Tuesday June 30, 2015

Canada's 'boat people' response a model for Syrian refugee crisis

A group of refugees (162 persons) arrive on a small boat which sank a few meters from the shore in Malaysia. The flight of Vietnamese refugees began after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

A group of refugees (162 persons) arrive on a small boat which sank a few meters from the shore in Malaysia. The flight of Vietnamese refugees began after the fall of Saigon in 1975. ( K. GAUGLER/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen 22:46

In part two of our special on Canada's 'boat people', we look at how the country responded to the massive wave of immigrants following the end of the Vietnam War and reflect on the lessons that can teach us today. (Listen to part one here.)

After the end of Vietnam War, Canada welcomed about 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The operation that made that happen was ambitious and unprecedented.

We spoke to three people who were at the centre of it:

  • Mike Molloy was Director of Refugee Affairs and became the the chief coordinator of Canada's boat people rescue operation in 1979.
  • Ron Atkey was the new immigration minister in Joe Clark's government in 1979.
  • Howard Adelman was a York University philosophy professor in 1979 and developed Operation Lifeline, the Canadian rescue effort that brought 60,000 boat people to Canada in 18 months.

We were also joined once again by our guests from part one of the special: Dr. Kien Le, who was part of the first wave of immigrants as a 12-year-old boy, and Nhu Van Nguyen, who escaped a Vietnamese "re-education camp" to start a new life in Canada.

 Nhu Van Nguyen - Boat People Anniversary

Nhu Van Nguyen steered a wooden boat with over 90 people fleeing Vietnam. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

It is remarkable what Canadians were able to achieve when faced with the refugee crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. And of course, it all raises questions about what more Canada might do today to help people from other parts of the world — Syria especially.

During the refugee crisis of the late 1970s and 80s, Naomi Alboim was the Director of Settlement for the Ontario Region of Employment and Immigration Canada. She went on to serve as provincial Deputy Minister for Immigration in Ontario, and today she is a fellow, adjunct professor, and Chair of the Policy Forum at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University. She joined us in Toronto.

Since this special originally aired, Operation Lifeline Syria has been fully launched with the aim to provide refuge to 10,000 Syrians over the next three years. Find out more here.

What lessons can we learn from the 'boat people' refugee crisis? Send us your ideas on Twitter @TheCurrentCBC, Facebook, or via email.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar, Gord Westmacott, and Ines Colabrese.

RELATED LINKS

Operation Lifeline - Howard Adelman

No Place like Home: Stories of Syrian Refugees In Exile - As It Happens

Operation Lifeline Syria