History as Rhetoric: Indochina and Contemporary Refugee Crises

By Laura Madokoro

Vietnamese Boat People: A reflection on policy or an Extraordinary Event?

Vietnamese Boat People: A reflection on policy or an Extraordinary Event?

Recently, and perhaps not surprisingly for a historian, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between the present and the past. In particular, about the use of history by advocates seeking to draw attention to the current refugee crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. In the past few weeks, there has been considerable news coverage about the thousands of migrants from Syria, Eritrea and Libya who are making their way to Europe under dangerous and treacherous conditions. This past April alone, 1,200 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. The plight of an estimated 6,000 to 20,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants adrift at sea in a “game of human ping pong” in the Andaman Sea is also garnering international attention.

Many observers have drawn parallels between the current crises and the international efforts on behalf of three million Indochinese refugees following the end of the Vietnam War. These comparisons, especially the ones employed by observers pressing for humanitarian intervention, sparked my musings about the relationship between the present and the past. Specifically, how do references to the recent past affect our understanding of that history? And relatedly, what are the consequences of misrepresenting the past in service of the present?

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1975, the movement of the so-called “boat people” began as American troops withdrew from Saigon. There were also “bus people” and “land people” but it was the millions of people who boarded rickety, unsafe vessels out of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos who ultimately captured the international community’s attention and led to a concerted effort to ensure that those fleeing violence and repression did not suffer unnecessarily for their decisions to do so. This effort led to the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), signed in 1989, which provided for the coordination of funds, resources, and responsibilities with the purpose of bringing the boat people movement to a successful conclusion. The Canadian government, through a private – public sponsorship program, had been resettling refugees from Indochina since 1975. For Canada, the CPA was the culmination of over a decade of personal, institutional and government investment that led to the resettlement of 60,000 Indochinese refugees.

The CPA recognized that years after the end of the Vietnam War, people were still attempting to leave difficult conditions and that they would continue to do so as long as their lives were at risk and their future prospects remained in doubt. The CPA therefore facilitated the “orderly departure” of migrants, including proper paperwork and safe transit from Vietnam. It further recognized that Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines were bearing the bulk of the burden in terms of sheltering migrants and that other countries could assist through the provision of funds and the resettlement of refugees. By the time the CPA came into effect, many refugees had been living in camps for years.

It took fourteen years from the first boat person’s departure from Vietnam for the CPA to be negotiated. At the time, critics – much like today’s concerned observers – pressed governments to do more. The CPA may have been late in coming but it was nevertheless a historic achievement in terms of a harmonized international effort to assist migrants who chose to leave difficult circumstances, rather than wait and see what history might have in store for them. The same desire for a more secure political and economic future is apparent in today’s movement of migrants from Libya, Syria, Eritrea, Bangladesh and Burma.

There are interesting parallels to the Indochinese refugee crisis of the 1970s and the initial response to the migrants currently crossing the Andaman and Mediterranean Seas. In the case of Bangladeshi and Muslim Rohingya migrants, the destination countries of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia originally refused to allow vessels to land, returning migrants to perilous conditions at sea. As reports of murder, physical abuse, starvation and dehydration became more frequent, the three countries agreed to provide temporary refuge to the migrants. For migrants crossing the Mediterranean, the European Union has announced a militarized solution and proposed to use the navy of member countries to attack ships belonging to smugglers before they can depart Libya. The British air force will provide drone and air support to conduct surveillance activities. The idea is that if the ships never have a chance to leave, migrant deaths at sea will be prevented. Critics suggest otherwise, positing that smugglers will charge higher rates for even less seaworthy passage and that deaths will continue to occur, but away from the highly visible tragedies currently occurring at sea.

