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Refuge for the unwanted

The Story


The lucky ones who survive the arduous journey over sea or land then begin an indeterminate stay at a refugee camp. On average, a refugee family spends 12 months in a camp, but some remain for years. In July 1979 there are over 350,000 refugees in crowded camps in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines. During this month, a CBC Television crew visits camps in Hong Kong and Malaysia to see what life is like there. Hong Kong is considered to have the best refugee camps; Thailand, the worst. Somewhere in the middle of that continuum, Malaysia's main refugee camp, the island of Pulau Bidong, opened in 1975. Sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it was originally built to contain 12,000 people. By November 1978, Pulau Bidong was housing more than twice that. And in early July 1979, there are 42,000 refugees crushed between its shores.

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News Special
Broadcast Date: Sept. 11, 1979
Guests: Jack Carter, Ian Hamilton
Narrator: Harry Elton
Duration: 19:12

Did You know?


• On Aug. 6, 1979, Canada began an around-the-clock airlift to carry Canadian food and medical supplies to refugees in Malaysian camps.

• A Boeing 707 left Canadian Forced Base Trenton every three days carrying eight tons of food and medical supplies to Hong Kong, from where it was transported to Malaysia.

• The plane stayed on the ground for ninety minutes — just long enough to load up with Vietnamese refugees bound for Canada.

• The Malaysian Red Crescent Society was responsible for the daily operations at the Pulau Bidong camp.

• Pulau Bidong was off-limits to locals, but local fishermen managed to smuggle goods to the refugees at greatly inflated prices.

• Some 250,000 refugees filtered through the camp between 1975 and 1991.

• A temple, a school, a church, a clinic, shops and a cemetery were eventually built.

• Pulau Bidong officially closed in 1991. The last Vietnamese was sent home in 1996.

• Camps in Thailand were considered the worst. They mainly housed refugees who had fled overland. Once in Thai camps, refugees were often robbed and raped by guards or other refugees.

• The refugee camps in Thailand had the most trouble because they did not permit international agencies like the United Nations or the Red Cross to operate there.


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