Commentary Magazine

The Scandal of the Boat People

Fifty years ago a group of more than 1900 Jewish refugees set sail from Nazi Germany to Cuba aboard the liner St. Louis, only to be turned away by officials there. The ship then made for the United States; it was intercepted off the coast of Miami, where the frightened passengers pleaded for admission. But the U.S. authorities refused, and the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. More than half its passengers would be lost in the Holocaust.

Today the world shakes its collective head over the treatment of the St. Louis, but the underlying lesson has yet to be taken. For almost fifty years from the day the “Voyage of the Damned” was turned away, 65 nations were gathering under UN auspices in Geneva to contrive a legal means to send the boat people back to Vietnam, a country they had been fleeing ever since 1975 when it was unified by the Communist regime in Hanoi. The task in Geneva was a somewhat tricky one since there are international conventions, absent in 1939, that today prohibit the refoulement, or forced return, of refugees. But the countries of Southeast Asia ad grown tired of the continued exodus out of Vietnam and wanted it stopped. They came to the conference determined to find a way around the new conventions, whatever it might take.

What it took, as things turned but, was nothing more difficult than a redefinition of the boat people—from “genuine refugees,” who could not be returned against their will, to “economic migrants,” who could. This distinction was invented by Great Britain, whose colonial government in Hong Kong had already used it unilaterally in screening new arrivals from Vietnam. With Britain again in the lead, Hong Kong’s screening philosophy was adopted in Geneva and enshrined in a six-point comprehensive plan of action.

Reading this document, one might well conclude that the boat people represent the largest refugee problem in the world. In fact, they are today a relatively tiny percentage of the world’s more than 4 million refugees; among those 14 million, Afghans, Ethiopians, and even Cambodians outnumber the Vietnamese. The reason the boat people have become so important has less to do with them than it does with he response of the countries upon whose shores they continue to land; in addition to Hong Kong, these countries include Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Now that they have succeeded in getting the rest of the world to consider forced repatriation as a solution in the case of the Vietnamese, we can expect the same policy will sooner or later be applied to other groups of refugees as well.



The story behind this cruel development begins with the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese troops in April 1975. At that time about 130,000 South Vietnamese who had served the Thieu regime in either the army or the civil administration were evacuated; most of them resettled in the United States. Between then and mid-1978, another 30,000 or so sneaked out of the country, also resettling primarily in America.

But the real flight did not begin until mid-1978, when the new Communist government instituted harsh policies directed against the sizable Chinese minority who made up much of the merchant class in the South. Their predicament was exacerbated by Hanoi’s growing ties with the Soviet Union and its concomitant estrangement from China. By mid-1978, the trickle of refugees leaving Vietnam had swelled into a torrent; even though ethnic Chinese accounted for only about 3 percent of the country’s 50 million people, they were he majority of those fleeing, mostly by sea and mostly in leaky boats.

It was known almost from the start hat many of these original boat people were bribing their way out. But what authorities in the region did not at first know was that the Vietnamese government itself (and not merely corrupt officials) was directly involved in the trafficking of refugees. By July 1979 when more than 200,000 boat people, mainly ethnic Chinese, had arrived on the shores of the nearby countries of Southeast Asia, it became clear that Hanoi not only was forcing them out but was running a profit on the side.

The reception was not friendly. Boat people were often killed or raped or robbed by Thai pirates. Singapore refused to allow them to land—Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke of the need to grow “calluses on your heart”—and Malaysia began towing them back out to sea. Thousands perished.

In response to this horrid situation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called the first conference on the boat people. It was held in July 1979 in Geneva and was attended by 65 nations, including Vietnam. The deal negotiated there was relatively simple. The nations of Southeast Asia agreed to grant temporary refuge, or first asylum, to the boat people arriving at their borders. In return, Western governments such as the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, France, and Canada agreed to accept these refugees or permanent resettlement. In addition, a promise was extracted from the Vietnamese government to make “every effort to stop illegal departures” and to allow the foreign governments to set up an Orderly Departure Program (ODP) that would give Vietnamese a legal alternative to illegal boat departures.

For a time the Geneva solution interrupted the crisis, since refugees now at least had places to land. But since this arrangement did not address the root cause of the problem—i.e., the nature of the Communist government f Vietnam—the conditions that had precipitated the massive exodus were never dealt with. Consequently, beginning in 1986 the number of Vietnamese refugees began once again to increase dramatically, outstripping the pace of resettlement. This in turn created a growing population of “long-stayers” in the camps that had been set up in the region to accommodate the refugees under the terms of the Geneva agreement.

