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Vietnamese boat people is a term that usually referred to refugees from the Vietnam War during the late 1970s, who fled Vietnam in large numbers following the Fall of Saigon. Typically, they used boats that were old and crudely made.
After the Vietnam War, many people in Cambodia, Laos, and especially Vietnam became refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s, after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In Vietnam, the socialist government sent many people to re-education camps, and others to "new economic zones". Lê Duẩn purged South Vietnamese who had fought against the North, imprisoning over one million people and setting off a mass exodus. In addition, after the People's Republic of China launched a punitive invasion of Vietnam in 1979, the Vietnamese government forced the entire ethnic Chinese community to perform hard labor or leave the country. The majority of Chinese, who lived in the south, had no way to escape except on the open seas.
Boat people had to face deadly storms, diseases and starvation, and elude pirates. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea. Other estimates compiled are that 10 to 70 percent of the 1-2 million Vietnamese boat people died in transit.
There were many methods employed by Vietnamese citizens to leave the country. Most were secret and done at night; some involved the bribing of top government officials. Some people bought places in large boats that held 400 passengers. Others organized smaller groups or went on makeshift rafts crudely made of wood. Others boarded fishing boats (fishing being a common occupation in Vietnam) and left that way. One method used involved middle-class refugees from Saigon, armed with forged identity documents, traveling approximately 1,100 km to Danang by road. On arrival, they would take refuge for up to two days in safe houses while waiting for fishing junks and trawlers to take small groups into international waters. Planning for such a trip took many months and even years. Although these attempts often caused a depletion of resources, people usually had several false starts before they managed to escape.
The boats were not intended for navigating open waters, and would typically head for busy international shipping lanes some 240 km to the east. The lucky ones would succeed in being rescued by freighters and taken to Hong Kong, close to 2,200 km away. Others landed on the shores of surrounding Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. The unlucky ones would continue their perilous journey at sea, sometimes lasting over 6 months long, suffering from hunger, thirst, disease, and pirates before finding safety.
The plight of the boat people became an international humanitarian crisis. There were untold miseries, rapes and murders on the South China Sea committed by Thai pirates who preyed on the refugees who had sold all their possessions and carried gold with them on the trips. The UNHCR, under the auspices of the United Nations, set up refugee camps in neighbouring countries to process the "boat people". They received the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize for this.
Camps were set up in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. According to stories told by the Vietnamese refugees, the conditions at the camps were poor. Women and children were often raped and beaten. Very little of the aid money donated primarily by the United States actually got to the refugees. Refugees at Thai camps were maltreated and many were brutally bullied by the Thai guards.
Most of the refugees came from the former South Vietnam. However, soon after the first wave between 1975–1978, North Vietnamese from seaside cities such as Haiphong started to escape and land in Hong Kong.
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The Orderly Departure Program from 1979 until 1994 helped to resettle refugees in the United States as well as other Western countries. In this program, refugees were asked to go back to Vietnam and waited for assessment. If they were deemed to be eligible to be re-settled in the US (according to criteria that the US government had established), they would be allowed to immigrate.
Humanitarian Operation (HO) was set up to benefit former South Vietnamese who were involved in the former regime or worked for the US. They were to be allowed to immigrate to the US if they had suffered persecution by the communist regime after 1975. Half-American children in Vietnam, descendants of servicemen, were also allowed to immigrate along with their mothers or foster parents. This program sparked a wave of rich Vietnamese parents buying the immigration rights from the real mothers or foster parents. They paid money (in the black market) to transfer the half-American children into their custody, then applied for visas to emigrate to the USA. Most of these half-American children were born of American soldiers and prostitutes. They were subject to discrimination, poverty, neglect and abuse. On November 15, 2005, the United States and Vietnam signed an agreement allowing additional Vietnamese to immigrate who were not able to do so before the humanitarian operation program ended in 1994. Effectively this new agreement was the extension and also final chapter of the HO program.
The Roman Catholic Church, given its long history with the Vietnamese people, facilitated the relocation of a large number of Vietnamese boat people through its many Orders and charities. Involved in this work was the work of the Vietnamese Refugee Office of Caritas Italiana, a major Catholic Italian charity, under the leadership of Monsignor Tran Van Hoai.
Hong Kong adopted the "port of first asylum policy" in July 1979 and received over 100,000 Vietnamese at the peak of migration in the late 1980s. Many refugee camps were set up in its territories. Frequent violent clashes between the boat people and security forces caused public outcry and mounting concerns in the early 1990s since many camps were very close to high-density residential areas.
The countries that accepted most of the Indochinese refugees were:
As hundreds of thousands of people were escaping out of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia via land or boat, countries of first asylum in South-East Asia were faced with the continuing exodus and the increasing reluctance by third countries to maintain resettlement opportunities for every exile, they threatened push-backs of the asylum seekers. In this crisis, the Comprehensive Plan of Action For Indochinese Refugees was adopted in June 1989. The cut-off date for refugees was March 14, 1989. Effective from this day, the Indochinese Boat people would no longer automatically be considered as prima facie refugees, but only asylum seekers and would have to be screened to qualify for refugee status. Those who were "screened-out" would be sent back to Vietnam and Laos, under an orderly and monitored repatriation program.
The refugees faced prospects of staying years in the camps and ultimate repatriation back to Vietnam. They were branded, rightly or wrongly, as economic refugees. By the mid-1990s, the number of refugees fleeing from Vietnam had significantly dwindled. Many refugee camps were shut down. Most of the well educated or those with genuine refugee status had already been accepted by receiving countries.
There appeared to be some unwritten rules in Western countries. Officials gave preference to married couples, young families and women over 18 years old, leaving single men and minors to suffer at the camps for years. Among these unwanted, those who worked and studied hard and involved themselves in constructive refugee community activities were eventually accepted by the West by recommendations from UNHCR workers. Hong Kong was open about its willingness to take the remnants at its camp, but only some refugees took up the offer. Many refugees would have been accepted by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, but hardly any wanted to settle in these countries.
The market reforms of Vietnam, the imminent return of Hong Kong to China by Britain and the financial incentives for voluntary return to Vietnam caused many boat people to return to Vietnam during the 1990s. Most remaining asylum seekers were voluntarily or forcibly repatriated to Vietnam, although a small number (about 2,500) were granted the right of abode by the Hong Kong Government in 2002. In 2008, the remaining refugees in the Philippines (around 200) were granted asylum in Canada, Norway and the United States, marking an end to the history of the boat people from Vietnam.
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