In anticipation of an even more serious situation as the summer migration season begins in the Mediterranean, François Crépeau – McGill Law Professor and the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, has pointed to the world’s response to the Indochinese refugee crisis and called for an international response akin to the relief and resettlement efforts provided to Indochinese refugees fleeing war and post-war violence and economic chaos in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. There has also been some discussion of an international effort on behalf of refugees in the Andaman Sea, particularly following Ecuador’s initiative to offer assistance to refugees with resettlement opportunities. The 1989 CPA now serves as evidence of the international community’s capacity for coordinated humanitarianism. In referencing the past, concerned observers are attempting to galvanize a complacent and indifferent global public, along with decision-makers and politicians with the power to effect change.

References to Indochina are compelling and important. However, the extraordinary response to the Indochinese refugees, including the resettlement of thousands of refugees to Canada, was just that, extraordinary. It was not typical of the assistance offered to refugees, especially those outside of Europe in the years following the creation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The response to the Indochinese refugee crisis was the product of decades of lobbying by humanitarians, NGOs and aid workers and the response was deeply bound up with the politics of the global cold war.

This lobbying began not in Saigon but in Hong Kong, where thousands of people fled following the establishment of a communist regime in Beijing in 1949. Most moved with the idea that their stay in the British colony would be temporary and that they would be able to return to the Chinese mainland when conditions improved. Some did return but most did not and when experiments in centralized economic planning failed, such as the Great Leap Forward in 1956 and political control during the Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1966, many more moved to the colony. Crowded conditions in the colony led to the presence of large squatter settlements, unsanitary conditions and calls by missionaries and western NGOs in Hong Kong for assistance from western donors. In the United States, these calls resonated with political leaders in Washington concerned about the stability of the colony in the broader context of the cold war. Other countries, such as Canada, downplayed the gravity of the refugee situation in Hong Kong. Discriminatory immigration rules in place until 1967 inhibited any attempt at taking proactive action in resettling refugees from Asia. Exceptionally, the government of John Diefenbaker resettled one hundred refugee families from Hong Kong in 1962 but the program was designed to be as limited as possible in scope. People were selected on the basis of their ability to assimilate, rather than their humanitarian needs.

Given its history of excluding Chinese, South Asian and Japanese migrants from permanent settlement and its general disregard for refugees in Asia (not only from China but also as a result of the Korean War), the Canadian response to the Indochinese refugee was indeed, as Howard Adelman recalls, “ambitious and unprecedented” and very much the product of the “will of the people.” Adelman played a pivotal role in Operation Lifeline, the private initiative that the government matched, resulting in the sponsorship and settlement of people from camps in Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong. It is this outpouring of support that media outlets have been commemorating in recent weeks. In doing so, opposition to the resettlement efforts – including from the National Citizens Coalition – is being ignored. The historical narrative that is being produced is one of pure, righteous generosity. Tu Thanh Ha, writer for the Globe and Mail and himself a refugee from Vietnam, concluded a recent piece by observing, “Four decades after the fall of Saigon, the exodus hasn’t ended. In a world awash again with refugees and boat people, it is worth remembering a time when nations gave desperate people a chance to start a new life, in a new country.”

This kind of memorializing only hints at the extraordinary effort that took place forty years ago on behalf of refugees from Indochina. The international response to the Indochinese refugees was unique. We must therefore be careful about using the example of the resettlement of Indochinese refugees to insist on a response to contemporary events. Such comparisons ignore the groundwork prepared by decades of humanitarian lobbying on behalf of Chinese refugees in Hong Kong. In the case of Canada, it also perpetuates a mythology of humanitarianism that marginalizes the complexities of the country’s response as well as the many occasions when it did not respond to the arrival of migrants with open arms. In the recent past, this includes boats of Sri Lankan migrants in 1984, Chinese migrants from Fujian in 1999 and Tamil migrants in 2010. A Canadian contribution to any solution for the developing crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas will require that people once again rise above the general complacency that has, historically, been most characteristic of the western response to the world’s refugees. Rather than assuming that countries are humanitarian by nature, advocates might consider reminding their audiences that countries such as Canada have never been as humanitarian as their citizens like to believe. The potential to do more is what must drive engagement with the current situations in the Mediterranean and the Andaman Seas.

Laura Madokoro is an assistant professor of history at McGill University.

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