Looking at conditions in Vietnam, the rest of Asia correctly concluded that there was no end in sight to the potential outflow. The response this time was even uglier than before. Malaysia threatened to shut down all its refugee camps and send the Vietnamese packing. Singapore reasserted its policy of not allowing any refugee to set foot on its soil unless he could produce written acceptance for resettlement elsewhere. Indonesia fired on refugee craft, and Thailand started to push the boat people back to sea until an international outcry forced an official, though not always de-facto, reversal.



Yet the raw brutality of these stands pales beside the anti-refugee lead taken by British-ruled Hong Kong, the most prosperous enclave in he Orient. In fairness, it should be acknowledged that Hong Kong was initially one of the most open ports of asylum, but the colony had come to feel that its earlier generosity served only to attract ever more boatloads of people and thus to magnify the problem. Now Hong Kong began putting all its efforts into discouraging new boat people from coming and forcing back those who did arrive. It was in aid of this purpose that the British government invented the new category of “economic migrant.” Although the term had no meaning in law, it provided a basis for cheating many refugees out of their international protections and stigmatizing them with the taint of opportunism.

It is a great irony that the local populace of Hong Kong should have been so unsympathetic to refugees at a moment when they themselves—fearful of what will happen when the colony is handed over by the British to Communist China in 1997—were arguing for immigrant rights broad. But given that the colonial British government was already sending back three or four dozen people a day to communist China, most of them relatives of Hong Kong locals, it might have been expected that similar treatment of strangers from Vietnam would arouse no great objection.

A further irony is that until now communist Vietnam had habitually cited Article 13-II of the UN Declaration on Human Rights—which states that “[e]veryone has the right to leave any country including his own, and to return to his country”—to Justify the forced departure of the ethnic Chinese. But now the carrots dangled by London (financial aid, improved relations with others in the region, possibly a promise to pressure Washington to resume diplomatic ties with Vietnam) evidently had their effect. The face-saving solution was a new euphemism for forced repatriation: “orderly return.” Under this formula, refugees were to be given a choice between prison in Hong Kong or voluntary return to Vietnam with a cash grant. But as many as 44,000 will be forcibly sent back, with Britain reportedly paying Vietnam $600 per person to cover the cost of resettlement.

At any rate, other Asian countries, seeing in the new British approach a chance to get rid of their own Vietnamese refugees, eagerly signed on. The result was the six-point comprehensive plan of action drafted in the spring of 1989 Kuala Lumpur. This was adopted without revision in Geneva in July.

A fundamentally anti-refugee document, the plan represents the interests of the host nations who drew it up and not those seeking asylum, who had no say. Its six main provisons call for Vietnam to crack down on boat departures, for an expansion of the Orderly Departure Program, for a reaffirmed right to first asylum, for region wide adoption of Hong Kong’s screening policy, and for the return to Vietnam of those “determined not to be refugees.”

In plain English the gist is that Vietnam should step up its repression to make it more difficult for boat people to leave, while the rest of the world redefines most of those who do manage to get out in a way that will allow other countries to send them back.

This last point is the critical one. Screening without forced repatriation for those who fail the test makes no sense; as Britain’s then-Foreign Minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, told the assembled in Geneva, this is “the logic of screening.” The conference did stop just short of explicitly endorsing forced repatriation, as the British wanted, but in section 6(c) it implicitly accepted Sir Geoffrey’s hard logic: “If, after the passage of reasonable time, it becomes clear that voluntary repatriation is not making significant progress toward the desired objective, the alternatives recognized as being acceptable under international practices would be examined.” The acquiescence of the UNHCR provided the moral imprimatur.

The response of the United States was jumbled. On the plus side, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger told the Geneva conference that “the United States will remain unalterably opposed to the forced repatriation of Vietnamese asylum-seekers,” a last-minute insertion included over the objections of many others in the State Department. It was a welcome, even heroic, move, as was the behind-the-scenes pressure on Great Britain not to return the boat people now in Hong Kong against their will. Recently President Bush reiterated his opposition to forced repatriation before an Asian-American audience at the White House.

But in the same speech at Geneva, Eagleburger unfortunately also endorsed the thrust of the plan. “The balance that has been struck is delicate,” he said, “we should not seek to alter it.” In this way, Washington put itself in an impossible predicament: opposing the obvious conclusions of a document whose logic—Sir Geoffrey’s logic—it accepted. In practice this meant that the administration had abetted a process it was now powerless to stop.



Where the Bush administration ought to have objected is on screening itself, a policy that rests on a slippery slope of questionable assumptions. Even from a practical point of view, it is riddled with problems, beginning with the antipathy that exists between those arriving in Hong Kong (now mostly ethnic Vietnamese from the North) and the local translators (mostly ethnic Chinese). Even translators not hostile to the arrivals are unacquainted with the situation in Vietnam and of the people being interviewed. The Vietnamese themselves, moreover, do not distinguish between interviews and interrogation, and so their tendency is to clam up. For these reasons alone, various organizations of lawyers have objected to the Hong Kong program even without objecting to screening per se. The UNHCR, whose approval Britain is constantly citing in international forums, also is decidedly uneasy about the process.

