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

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part IV: 1981 – 1989

by

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

by

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

1975-1978 Refugees from Cambodia and Laos

Indochinese Refugee Resettlement: Causes of the Exodus

Part II of IV: 1975-1978 Refugees from Cambodia and Laos

by

Howard Adelman

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge had targeted minorities as well as intellectuals, professionals and middle class urban dwellers for extinction. Vietnam expelled its Chinese minority; the Khmer Rouge killed them. Although Pol Pot himself was of mixed Chinese and Khmer ancestry, the ethnic Chinese were targeted for extinction even though China was an ally and supporter of the Khmer Rouge in opposition to the Vietnamese government. Chinese businessmen, as in Vietnam, played a disproportionate role in the Cambodian economy as they did in the Vietnamese one, but all ethnic Chinese were branded as exploiters and moneylenders who took advantage of the Khmer people. In 1978, tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese in Cambodia were rounded up by the Khmer Rouge government ostensibly to be resettled, but were slaughtered instead. In addition to killing and expelling the Vietnamese and Chinese, Muslim Chan and other minorities that originally made up 15% of the Cambodian population were persecuted. In Kampong Cham Province alone, 40,000 Cham were killed. The Khmer Rouge government had guaranteed that Canada and Western countries were spared resettling two million Cambodian citizens by murdering the country’s own citizens.

But many escaped. In June of 1978, Bud Cullen, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, announced a plan focused to take 20 Thailand Overland Refugee (TOR) families a month in June 1978 which  was an addition to the Jan. 1978 decision to take 50 Small Boat Escapee (SBE) families a month. That brought the regional commitment to 70 families a month. The 20 families were to start arriving in late 1978 after the opening of a visa office in Thailand in November 1978. This so called “metered approach”(so many families each month), small though it was, kept Canada in the game at a time when the traditional refugee advocates in Canada had no interest in the Indochinese.

The program was quickly superseded when the government decided to increase the commitment to 5,000 Indochinese in Dec. 1978 under the first Annual Refugee Plan. The Hai Hong (Nov 1978) and the Geneva consultation (Dec 1978) provided the impetus to move away from the token involvement that characterized the movement between late 1975 until October 1978. Though modest in retrospect, the commitment to 5,000 meant the beginning of substantial increase in the intake and a new commitment to the Indochinese refugees involving new government money to cover operational and settlement costs for the first time since 1975. Though Ron Atkey, Joe Clarke’s Minister of Immigration appointed in June 1979, claimed that Trudeau was reluctant to go beyond 5,000 with an election looming, the Cabinet debate and decision indicated otherwise; the Liberal government envisioned the 5,000 as a first step since it directed Cullen to report if he believed more effort was needed and to come back to Cabinet regardless in June. Ron Atkey, a Tory, thankfully, inherited and enhanced the Liberal commitment.

Overseas events influenced both the Liberal and Conservative Parties in their approach to the Indochinese refugees. On 25 December 1978, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia with 150,000 troops, captured Phnom Penh and overthrew the Khmer Rouge government in just two weeks, replacing it with the Vietnamese puppet government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.

In the new year, the Sino-Vietnamese War ensued. Cambodia was an ally of China. China, also seeing Russian expansionism via Vietnam as its proxy, invaded Vietnam. On 6 March, after six weeks, China withdrew, declaring that their punitive mission had been achieved and that they had tickled the buttocks of the “tiger” (the USSR) without any response by the Soviet Union in spite of a mutual defence treaty signed between Hanoi and Moscow a month before the invasion. Severe concessions re the ownership of disputed islands and other border areas were extracted. China was just beginning to stretch its wings and joined the IOC in April. By November, China was re-admitted to the Olympics. Against this background of regional inter-state and domestic ethnic and economic conflicts, by June of 1979, over 200,000 refugees were waiting for resettlement in various camps in Southeast Asia and the numbers continued to grow.

In Laos, the unity government of royalists and Pathet Lao began to dissolve as the royalists saw the writing on the wall when Saigon fell and the Pathet Lao forces on the Plain of Jars began advancing westward even before Saigon fell. The royalists chose acquiescence to the inevitable and royalist politicians and royalist military officers began to desert the government and flee to Thailand, quickly followed by officials and members of the business class. A totally separate exodus took place among Hmong who had fought as CIA-backed units on the Royalist side in the Laotian civil war. With the victory of the Pathet Lao on 5 May 1975, the U.S. evacuated Hmong officers of Vang Pao from Long Tieng after the Prime Minister, Souvanna Phouma, ordered the Hmong to cooperate with the Pathet Lao. Four days after, the communists vowed to exterminate the Hmong.

