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Pirates and sinking ships: One refugee's story

They were prepared to risk everything. In the years following the Vietnam War, over one million refugees fled the war-ravaged countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Those Vietnamese who took to the ocean in tiny overcrowded ships were dubbed the "boat people." The survivors sometimes languished for years in refugee camps. The luckier ones were taken in by countries like Canada.

If life in Vietnam was unbearable, life on the South China Sea was even worse. On CBC Radio, Dr. Tuan Tran describes his harrowing escape from Vietnam, an attack by pirates and his miraculous arrival at a Malaysian refugee camp.
Refugees faced a host of perils: typhoons, overcrowded and often leaky boats, a lack of navigational tools, brutal pirates, starvation, dehydration and illness. An estimated half of the boat people perished at sea. That's 500,000 to 600,000 human lives.

Thai pirates kidnapped, raped and murdered countless numbers of boat people. Some pirates were professional bandits. Others were poor fishermen. The treasure from one overcrowded refugee boat could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, as refugees often transferred all their assets into gold before leaving Vietnam. Humanitarian aid organizations claimed that South Asian governments allowed the piracy to continue as a deterrent to refugees.

Passing vessels would sometimes stop to save refugees by bringing them on board. But once the ship arrived with its human cargo in Singapore or some other Asian port, they were often turned away. No South Asian country would accept the refugees, many fearing that the influx was a Chinese or Vietnamese plot to upset the racial balance in Asia. The tragedy of so many people with nowhere to go brought the world's attention to the plight of the boat people.
. Malaysia received a great deal of media attention for its treatment of refugees. The country refused to let boats land, towed ramshackle ships back out to sea, and shot at refugees.
. In 1979, Malaysia's deputy prime minister Mahathir Mohamad declared that Malaysia would expel all 76,000 boat people in the country and shoot new arrivals on sight. The government quickly backpedalled.
. Between January and July 1979, Malaysia towed some 58,000 refugees back out to sea.

. In October 1978, the freighter Hai Hong left Vietnam laden with 2,500 refugees. On Nov. 9, 1978, it arrived on Malaysia's shores. The refugees, sick and suffocating with heat, were not allowed to disembark.
. Malaysia's treatment of refugees, although horrific, did help get the world's attention. Canada's first major response to the boat people tragedy was its acceptance of 604 refugees from the Hai Hong.

. Canadian Chief Immigration Officer Ian Hamilton admitted that during the selection of refugees from the Hai Hong, immigration criteria were interpreted very "liberally." In fact, the immigration officers simply accepted everybody on the first ferry loads of refugees.
Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning
Broadcast Date: July 29, 1979
Guest(s): Dr. Tuan Tran
Host: Bronwyn Drainie, Patrick Martin
Reporter: Bronwyn Drainie
Duration: 7:00

Last updated: February 1, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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