonite community. 53% of the Indochinese refugees sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee were Laotian, whereas Laotians only made up 16% of the total Canadian intake. Laotians not converted to Catholicism when the French ruled Laos, and who did not convert to Protestantism in gratitude to their Christian sponsors, practice the Theravada branch of Buddhism. Their facilities are often exquisitely beautiful: the Wat Lao temple in Edmonton, Alberta and, the most beautiful of all, the Monastère Bouddhiste de Tam Bao Son in Harrington, Laurentides, Québec.

In sum, the largest resettlement effort for refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia took place between 1979 and the end of 1980, but the ground for the exodus belonged in the prior period except for the camps in Thailand. There, the situation on the ground, the political and military in-fighting among the ex-Cambodian leadership, and the intervention of the Thai military influenced both the humanitarian effort within Thailand and the process of resettlement.

Part IV tomorrow: 1981-1988