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Vietnamese boat people awaiting rescue

Boat people is a term that usually refers to illegal immigrants or asylum seekers who emigrate in numbers in boats that are sometimes old and crudely made, rendering them unseaworthy and unsafe. The term came into common use during the late 1970s with the mass departure of Vietnamese refugees from Communist-controlled Vietnam, following the Vietnam War.



Boat people from Haiti

Boats have been a widely used form of migration or escape for people of limited resources. Most boat people travel without formal right of entry to their destination, but on arrival may seek asylum for various reasons depending on the destination country's laws. They often risk their lives on dangerously crude and overcrowded boats to escape oppression or poverty in their home nations. Some choose to emigrate to better their lives -- others, especially political refugees, may be fleeing for their lives.

There are a number of areas of the world where boat people have undertaken voyages. A particularly frequent destination has been the USA, which has been the objective of boat people from Cuba (since 1995 Cubans who reach dry land in the U.S. are generally allowed to stay while those intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard are returned to Cuba), Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Elsewhere boat people have originated journeys in Morocco, Vietnam and Albania. In 2001, 353 asylum-seekers sailing from Indonesia to Australia drowned when their vessel sank. Many boat people have been attacked by pirates on the high seas or upon isolated islands, or have been turned away by unsympathetic governments and forced to return, sometimes even to ports of origin where they were also present illegally.

Boat people are frequently a source of controversy in the nation they seek to immigrate to, such as the United States, Canada, Italy, Spain and Australia. Boat people are often forcibly prevented from landing at their destination, such as under Australia's "Pacific Solution", or they are subjected to mandatory detention after their arrival. Unlike the wave of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and early 1980s, most boat people arriving more recently in Western countries, Australia, or the U.S.A. have purchased their passage on large but overcrowded - and frequently, unseaworthy - boats from illegal immigration operators, who may demand considerable sums from their desperate clients.

Vietnamese boat people

A family of boat people rescued by an American Navy ship

Events resulting from the Vietnam War led many people in Cambodia, Laos, and especially Vietnam to become refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s, after the fall of Saigon. In Vietnam, the new communist government sent many people who supported the old government in the South to "re-education camps", and others to "new economic zones." An estimated 1 million people were imprisoned without formal charges or trials.[1] According to published academic studies in the United States and Europe, 165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's re-education camps.[1] Thousands were abused or tortured.[1] These factors, coupled with poverty and the total destruction of the country that happened during the Vietnam war, caused hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to flee the country. In 1979, Vietnam was at war (Sino-Vietnamese War) with the People's Republic of China (PRC). Many ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam, who felt that the government's policies directly targeted them, also became "boat people." On the open seas, the boat people had to confront forces of nature, and elude pirates.


Escape route

Rescued Vietnamese boat people being given water

There were many different ways people used to leave the country. Most were secret; some involved the bribing of officials[2]. Some people bought places in large boats that held 400 passengers. Others organized smaller groups. Many families were split up during this period because they could only afford to send one or a few members of the family. One method used involved middle-class refugees from Saigon, armed with forged identity documents, traveling 1,100 kms 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.[citation needed] Planning for such a trip took many months and even years. Although these attempts often depleted resources, people usually had several false starts before they managed to escape.[2]

The boats, most not intended for navigating open waters, 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, some 2,200 km away[3]. Others landed on the shores of Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, and Hong Kong. The unlucky ones would face a two-week long or even 6-month perilous journey in rickety craft; stopping every now and again in Chinese shores, suffering hunger and thirst.

Refugee camps

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. The women and children were 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. Some 77% of refugee boats leaving in 1981 were attacked by Thais.[4] 863 Vietnamese were known to be raped, 763 people physically attacked and killed, and 489 people abducted.

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. Among them were genuine ethnically Chinese Vietnamese refugees who escaped from Vietnam and headed to China and Hong Kong.

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 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 right 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, neglects 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.

In Israel, the Vietnamese immigrations represent a change in transformation in the Israeli conception, one that saw the Jewish state as the state of the Jews with a Jewish majority. Even though the absorption of hundreds of Vietnamese did not change the political map in Israel, the absorption of the Vietnamese still constituted a change of civil identity in the state of Israel who take in non-Jewish refugees.[5]

Hong Kong adopted the "port of first asylum policy," and received over 100,000 Vietnamese at the peak of emigration 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.

In Australia, the Fraser Government took what might be considered the final step in ending the White Australia policy by letting more than 100,000 Indochinese refugees to immigrate at a quick pace. The countries that accepted most of the Indochinese refugees were:

By the late 1980s, Western Europe, the United States and Australia received fewer Vietnamese refugees[citation needed]. It became much harder for refugees to get visas to settle in those countries. 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 dwindled. Many refugee camps were closed. Most of the well educated or those with genuine refugee status had already been accepted by receiving countries[citation needed].

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 languish 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, marking an end to the Vietnam boat people history. In 2005, the remaining refugees in the Philippines (around 200) were granted asylum in Canada, Norway and the United States.


  • Martin Tsamenyi The Vietnamese boat people and international law, Nathan: Griffith University, 1981
  • Steve Roberts From Every End of This Earth: 13 Families and the New Lives They Made in America (novel, a.o. on Vietnamese family), 2009.


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