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Vietnam's boat people: 25 years of fears, hopes and dreams

A Vietnamese refugee is handed from a small boat to crewmen from the USS Durham in the South China Sea in April 1975


(CNN) -- When a teen-age Ngo Van Ha hitched up his jeans and headed for the departure lounge at Hong Kong's now-closed Kai Tak airport six years ago, he became a symbol of hope to thousands of boat people who had languished in camps for years after risking their lives to escape Vietnam.

He was boarding a flight to the United States, a step that would forever remove him from the detention centers so many others were desperate to escape. The alternative for Ha was a return to Vietnam, loss of face, and more importantly, loss of a dream.

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For many of Vietnam's boat people, however, return was the only option -- unlike those who fled Vietnam in the "early days" of departures. The latest generation of mostly economic refugees in the 1980s and 1990s had only one option: going home.

The boat people who had once captured the world's sympathy had become something else, and the world had changed its mind.

First wave

By the early part of the 1970s it was becoming clear that the United States and its allies were losing the war against North Vietnam. Yes, there were victories, but for the most part it was just a matter of time before the Communists seized control of the entire country.

That time came in April 1975. Tanks rolled through the streets of the southern capital, Saigon. The war was lost. The real losers, however, were those left behind who had stood on the side of South Vietnam and believed their allegiance would see them through.

Fear took over and the exodus began -- the largest mass departure of asylum seekers by sea in modern history.

Images of makeshift camps overflowing with humanity flashed around the world; of rickety boats sinking as they were towed into harbors in countries as far away from Vietnam as Australia; of a people desperate for new lives.

At the time, the world deemed most of them refugees as defined by international criteria -- they faced political, religious or other forms of persecution if they returned to Vietnam.

The early waves of boat people arrived mostly on the doorsteps of Vietnam's neighbors. Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines were hit by an influx their governments admitted they were ill-prepared to deal with.

With his belongings secured in his teeth, a Vietnamese refugee climbs a cargo net to the deck of the USS White Plains in July 1979. The man was found with 28 others floating in a 35-foot wooden boat in the South China Sea.  

Each arrival had a different story, but the theme was common. All were seeking resettlement in a third country. In many cases parents still in Vietnam used life savings to put a child on a boat departing the coast of their homeland. Their plan was for the child (typically a son) to win refugee status in a third country, a status that would be the anchor for the rest of the family following.

The world, for the most part, embraced Vietnam's boat people. The United States took in the largest number. Canada, Australia and Britain also pitched in with programs accepting large numbers. But refugees went everywhere. Iceland resettled a handful, as did Bermuda.

America's guilt

A key player in handling the arrivals to the United States was Roger Winter, who wore two hats through the busy years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Initially he led the resettlement efforts of the Carter administration, then for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a private group of which he is now executive director.

"These were not people who were simply seeking to move to the U.S. or some other resettlement country. These were people that needed to be rescued and in that sense of the word it was different than many other migratory movements," Winter told CNN Interactive.

The United States took in the large number of people it did largely for two reasons, Winter said -- a sense of guilt and a sense of loyalty toward the people it had walked away from in 1975, and thus a need to rescue them.

A Vietnamese refugee cares for three small children after she and others were picked up from their wooden boat by a whaling ship in the South China Sea in August 1979


Then, in the late 1970s, the images changed from the ones of caring and help offered in ports of first asylum to the early arrivals. Television footage from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia started showing boatloads of Vietnamese being pushed out to sea -- turned away to face the pirates that trawled the region for easy pickings.

It was widely considered "morally correct" in the United States for the country to play its part, Winter recalled. President Jimmy Carter made a decision to jump resettlement numbers from Southeast Asia to 14,000 a month -- double what it had been.

The flow continued unabated into the 1980s with a significant spike in arrivals in 1980 and 1981, an increase that resulted from Carter's decision. Essentially the enhanced prospects for resettlement sent a surge of people into the South China Sea.

A turning tide

By the late 1980s, however, the ports of first asylum in Asia and the resettlement countries were reconsidering their policies. Resettlement ratios had flip-flopped: Arrivals outweighed departures. A new breed of boat people was taking to the seas. They were, for the most part, economic refugees.

Many arriving in Hong Kong in particular were from North Vietnam. They were farmers, factory workers and laborers looking for a new life. There was no proof many of these arrivals faced persecution if they returned.

It was at this point the international community, in tandem with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, met to produce what was termed the Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The plan agreed upon in 1989 did two key things. The first was to ensure all arrivals in ports of first asylum continued to be screened, or "tested," to determine whether they were genuine refugees, according to U.N. convention, or economic migrants. The second element of the plan was a return program for those who failed the refugee "test."

The second part of the plan would become the most controversial. For the first time Vietnamese boat people were being repatriated en masse. Ultimately this repatriation, which with some counseling was intended to be voluntary, became deportation.

Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of boat people had run aground, encountered the worst circumstances. The emigrants were living on borrowed time, hoping they would somehow be resettled despite being refused refugee status. Some had even been born in the detention centers that held them.

The catch was that at any time their number could come up for repatriation under Hong Kong's so-called Orderly Repatriation Program. The word "orderly," however, could rarely be applied to what ensued.

The legal battle

Protests in the camps became commonplace. Serious protests.

Security forces in full riot gear were sent into burning camps to pull deportees from rooftops. Again the pictures were flashed around the world. This time there was little sympathy.

The taxpayers of Hong Kong were fed up paying to house the Vietnamese boat people and were prepared to allow brute force to be used. The force came about many years after the United States had urged the need to hold people in detention centers until they made their own decision to return.

Even the United States agreed the only option was repatriation, voluntary or otherwise. It was in this era that legal cases dominated the courts in ports of first asylum.

Again Hong Kong bore the brunt of the court cases as a small team of dedicated lawyers pushed for the rights of individuals such as Ngo Van Ha.

Ha was an orphan whose relatives in Vietnam had refused to take him back. His case became something of a cause celebre for Hong Kong's boat people. When he won the right to join relatives in the United States there was celebration in the camps.

Unfortunately many thought that if they avoided deportation, they too could eventually follow in Ha's footsteps. Most of them were wrong. The Vietnamese detention centers of Asia are empty.






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