3,500 leaders and their families were at serious risk of execution by the Pathet Lao. The airlift evacuation, using three American planes, but without markings and flown by civilian pilots, began on 13 May 1975 in multiple forays back and forth. However, the Americans were forced to leave many behind as the Pathet Lao closed in on 14 May ending the airlift. Then General Vang Pao led thousands of his fighters across the Mekong River into Thailand. By the end of 1975, 40,000 Hmong had reached Thailand. Eventually, as many as 200,000 Hmong went into exile there. The vast majority ended up in the US. Other Hmong fighters hid in mountains of Xianghouang Province for years, with a remnant emerging from the jungle only in 2003.

After the Pathet Lao took over the country in 1975, the conflict continued in isolated pockets. By August, when the Pathet Lao arrived in Vientiane, they entered a virtually deserted city and initially kept in place the shell of the coalition government. By 2 December 1975, this façade ended and the king abdicated. By 1977, the regime promised to hunt down “American collaborators” and their families “to the last root”. The exodus from Laos consisted of three groups, Laotians associated with the Royalist regime, Hmong refugees and ethnic Chinese originating in Laos.

By the end of 1980, 7,500 refugees, whose last country of residence had been Laos, entered Canada. 7,100 from Cambodia also arrived. These were distinct from the 59,000 individuals who came from Vietnam. About 60% of the latter were ethnic Vietnamese, the remainder Chinese or Khmer Vietnamese.

The Indochinese refugees are referred to loosely as the “Boat People” because that was the most dramatic form of flight, though those who fled by sea constituted only 75,000 of the 500,000 refugees from Indochina. Further, traveling by sea was the most risky form of escape since the UNHCR at the time estimated that 40% who fled by sea did not survive. Of 112,500 who left in mostly unseaworthy craft, 45,000 were drowned or killed. In several weeks in November 1978 alone, 350 perished and the number fleeing by boat was increasing very rapidly in the last few months of 1978. For example, the number in flight in the spring of 1978 was estimated to be 1,500; by October, 10,000 were fleeing per month and the number was expected to rise to 20,000 per month by the spring of 1979.

From 1975 to 1978, 425,000 fled to the west and 75,000 went into China. In the Fall of 1978, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, National Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Office of Interreligious Affairs in the U.S., traveled to Southeast Asia with two other non-Jewish clergy as part of the Citizens Commission on Indochinese Refugees aided by the International Rescue Committee. At the time, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in the United States had committed itself to take almost as many Indochinese refugees as the whole of Canada, with a target of 5% of the total admitted. In an American background memorandum entitled, “The Southeast Asian Refugees,” dated 7 December 1978, the Interreligious Citizens Commission estimated the breakdown of the 450-500,000 of Indochinese refugees from 1975 to 1978 to be:

132,000 Vietnamese after the collapse of Saigon to the U.S.

50,000 additional 1975-November 1978 to the U.S.

43,817 to France

13.347 to Australia

7,550 to Canada

665 to New Zealand

644 to Britain

225 to Italy

    204 to the Netherlands

248,452 TOTAL

Therefore, rounded up, there were 250,000 Indochinese refugees granted asylum in the U.S. and other Western states. There were still 40,000 Indochinese refugees in transit camps in Malaysia and 136,000 in transit camps in Thailand.

In April 1978, the U.S. government was committed to admitting 15,000 per month, that is, 180,000 per year, half boat people from Vietnamese and half Cambodians and Laotians. Canada was committed to taking in only 5,000; Canada’s normal percentage would have been 36,000. Further, on 29 November 1978, U.S. Attorney General Bell announced that, by the end of April 1979, he was planning to admit an additional 21,875 Indochinese refugees, about three-quarters of them Vietnamese “boat people,” and the rest Cambodians.

In the Fall of 1978, as referred to above, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that it would  convene a meeting in Geneva on December 11-12 of more than 30 countries to seek international action on the Southeast Asian refugee problem.

To be continued: 1979-1980

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

by

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