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The Vietnamese Boat People

After the United States withdrew from South Vietnam in 1975, communist North Vietnam quickly took over and established the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The leaders of the new government then began to exact revenge against those who had been their enemies and who had sided with the U.S. to fight the North. As a result, an estimated two million Vietnamese risked their lives in crowded boats and fled across the South China Sea to countries throughout the region.

These refugees, known as “boat people,” forced the United States, Australia and others to scramble to find them a home. The countries neighboring Vietnam struggled to find a balance in receiving refugees – and also refusing entry to people from China deemed to be economic migrants — and passing them onto larger nations to become permanent residents. The U.S. ended up receiving well over a million refugees, who started new lives in communities across the country. The crisis has received renewed attention in the wake of the ongoing flood of migrants from Central America, many of them children.

Robert H. Miller, appointed Ambassador to Malaysia in 1977, discusses the ethnic tensions in the country at the time in dealing with a flood of refugees. Thomas P. Shoesmith was the Consul General in Hong Kong when refugees started to arrive and later served as Ambassador to Malaysia from 1983-87, where he continued to work on the issue. Melvin R. Chatman worked for the Agency for International Development (USAID) in Vietnam, New York City and Malaysia, coordinating refugee housing and ultimately directed the AID Refugee Office in the late 1970s. Edmund McWilliams was the Indochina Watch Officer in Thailand while the boat people were making their escape from Vietnam. Wolfgang J. Lehmann had spent a number of years in Vietnam when the boat people began to leave.  He was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Saigon and was the Chargé d’Affaires prior to the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Miller, Shoesmith, Chatman and McWilliams were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in May 1990, December 1991, October 2006, and December 2005, respectively. Lehmann was interviewed by Robert Martens in May of 1989.

Go here to read other Moments dealing with Vietnam and about the mass migration from Cuba during the Mariel boat lift.


The massive problem of evacuating Vietnamese out of Vietnam

LEHMANN: We had, of course, various categories of Vietnamese whose evacuation we wanted to support. In some cases we were obligated to support. The principal categories were:  our employees; people who had worked closely with us; people who were at very high risk if they were captured by the Vietnamese; and the large numbers of Vietnamese who had established — with the many years of our involvement — some sort of relationship with Americans, either through marriage legalized by civil authority or clergy, or through common law relationships.

The Vietnamese extended family system–that sort of thing translates immediately into fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and cousins. So there was a massive potential problem here of evacuating Vietnamese.

At the same time, we had a situation where our authority to formally admit people to the United States was extremely limited and subject to the normal kind of consular procedures. We did not receive formal authority to exceed those normal procedures and, in fact, evacuate Vietnamese to the United States under the Attorney General’s parole program until April 26, three days before the final evacuation. Yet, we had these other problems on our hands.

One of the main problems, of course, was where do you put some of these people that you had no authority for sending to the United States? Guam was, of course, a territory and so Guam was used extensively as a temporary holding area while Washington sorted out some of the legal and political problems that were involved.

The Consul General was Dick Peters and I do not recall exactly when we had Dick actually leave. But, we designated Dick to go to Guam to assist in Guam with the handling of the Vietnamese evacuees, many of whom we were temporarily parking in Guam. We didn’t have any authority to move them to the United States. [Read how Terry McNamara, Consul General of Can Tho, got the U.S. and Vietnamese employees out during the fall of Saigon.]

“It was a bad time in South Vietnam”

MILLER: The…crisis problem was the great flow of Vietnamese boat people across Malaysian beaches. It had already begun by the time I arrived in the middle of 1977 and became a crisis problem for Malaysia over the next couple of years. Malaysia, of course, felt that we were responsible for the flow as we had failed in Vietnam and that also as a big wealthy country we had the obligation to take these refugees almost before they landed on the beaches. That was a constant irritant in our relations during my tenure in Malaysia.

McWILLIAMS: The Vietnamese and Hanoi were being very effective in identifying and taking in for “reeducation,” it was called, certainly all of the Vietnamese who had worked with us but in addition they of course were very rough on the Viet Cong. Much of the Viet Cong leadership had been killed in Tet in 1968 but the Hanoi leadership saw the Viet Cong in some ways as being as much or more of a threat to their control than our allies because they had good popular support, the Viet Cong did, so you had Viet Cong being imprisoned but of course anyone who had worked with the United States would be taken off for reeducation and those who had held senior positions, of course, were in trouble. Many were killed.

