New Internationalist

The Flotsam of War

Issue 084

The Vietnamese ‘boat people’ made instant headlines and arresting pictures.But what is happening now to Indochina’s refugees? Bob Hawkins looks at their reception in Australia and Wayne Ellwood interviews a Vietnamese family now settled in Canada.

They are not dying as fast in the Thai refugee camps along the Kampuchean border at the turn of the year. In fact, reports had the death toll down to about one a day after a mid-to-late 1979 high of 100. And, out in the South China Sea, all those Thai pirates who, the world’s press had assured us, had been having a ball at the expense of Vietnam’s boat people, suddenly were having a lean time of it. It seemed that Hanoi, true to its word to the July Geneva conference on refugees, had put a clamp on the outflow of boat people.

Add to this kind of evidence the headline news of 50 American public servants going into the Christmas period as hostages of Iranian students in the seized United States embassy in Teheran, and, unless you happened to have some deep personal interest in the Indochina tragedy, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was fading away.

Truth of the matter was that, at the end of the seventies, things looked like getting worse - much worse - even if the many and diverse relief efforts were at last putting an end to some of the more extreme misery suffered by victims of a region caught up in a swirl of political, ethnic and military currents.

In December, give or take a hundred thousand, it was generally accepted that about half a million Kampuchean refugees had sought sanctuary in Thailand or were camping just on their own side of the border. And the forecast was not bright. One foreign affairs official in Canberra summed it up this way: If Vietnam decided to make a determined military push there could be a million Kampucheans over the border into Thailand by early 1980. Hardly encouraging news in the wake of nearly five years’ post-Saigon fall turmoil in which it is estimated about a million Indochinese have left their homeland - about 250,000 ethnic Chinese having headed north into China and the balance having dispersed themselves among ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries and Hongkong and Macau.

By November the resettlement rate worldwide was exceeding 25,000 a month.

While the present struggle continues the people of Kampuchea and Laos can expect to be pushed back and forth across their borders with Thailand. Most, obviously, would prefer to be able to return to their homes to settle down once again to day-to-day routine living. They, much less so than the Vietnamese refugees, display no real inclination to be resettled in a third country unless it becomes absolutely unavoidable.

Perhaps because of its different nature and because it manifested itself much earlier, the boat people problem at the turn of the year was looking much more manageable. However, agency workers in Australia were complaining that ‘land refugees’ were suffering as a result of preferential treatment being given to boat people.

At the end of November for example, of 26,242 departures from refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia (including Thailand) and Japan, South Korea, Hongkong and Macau, 17,614 were boat people. Only 8,628 were land refugees. Obviously this ratio of 2:1 in favour of boat people would fall as camps other than those in Thailand emptied. But there has been much evidence to suggest that the largely urban Vietnamese refugee fits more closely the various immigration requirements of recipient nations.

This would be particularly true of Australia’s NUMAS (Numerical Multifactor Assessment System) introduced in January last year. Though it was, ostensibly, designed to lay to rest once and for all (but unsuccessfully) the White Australia policy, NUMAS still presents almost insurmountable barriers to certain classes of would-be migrants, particularly non-English-speaking rural folk.

Consider some of the ‘factors’: the standard of work skills possessed by an applicant and the demand for those skills; whether an applicant has a job waiting in Australia: has he adequate resources to establish a business?; the degree of an applicant’s fluency in English and ability to communicate in the type of employment followed. It doesn’t offer much hope for the chances of the Lao hill tribesman.

Australian immigration will argue that NUMAS standards are not applied to refugees. But it’s difficult to look past a letter written by former immigration minister Michael Mackellar, who was moved to another portfolio last December, in which he said: ‘As you will appreciate, our capacity to accept refugees is not unlimited and depends upon many factors including the background of the refugees themselves and their ability to integrate.. . ’

Ever since the first boat people broke through to reach Australia’s northern shores in 1976, fearmongers from the left and right (and not all that extreme, either) have been warning of the impending demise of this island continent’s white heritage. ‘Yellow peril’, ‘disease’, ‘war criminals’, ‘jobs’ … they’ve used them all.

