The Vietnam War: Canada's Role, Part Two: The Boat People

The story of the boat people that fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975. Some of the survivors languished for years in refugee camps. The luckier ones were taken in by countries like Canada.
A helicopter lifts off from the U.S. embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, during the evacuation of authorized personnel and civilians. (April 29, 1975) (The Associated Press)

It has been 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War. Forty years since a helicopter rose into the sky over Saigon carrying the last remaining American marines out of Vietnam. Years of war between American-backed South Vietnam and communist North Vietnam were over. But the exodus of people from Vietnam had only begun.

In the years following the 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. 

The air evacuation from Saigon was supposed to be one of the largest transports of refugees ever undertaken. The Pentagon had been told to plan for the movement of 175,000 South Vietnamese who were in danger of being executed by the Communists for their service to the South Vietnam government or the United States. In reality, only a small fraction of that number was evacuated.

A cargo net lifts refugees from a barge onto the SS Pioneer Contender for evacuation from the fallen city of Da Nang, Vietnam. It took eight hours to load some 6,000 refugees aboard the ship. (April 1, 1975) (The Associated Press)
Vietnamese refugees crowd aboard the Military Sealift Command ship Pioneer Contender to be evacuated. (April 23, 1975) (The Associated Press)

Those who could, fled — by air, land or sea. In the spring of 1975, 130,000 refugees escaped Vietnam. Tiny boats full of South Vietnamese soldiers and their families set off down the Mekong River in the hopes of surviving the 600 mile journey to the Malaysian coast. They were the first wave of Vietnamese boat people. But they were not the last.

Before South Vietnam surrendered, Canada sent out letters promising landed immigrant status to 14,000 South Vietnamese with relatives in Canada if they could make it out of Vietnam. Immediately upon South Vietnam's surrender, Canada also offered permanent resident status to the 4,000 Vietnamese already in the country if they did not want to return to Vietnam. Those South Vietnamese allies left behind faced years of hard labour, imprisonment and death.

The new Vietnamese government decided to "re-educate" thousands of former American allies, government workers, intellectuals and merchants by transforming them into agricultural workers. They were forced from the cities to Vietnam's "new economic zones" — isolated areas of the country. Once there, they were, in essence, slave labour. As human rights leaders around the world heard about the atrocities, they began to protest. On the program Sunday Morning in 1979,  Bronwyn Drainie reported on the Vietnamese work camps.

Vietnamese refugees scramble from a sinking boat which they beached at Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia, December 1978. (The Associated Press)

In 1978, Vietnam began to expel 745,000 ethnic Chinese from the country on overcrowded boats. They formed the bulk of the large second wave of refugees: they were the 'boat people,' and they become an international crisis. 

If life in Vietnam was unbearable, life on the South China Sea was even worse. 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. 

Vietnamese refugees crowd the deck of the freighter Hai Hong as the vessel rides at anchor off Port Klang, Malaysia, November 22, 1978. More than 2500 refugees have spent a month aboard the ship as the Mayasian government negotiates their fate with third world countries. The Malaysians contended that the Vietnamese were migrants, not true refugees. (Canadian Press)

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.

From August 1977 to August 1979, Ian Hamilton was Chief Canadian Immigration Officer for all of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma. The only other officer was Scott Mullin, a 22-year-old Montrealer one year out of university. Mullin and Hamilton interviewed nearly 1,000 refugees per day, taking only one short break and working past midnight. They ate refugee rations and slept on the wooden benches where they worked. 

Immigration criteria required that refugees speak English or French, have a relative in Canada, or have a desirable profession or trade. Indochinese refugees made up a quarter of the immigrants to Canada between 1978 and 1981 — a very high percentage when you consider that refugees as a whole usually total just ten per cent. Between 1979 and 1980 Canada accepted 60,000 refugees. 

A new Canadian Immigration Act went into effect in 1978. It contained Canada's first formal policy on the status of refugees. The government decided that the number of boat people brought to Canada should be dependent on public support. In July 1979, it introduced a matching formula: the government would sponsor one refugee for each one sponsored privately. Churches, corporations or groups of five or more adult Canadian citizens were eligible to sponsor refugees directly. 

By July 1979, flights full of refugees started arriving in Canada every three days. Two reception areas were set up at military barracks near Edmonton and Montreal. There the refugees were processed, underwent a medical exam and received a crash course on Canadian culture. 

Not everyone was happy with the new refugees coming to Canada. Some people worried about the multi-million dollar price tag. Others worried that land and gas prices would skyrocket and unemployment would increase.

In March of 1981, Morningside host Don Harron spoke with Barry McCorquadale, head of a task force that looked how well South East Asian refugees were doing, and Peter Tran, a refugee who had been living in Toronto since 1975. In the year 2000, 25 years after the fall of Saigon, Ottawa hosted a reunion between refugees and their sponsors. Peter Tran was there. 

Two unidentified Vietnamese girls peer out from a barbed wire fence in the Sikhiu refugee camp in Nakorn Ratchasima, northeast of Bangkok, Feb. 19, 1997. Authorities at the refugee camp are on alert as the last batch of Vietnamese refugees are set to be repatriated, ending Thailand's decades-long role as a sanctuary for tens of thousands of them. (The Associated Press)

Refugees who remained in refugee camps had a different story to tell. In 1984, tens of thousands of refugees remained in camps in Southeast Asia. Their only options were to willingly return to Vietnam, to be accepted by the country they were in, or to be resettled in another country of their choice. But acceptance rates by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom were down 75 per cent by 1984. "Compassion fatigue" was cited as one reason. 

Finally, Vietnam's economic situation improved. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees began a program of voluntary repatriation which ran from 1987 to 1997. Many Vietnamese weary of living half-lives in refugee camps opted to return home. In 1997, there were still 3,000 boat people remaining in Hong Kong — some because Vietnam wouldn't take them back. 

In February 2000, the Hong Kong government decided to shut the last camp and grant Hong Kong residency to the remaining 1400 Vietnamese refugees.