I think more important they were placed in camps where conditions were not only health threatening but life threatening and many died in those camps…In terms of provisions of food, medical care, overwork, exposure to malaria — very, very tough time for these people in the camps. And of course I think much of the impetus for the exodus of boat people was, certainly much of it was economic. I mean, the economic situation was very dire in South Vietnam but I think also and probably the more important impetus for movement of boat people was the threat to individuals or to the families of individuals who had worked for the Americans, remembering of course that while the father or the mother might be taken away to a reeducation camp, the family members, the immediate family members were also under a cloud in terms of education, in getting jobs and so on. So it was a bad time in South Vietnam.

SHOESMITH: They were all farmers and fishermen and people of that sort and, as a source of intelligence on Vietnam, not very great, although some effort was made to exploit that resource. When the boat people began to arrive in Hong Kong in 1979, as they did in other parts of Southeast Asia, it became a major responsibility of the Consulate because we were involved in the processing of these people to identify those who might be able to come to the United States.

“The Hong Kong Government was giving them asylum while it was turning away people coming in from China”

SHOESMITH: The understanding at that time in 1979, I think it followed an international conference on refugees in 1979, was that if the various countries, such as Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia would accept these refugees and give them what was called “first asylum,” the other, major countries made a commitment to resettle the refugees.

At that time, at the start of these programs, it was generally considered by our government that anybody that fled Vietnam was a political refugee, under the terms of our legislation at that time. Not everyone agreed with that, either in the United States or elsewhere. With that assurance that they would be resettled, the British Government, or the Hong Kong Government, at very considerable expense, and at some political cost, began to receive the refugees and to house them. They developed, for some of the refugees, a system whereby they could go into the community and work and return to the camps at night.

I said, “some political cost,” because, at the same time as the Hong Kong Government was receiving these refugees, giving them first asylum, they were returning people who fled the mainland of China into Hong Kong. They would be rounded up from time to time… and sent back to the mainland. Of course, some of those people who came in had relatives in Hong Kong. So the relatives and other persons who were sympathetic to that position took exception to the fact that the Hong Kong Government was giving this asylum and receiving these refugees, while it was turning away the people coming in from China. The difference, of course, was that the Hong Kong Government had a commitment that these refugees would not be permanent residents in Hong Kong. They would be resettled, whereas those who came in from the mainland were seeking permanent residence.

CHATMAN: The refugees would love to stay in Thailand because they were Buddhists, they looked very Thai looking and because they looked so Chinese looking they really weren’t that welcome in Malaysia because the Malays didn’t particularly like the Chinese that they had.

Well, the Malay government didn’t want them to settle in Malaysia. That was the big thing so they put them on a little isolated island and they put them on those islands temporarily where they could be processed by these voluntary agencies where they could interview them and accept them and then the voluntary agencies would ship them back to the States and find homes in the resettlement areas for them back in the States….It worked like a dream. It was a little busy but…because some months we would get 20,000 refugees.

There were several countries that were the big processors, like the U.S., Australia and a couple other countries really took a lot of them. The U.S. took a million or a half a million of them or something like that….In smaller numbers [Canada took refugees] but there was almost a home for everybody unless the guy was a criminal or something.

MILLER: Overall we got a lot of cooperation [from the Malaysian authorities]. There were crises. From the Malaysian standpoint they have a very delicate ethnic balance in the country, which I used to call the fatal flaw of Malaysia. It was one of the most successful former colonies among all the former colonies throughout the world. It was one of the most prosperous, most politically stable, but they have an “ethnic fault” line running the length and breadth of their country between the Malay Muslims and the pork-eating Chinese. They looked upon this tremendous, uncontrollable flow of refugees on their beaches as an uncontrollable influx of people of Chinese culture — many Vietnamese refugees were of Chinese origin.

All of these Chinese-culture people were coming across the beaches in some of the most traditionally Muslim Malay areas of Malaysia, thereby creating difficult and tense internal domestic political problems for the moderate Malaysian government. Therefore the Malaysian government had domestic pressures on them, including from radical Islamic elements, which were anxious to embarrass the moderate Malaysian government, to get us, because it was all our fault, to solve this problem immediately.

When there were new influxes of boats on the east coast — they seem to come in waves — that was when our moments with the Malaysian government became the most tense. But both governments realized that we had to work together to solve the problem. I think they recognized from the statistics that we and the rest of the international world were stepping up our intake of refugees. I think they realized that we were cooperating and we were able to work out whatever transitory problems there were.

CHATMAN: As long as we got them out of there, the Malays would accept them. The deal was as long as we processed them and got them out of there the Malays would allow them to land on their shores. What they didn’t want them to do was to turn them back to sea where they would inevitably die because those old boats and things like that were falling apart. That’s what they didn’t want them to do.