There are problems as well with the way screening is administered. For example, no record is kept of the original responses in Vietnamese, in the event of an appeal. More importantly, people in the camps are not provided with adequate prescreening counseling, or an explanation of refugee criteria and of their rights. They are not given enough information or guidance about their right to appeal, or how that appeal would be managed.

In the particular case of the boat people, there is a further complication posed by Vietnamese law. Those who escape are considered criminals, and under Vietnam’s National Security Articles 85, 88, and 89 they are subject to harsh prosecution. A piece in the South China Morning Post in March quoted the immigration director for the Vietnamese Interior Ministry, Nguyen Can, as saying that anyone who in Vietnam helped organize illegal departures would face thirty years in jail, and that any escapee who upon failing the screening test did not opt for voluntary repatriation would be punished if forced back later.\ Whatever the status of people before they leave, these laws make them refugees once they have gone.

The most serious objections to screening, however, are philosophical. They start from the fact that screening began not as an effort to help “genuine” refugees but to pin the label of economic migrant on as many boat people as possible so that they could be subjected to forced repatriation. The British made this clear when they announced before screening even began that 90 percent of those arriving on Hong Kong’s shores were not genuine refugees. Is it any surprise that the screening results conform to this preset figure? Is there any doubt that the results could be made to conform to any other figure?

The deepest question of all is whether the new distinction between genuine refugees and economic migrants has any validity when it comes to people who have escaped from totalitarian states. American law, following the lead of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, defines as a refugee anyone “who is outside any country of such person’s nationality . . . and who is unable or unwilling to return to . . . that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Such language may be appropriate to old-style authoritarian regimes, where most people are left alone unless they belong to a specific group or have otherwise attracted the government’s attention But being singled out for “persecution” has no real meaning in totalitarian societies, where blanket persecution is the norm. The Convention’s emphasis on the dispute of an individual (or his group) with the government unconsciously bases refugee criteria n oppression but on discrimination, and leads to all manner of contradictions.

Just last year, for example, a judge in San Francisco granted asylum to a Chinese man who had been arrested t the airport while traveling on a phony Singaporean passport. The man asked for asylum because his wife had defied China’s one-child policy; he said he would be persecuted if he returned. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) opposed granting him refugee status. The judge did so anyway, but at least in part because the man was Catholic and hence opposed by religion to contraception and abortion. The implication appeared to be that non-Catholics subject to the same persecution would not be entitled to the same rights.

Or what about Ethiopia, where mass starvation has been brought about by Marxist-Leninist agricultural policies? Are those who flee that regime because they cannot feed their children any less genuine refugees than those who flee because of other objections? Indeed, trying to separate the economic from the political in a totalitarian society is like trying to separate the blue from the sky.

It is a symptom of our own overly politicized century that the only claims to refuge we accept are overt political statements or accidental membership in some ethnic or religious group, rather than the actual circumstances of repression. The more innocent the refugee, the less eligible he is for asylum, so long as everyone else is treated as wretchedly as he. This, in fact, is a chief argument used against the new wave of Vietnamese boat people from the North, where Communism has been established for decades. Presumably this means that they have had more time to grow accustomed to it.



Prior to becoming a party to the UN Protocol in 1980, the U.S. did take into account the special character of totalitarian oppression; it did so in a clause of its refugee law that referred to those fleeing “from any communist or Communist-dominated country or area.” Interpreted liberally, as it was, this meant that those coming from such countries were allowed in. The figures today suggest that U.S. policy would benefit from a return to that interpretation. For of the 14 million refugees in the world, the lion’s share are those running from Communist regimes: 6 million from Afghanistan alone; at least 1 million from Ethiopia; more than 630,000 from Mozambique; almost 400,000 from Angola—not to mention the more than 450,000 from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. These are not people with a “well-founded fear” of individual persecution. These are people fleeing a system.

This is neither to diminish nor to deny the claims of refugees from non-Communist countries who fit the present definition. Were there no Communism there would still be thousands of refugees with claims on our attention. But there is something perverse about a world that insists on solving the refugee problem while refusing to acknowledge the major driving force behind it.

