Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Boat People: Uniting Syria and Vietnam

Snehashish Mitra (biltu0717@gmail.com) is a research assistant at Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group. 

As Aylan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy of Kurdis ethnic background lied lifeless on a sea beach of Turkey, it depicted the desperation of over 4 million Syrian refugees. The image circulated round the globe prompted international response over the issue of rehabilitating the Syrian refugee. The crisis also evoked a similar trajectory of events in another part of the world in a different time involving the ‘Vietnamese Boat People’. As Thuan Le Elston, a member of the editorial board of the daily USA TODAY of Vietnamese background opines, it might be necessary to take a look back at the case to Vietnamese Boat People to find a reasonable solution for the Syrian refugee crisis.
When the Americans lost the Vietnam War there were many citizens of Vietnam, especially in South Vietnam who did not wish to stay in Vietnam. Those with influence were airlifted out by the Americans but many had to make do with crowding onto leaky boats and making the journey from Vietnam to the gulf of Thailand. Nearly 800,000 Vietnamese fled by boat, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In doing so they unwittingly wrote themselves into modern pirate history. The Vietnamese populace who tried to flee Vietnam over boat is termed as ‘Vietnamese Boat People’; they seemed to encapsulate all the suffering Vietnam had suffered from1965 to 1975. Despite the end of the Vietnam War, tragedy for the people of Vietnam continued into 1978-79. The term ‘Boat People’ not only applies to the refugees who fled Vietnam but also to the people of Cambodia and Laos who did the same but tend to come under the same umbrella term. The term ‘Vietnamese Boat People’ tends to be associated with only those in the former South who fled the new Communist government established in post-war Vietnam. The exodus was the biggest in peacetime the world had seen. The boat people chose to face the adversities of the sea and the pirates rather than live under communist regime with the genuine prospect of attending reeducation camps and face persecution. About 10% of the boat people died without ever reaching shore, from pirate attacks, drowning or starvation. Those who survived, overwhelmed Vietnam’s neighbors as well as Western nations where the refugees wanted to resettle. 

Narratives of the boat people represent the danger they overcame in their endeavour, Thuan Le Elston describes the experience of her grandmother who fled Vietnam in 1985,
My cousins’ grandmother, Gian Thi Le, was among the boat people. She couldn’t leave   Vietnam in 1975 with the rest of us because her husband was ill. A decade later, after his     death, she decided to take her chances by sea, though she was already 70. When my cousins’ family managed to bring her from a Southeast Asian refugee camp to Arizona, the grandmother told us of pirates wielding guns and machetes who beat the men and did worse to the women. She recounted seeing the pirates rape mothers and daughters and hearing the screams. “They only left me alone because I was old,” she said.
Such narrative exemplifies the danger inherent in undertaking such journeys where challenge is presented not only from the natural topographies, but also from fellow humans as well; incidents like that Aylan Kurdi perhaps manifests the continuance of such miseries heaped on the common people due to political turmoil.  In late 1978, Indo-China degenerated into wholesale confrontation and war between Vietnam and Kampuchea (Cambodia) and China. In December 1978, Vietnam attacked Kampuchea while in February 1979, Vietnam attacked Chinese forces in the north. These two conflicts produced a huge number of refugees.
As the tendency of several European nations at the moment to turn away the Syrian refugees, the Vietnamese boat people also faced rejection in countries like Malaysia and Thailand. In 1979, a U.N. conference agreed to allow them to stay temporarily in refugee camps in Southeast Asian countries before being resettled elsewhere. Over the next decade, though, the waves of boat people were so great, the U.N. had to convene another conference, in which communist led Vietnam itself was a key player. The new agreement increased the numbers for legal migration, determined refugee status of all asylum seekers, and returned those not eligible to their home countries (sometimes forcibly). To assist those returnees in their reintegration, UNHCR gave each of them $240 to $360 in U.S. dollars.
Trinh Hoi was born in 1970 in Saigon[1]. At the age of 15, he left Vietnam and came to Australia as a refugee. Trinh Hoi was admitted into Melbourne University Law School from which he graduated with combined degrees of BA and LLB. In an interview with Thuan Elston, Thin tells in the context of Syrian refugee crisis, “It’s history repeating itself. First, as a refugee community, we must act and show the world that we are grateful for what was given to us. Second, to prove that if refugees are given a chance, sooner rather than later, they would become the responsible world citizens that we all hope to become: resourceful and responsive to the voiceless." “But in order to have a lasting solution,” Trinh adds, “we must also act decisively in Syria — 4 million fleeing is enough reason to stop the carnage perpetrated by Assad.” While there might be argument over the fact that who is the bigger evil – Assad or ISIS, there ought to be no debate about Trinh’s prescription for the current Syrian refugees and the optimism he holds for them with regards to their probability of positively contributing to the task of nation building at their host nations.
The boat people settled in Australia, Canada, and the U.S.A.. In 1979, more than 100,000 of them arrived in America, where they tried to rebuild their shattered lives. Settling in America has not been easy. The first refugees were generously welcomed by many, but fiercely resisted by others. The opposition to the Vietnamese refugees came from racist groups such as the KKK but also from Americans who ironically mistook the refugees for communist Vietnamese citizens.
It has been said, however, that no difficulties in the U.S can compare to the hardships the refugees endured to get there. The new Vietnamese-Americans hunkered down; they went to school, worked in multiple jobs and eventually built a community that would flourish into numerous ‘Little Saigons’. The most famous ‘Little Saigon’ is centered in the formerly sleepy residential city of Westminster in \Orange County, California. City’s records reveal that in 1977, there were three Vietnamese-owned business in Westminster. In 1982, the number rose to 100. By 2004, Vietnamese owned businesses numbered 11,000 in Orange County. The first Vietnamese American elected official was Westminister City Councilman Tony Lam who took office in 1992. By 2005, there has been a Vietnamese American Assistant U.S. Attorney General, two state legislators, four city council members, and several school board members.  

One of the important sites where the Vietnamese boat people took refuge initially was the Bidong Island situated off the coast of Terengganu, Malaysia in the South China Sea. The arrival of new refugees to Bidong and other locations in Southeast Asia decreased after June 1979. A Geneva Convention held in July 1979 resulted in Vietnam agreeing to restrain the flow of refugees and the Southeast Asian countries agreeing to take all those who came to their shores provided that the Western countries guaranteed resettlement for the majority of them. President Jimmy Carter raised the quota for permitting refugees into the United States from 7,000 to 14,000 per month and other countries followed suit, especially Canada, Australia, and France. The population of Bidong began to decline as refugees departed for resettlement abroad.
By the time Bidong was closed as a refugee camp on 30 October 1991, about 250,000 Vietnamese had passed through or resided in the camp. With the closing of the camp, the remaining refugees were repatriated back to Vietnam. The refugees strongly protested their forced repatriation. A total of 9,000 Vietnamese were repatriated between 1991 and 28 August 2005 when the last refugees departed Malaysia for Vietnam. This marked the end of the saga of the Vietnamese boat people; however similar fate continues to be shared in different times by different communities due to political disturbance which ceases to disappear in the light of difference within the human race.

[1] Saigon, currently known as Ho Chi Minh City is a city of Vietnam.

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