'Wading ashore through waist-high water': Ex-diplomats on gruelling work of rescuing Vietnamese boat people

It took six hours by bus, three by boat and a last stretch on foot wading through waist-high water to reach the Malaysian refugee camp where Canadian immigration officials interviewed some of the 70,000 Vietnamese refugees who were brought to Canada in 1979. Two former visa officers reflect on the physically and emotionally gruelling diplomatic adventure.

Visa officers at forefront of Canada's 'most ambitious resettlement effort' describe diplomatic adventure

Vietnamese refugees leave Pulau Bidong island in Malaysia in 1979. A new book celebrates the work of Canadian immigration officers who brought in 70,000 Vietnamese refugees over five years, most of them in the first 18 months. (Margaret Tebbutt)

In the fall of 1979, Margaret Tebbutt, a 31-year-old Canadian visa officer from Calgary, boarded a small plane headed to the east coast of Malaysia for what would turn out to be a historic assignment.

From there, "we loaded ourselves and the cases of files — this was pre-computer era — onto a fishing boat, and sailed an hour or so to the refugee camp on Pulau Bidong island."

Tebbutt was one of just a few dozen Canadian immigration officials sent after the Vietnam War by then prime minister Joe Clark's Conservative government to remote locales in Southeast Asia with the objective of bringing tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people to Canada as refugees. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the Communist Viet Cong, there was a mass exodus of people out of the country.

Ron Atkey, Canada's immigration minister of the era, called it "the largest and most ambitious resettlement effort in Canada's history," and many believe it inspires today's program for Syrian refugees. The story of the Vietnamese boat people and the role of Canadian immigration officers has also been made into a Heritage Minute, released last week.
Margaret Tebbutt was one of a handful of female Canadian visa officers on Pulau Bidong, Malaysia, in 1979. In Hong Kong in 1975 she assisted with attempts to rescue relatives of Canadian Vietnamese. She then trained refugee liaison officers in British Columbia and later interviewed refugees in Thailand. (Margaret Tebbutt)

"As we approached Pulau Bidong island, we saw wrecked wooden boats on the shore and United Nations tarps on the hillsides which were makeshift shelters," recalls Tebbutt, who is retired and living in Vancouver. "We set up at tables and did interviews, with volunteer translators. We stayed overnight, sleeping on our interview tables."

Tebbutt's story and those of the other Canadian immigration officers are told in a new book, Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975-1980.  The immigration officers, mostly in their 20s, brought in 70,000 Vietnamese refugees over five years, most of them in the first 18 months.

Mike Molloy, one of the four co-authors of the book, was the Ottawa-based co-ordinator of the immigration program in the 1970s. He was in his early 30s, working under Atkey.

"In the fall of 1978 the number of refugee boats arriving from Vietnam in Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong shot up. Over 100,000 people arrived in May and June 1979, flooding the refugee camps," Molloy said in an interview from Ottawa.

'Thousands more could die'

"The UN described the situation as the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. It warned if countries like the U.S., Canada and Australia didn`t start to take many more people, thousands more could die."

In a grand gesture, Clark's foreign minister, Flora MacDonald, announced at a UN conference in the summer of 1979 that Canada would resettle 50,000 people.

The television reports about the boat people had made a big impact, and Molloy recalls Atkey was influenced by a book he was reading,  None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948, about how Canada fatefully turned away Jewish refugees during the Second World War.

"How do we want to be remembered?" Molloy says Atkey asked his colleagues.

"Word came down the government expected the movement to start right away," said Molloy. "The visa officers started arriving in Southeast Asia in late August, and by October, they were moving 5,000 refugees a month on charters to Canada."
Immigration officer David Ritchie worked with Vietnamese refugee children in Bidong. Of the 60,000 refugees in 1979–80, one-third were 14 and younger. (David Ritchie)

But the refugees were scattered in 70 camps across nine countries and territories. "Our people travelled to the camps in hired fishing boats, underpowered minivans and helicopters," said Molloy.

Tebbutt was one of about three female immigration officers involved. She already had quite a bit of field experience. In 1975, she had helped evacuate Canadians from Saigon as it fell to the Communists.

"The work was physically demanding: a six-hour minibus trip through the mountains of Malaysia, and a three-hour trip across the rough South China Sea in a smelly rented fishing boat. Initially there was no dock at Bidong, so on arrival it was over the side, wading ashore through waist-high water with briefcases held high overhead," recalls Molloy.

Tebbutt started interviewing people, hearing their horrifying stories, like "how people got pushed off boats and drowned. We heard from women about being raped."
Gerry Campell, left, and Dick Martin, right, worked with three Vietnamese interpreters in Pulau Tenga, Malaysia. (Gerry Campbell)

Molloy recalls, "They worked long gruelling hours in tropical heat and humidity to interview as many families as possible. They subsisted on dried noodles and green tea. You had to be young, tough and determined for this kind of work."

The immigration interviews lasted typically about five to 10 minutes, says Tebbutt. "We asked them if they had any connection to Canada, if they spoke French or English. Many had been coached to say, 'Yes'.
We'd decide on the spot and then we'd say, "You're accepted."- Margaret Tebbutt, ex-immigration officer

"We'd decide on the spot and then we'd say, 'You're accepted.' We each accepted two to three hundred refugees in the space of a couple of days. We had to get the airplane filled that was going from Kuala Lumpur to Canada."

Managers in Ottawa gave the young inmigration offiicers lots of latitude. "They were on their own — no internet, no computer, no cellphones, little phone contact with Ottawa. They devised three rules: 1. Never break up the family; grannies are an asset;  2. Never let a plane depart with an empty seat, and 3. Do the right thing for the refugee," said Molloy.

Tebbutt says, "My most dramatic experience was interviewing four sisters, one of whom was disabled. They had managed to survive the crossing from Vietnam. The bond among them was very strong

"Under the old Immigration Act, we probably would not have been able to consider this group, as they were sisters rather than parents and children. But they were a real family, and so I was happy to make the right decision to accept them."

She says, "I also interviewed a man who kept yelling, 'Vietnam! Vietnam!' and who was not able to respond to any questions from the interpreter. I think the trauma he had experienced had induced psychosis."

When Tebbutt and her team were ready to head back to the mainland, "our fishing boat conked out, the engine stopped working. And it was the boat carrying all the refugees that had to tow us!"
Immigration officer John McEachern interviewing people at the Galang Island refugee camp in Indonesia. Officers often conducted interviews late by the light of an oil lamp and then, in the early days, slept on the work tables. (John McEachern)

Looking back, Tebbutt says, "it was an impressive part of our life. We did something good. In the right circumstances, a small group of people can make things happen."

Molloy says, "Up to that time Canada's policy of multiculturalism was an idea politicians talked about. When Canadian groups met 39,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos at the airport or bus station and took them home to their churches, communities and homes, multiculturalism became very real, very personal.

"I had the sense back then what I am doing is important and very empowering. Nothing I ever did later, and I had a wonderful career,  ever came close to it."


  • An earlier version of this story contained a photo cutline that referred to Canadian diplomat John McEachern interviewing refugees at a refugee camp in Pulau Bidong, Malaysia. In fact, the camp was on Galang Island, Indonesia.
    Jul 05, 2017 1:08 PM ET


Jennifer Clibbon is a radio producer with CBC Syndication. She began living and working in Russia as a freelance journalist in 1985 and was the news producer in the CBC's Moscow bureau from 2000 to 2003.