Such an acknowledgment, of course, would be anathema to the United Nations, where a large chunk of the membership is made up of totalitarian states. It would also, by extension, be anathema to the UNHCR, a hideous international bureaucracy that has forfeited all respect among workers in the field because its greatest fear is offending a host government. (Recently the High Commissioner for Refugees, Jean-Pierre Hocke, was forced to resign; among the controversies during his tenure was his burning two years ago of an issue of Refugees, the official UNHCR publication, because it contained an article West Germany did not like.) It would also be anathema to an affected nation like Great Britain, which simply wants the boat people sent back, period.

Thus, instead of trying to pressure Vietnam into opening up its system so that people would no longer be so desperate to leave (something even East Germany recently began to do), the Geneva program tells Hanoi: get tough, and rewards will follow. To this message Hanoi has responded eagerly. Vietnamese officials report that in the first half of 1989, some 3,224 persons were arrested trying to leave, and 413 of these were sentenced to jail for up to twelve years. The Vietnamese navy has also been instructed to fire on boat people who refuse to stop. It is a safe bet that if Vietnam decided to collect its bribes and then sink all outgoing craft on the high seas, there would be no serious outcry from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, or Hong Kong.

The U.S. has shied away from criticism of screening per se, which is understandable since the INS uses much the same sort of rationale for denying entry to refugees from south of the border. This again points to an inherent problem in refugee policy: its complete dependence on the open doors of third countries. The different treatment accorded escaping East Germans and Vietnamese demonstrates that, in practice, UN guarantees of the right to leave are meaningless without a concomitant right to arrive. This further helps explain why even avowedly pro-refugee organizations such as Oxfam and UNHCR have signed onto the screening program: they believe that unless the numbers are reduced to appease host governments, the rights of all refugees will be jeopardized.

Others hope an expanded Orderly Departure Program will provide an alternative to risky escape on the high seas. But ODP is a specific program for a specific group of people, and most of those leaving by boat are not eligible for it. In July ODP was given a boost when Hanoi agreed to allow former reeducation-camp internees to apply for the ODP exit visas, after an earlier agreement to let out Amerasian children. This is welcome, but with a twenty-year backlog of perhaps 500,000 people, it is a fig-leaf solution.



For all the attention and debate they have attracted, the boat people—to say it again—represent neither the largest nor the most critical refugee problem in the world. Nor do the 107,721 boat people now languishing in various countries of Southeast Asia represent the kind of drain on resources that we see in Africa—in Malawi, for example, where 600,000 refugees from Mozambique appeared almost overnight. The sole reason there is a refugee “crisis” in Southeast Asia is that the assorted nations of the region no longer wish to take the boat people in.

The importance of the boat people, and the danger, thus lies in the precedent. In Geneva the world bowed to pressure from a few nations to rejiggle criteria in a way designed to scale back drastically the number of those who will be granted protection from oppression. There is no reason that Pakistan or the Sudan could not invoke the same principle to deport the large numbers of Afghans or Ethiopians there, moves that would likely also be very popular politically. Taken further, this principle might even be used by countries like Nicaragua to have their own escapees declared economic migrants as a means of getting international monies to bring them back home, as well as discrediting charges that people are leaving because of oppression.

None of this is to romanticize the refugees. In times of trial a given number of human beings will act with grace and dignity, just as another percentage will succumb to baser impulses; the Vietnamese are no exception. Every camp in Southeast Asia suffers from its share of prostitution, drug dealing, extortion, even murder, perhaps exacerbated by the miserable conditions in which the refugees are forced to live.

But these same refugees come off rather well when set against the actions of the states that want them out, whether it be Indonesian forces firing on their craft, Thai government officials ordering that boats be pushed back to sea (the new euphemism is “redirection”), or the British in Hong Kong taking advantage of ignorance to define the refugees out of sanctuary. Mrs. Thatcher’s justification of this position before Parliament and on her recent visit to America reawakened eerie memories of a similar British argument over the forced repatriation of Russians after World War II. In Foreign Office minutes from June 1944, Sir Patrick Dean put it bluntly: “In due course all those with whom the Soviet authorities desire to deal must be handed over to them, and we are not concerned with the fact that they may be shot or otherwise more harshly dealt with than they might be under British law.”

The boat people are not angels. They are human beings whose homeland has become so unlivable that they will leave behind everything they know and have to brave leaky boats, vicious pirates, uncertain seas, and possible arrest—all for the slight chance of starting life over again in another part of the world as complete strangers. If history teaches us anything, it is that average people do not make such a decision lightly; and indeed, although Vietnam has been invaded over its long history, never before was there such a flight out. The term “economic migrant,” with its odor of money-grubbing opportunism, is a deliberate slander invented by free people to keep out others desperately seeking that same freedom. Its acceptance by the nations of the world at Geneva sadly illustrates that not much has changed since the St. Louis was turned around. Where refugees come from seems not to matter. What matters is where they are going.



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