“It was an overcrowded, desperate humanitarian situation”

MILLER: One of the big crises was when a big old cargo boat called the Hai Hong arrived, for the first time on the west coast of Malaysia, about 20 miles from Kuala Lumpur, with 2500 refugees aboard who were not starving, but were underfed, and among whom disease was beginning to break out. It was an overcrowded, desperate humanitarian situation.

The Malaysian government’s reaction was to tow the ship out to sea and not let it land. It was the last straw for them. I was getting urgent instructions from Washington not to allow that boat to be towed out to sea. The U.S. TV network cameramen were there to film this thing. I went to see the Prime Minister, and we talked the thing out and he finally agreed–he was being pressed, of course, by his experts to get the thing towed out to sea so that they could ignore it. But finally, the Prime Minister agreed that, if we and the other members of the international community and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees would interview the refugees on the boat, in the harbor and take them directly to the airport to go to their resettlement country, so that the Malaysian government could assure its people that they were not increasing the number of refugees in the country, they would not tow the boat out to sea. We worked out that compromise and that crisis was solved.

[The UN] had lots of problems of coordinating this international effort — international staff coming from different bureaucratic cultures and backgrounds trying to work together — but I would say that even though we had our frustrations with them and they with us, that on the whole their operation was very effective.

SHOESMITH: Up until 1981 we in the United States were taking substantial numbers of refugees from Hong Kong and elsewhere. The United States, Australia, and Canada were the main resettlement countries. Although there was some concern in INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service], for example, as to whether these were genuine refugees or whether they were political refugees…I mean economic refugees. That didn’t become a serious problem while I was there. It did subsequently.

MILLER: Essentially we dealt with it by working with the Malaysians, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in Kuala Lumpur, and with other resettlement countries like France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and others, to solve Malaysia’s problem. I felt that it was a considerable accomplishment on the part of the U.S. mission while I was ambassador there to increase the intake of refugees for resettlement into the United States from something like 600 a month to about 5500 a month. So we had a tremendous refugee operation in Malaysia at the time headed by a young fellow, Joe Gettier who worked wonders, both in terms of gearing up on the U.S. side to take these refugees and working out the various problems both with the UN machine and with the Malaysian government. He really accomplished miracles….He was with AID, of course, but working under my authority and direction basically to do what we could to relieve the pressure on the Malaysians.

SHOESMITH: This whole issue of whether you were a genuine, political refugee or an economic refugee [migrant] began to bulk larger and larger in the discussions about handling refugees. By the time I left they were down to 8,000 or so. Within a short period of time the numbers began to go up again, reflecting a lowered offtake.

This continued until 1989, by which time Malaysia may have had 14-16,000, at which point, in 1989, they began to refuse to take any more. The boats would come up on the shore or approach the shore, they would be examined to see the condition of the boat and of the people. They would be given provisions, the boat would be repaired, if necessary, and they would be turned away.

“We accomplished a tremendous movement of refugees”

MILLER: The Washington perspective was different than the field perspective. The Washington perspective was that Indochinese refugees had to be resettled within U.S. communities and therefore there was a big domestic political aspect that the people in Washington had to deal with. There was a big bureaucratic, interagency organization which plugged also into domestic departments and agencies of the government and into the great private sector voluntary agencies in order to get local communities to accept these refugees.

From the field we were always pressing for earlier decisions and decisions for bigger quotas. From the Washington perspective, they were pressing us to increase international cooperation –get more countries to take more so we could take less — and also getting us to press the local UN authorities to improve conditions of the local camps in order to reduce the incidence of disease, to improve the screening process to make sure that we didn’t take in what we would call any “ringers” from the standpoint of our laws and regulations.

We couldn’t take ex-criminals, drug dealers, and obviously we couldn’t take people with communicable diseases. We also had criteria as to what categories of refugees we could take. People with relatives already in this country, people who had worked for the U.S. government in Vietnam, etc. So Washington had a different perspective putting a lot of pressure on us and we had a field perspective putting a lot of pressure on Washington. But together I think we accomplished a tremendous movement of refugees during the time that I was there.

SHOESMITH: By the time I left the number of boat people in Malaysia had gone down to something like 8,000. When I arrived, it may have been around 12 or 15,000, but not only were we continuing to take them off, so were the Australians and the Canadians and, to some much smaller extent, the British. By 1986 it was evident that, not only in Western Europe, but in the United States as well, and in Australia, there was growing resistance to continue to take refugees.