Though far from united, there are plenty of starters in the hate stakes - some more active in one state than in another. There is the National Front of Australia, the Immigration Control Association (making a point of claiming that ‘we are not connected with the National Front’), the Australian League of Rights, the Australian National Alliance … and some even more forgetable.

Opinion seems to vary as to the present potency of these bigots. Commissioner for Community Relations, Al Grassby, a great campaigner for racial equality who tends to see his world through rose-tinteds, is understood to believe the peak of anti-Indochinese feeling has passed. Others around him are not so sure. Australian immigration and foreign affairs staff, whatever their private feelings, generally plug the ‘worst is over’ line. Advocates of an even greater inflow of refugees are keeping their fingers crossed that sheer apathy on the part of Australia’s generally affluent and largely switched off society will militate against its being converted by the messengers of ‘racial pollution’.

An important irritant is Australia’s unemployment situation - running at around six per cent of the workforce. But the fear probably goes deeper than just jobs. Indochinese refugees — like Australia’s long settled Chinese and more recent southern European migrants - actually seem to enjoy work and long hours. And, more, they are willing to work without a permanent log of claims. There’s no doubt these people are a distinct threat to the status quo.

An Austcare worker sees an improvement in union attitudes toward refugees. In 1975 when the press in general, some newspapers in particular, seemed intent on fomenting a hysterical public reaction by spreading the news of ‘armadas’ of refugees ‘invading’ Australia’s shores, trade unions ‘reacted badly’. But, by 1978 the attitude was a more cautious ‘wait and see’ and now many are accepting the refugees as a ‘fact of life’. (For all the sensational headlines, the number of boat people who have reached Australia since 1975 in their boats is only a little over 2,000 from 50 or so vessels.)

In relation to the settlement performance of other countries, Australia’s showing since 1975 rates high. Only the United States and France (predictably) and Canada rank above Australia’s intake of about 27,000 refugees to the end of October last. (This figure is expected to reach 37,000 by mid-1980 with a planned 1979-80 intake of about 14,000.)

Considering Australia’s long involvement as an active participant in the Vietnam war (and its mindless unquestioning, follow-the-leader attitude toward Lyndon Baines Johnson and successor Richard Nixon) it had little option but to respond to the plight of Indochina’s homeless, whatever their political philosophy might be.

Australians by and large would probably prefer to take as few refugees as possible. The present government’s 1979-80 quota of 14,000 has hardly caused a furore. But if it went along with the proposal of the executive director of ACFOA (Australian Council for Overseas Aid), Bob Whan, who advocates an intake of 100,000 it would certainly run into serious political flak. Whan made his recommendation in a report written after visiting Indo-China and Southeast Asia in mid-1979.

He wrote: ‘The only real solution is for Australia to take some 100,000 refugees from: Thailand and Malaysia. This would provide a major breathing space for these countries and relief for the entire Southeast Asia refugee problem. Such an action on the part of Australia would create many domestic problems and it is understood that these would have to be confronted and carefully researched. But the alternative is the development of a European enclave in Asia which will become increasingly difficult to defend over the next decade.

Starting Again in Canada

'When word spread that the Communists wanted to empty the cities, I knew that was not for me,' Lam Tan Tran, a 23-year old Vietnamese refugee confides. Tran, his wife and year-old baby arrived in Canada July 1979 after a two-day boat journey from Vietnam and a six-month stay in a Malaysian refugee camp. The Phuong family, a couple in their early twenties also with one child, arrived the same day. They live a few streets apart in small flats in Toronto's Kensington Market district - an area of Portuguese, Caribbean and Jewish merchants, 'kittycorner' to the city's fast-growing Chinatown.

Over steaming cups of green tea arranged decorously around a long-slung, plastictopped table the men take great pains to explain why they left Vietnam.

'My parents ran a small business selling sausages in Saigon,' Mr. Phuong relates through a translator. 'The new government policy was to take over all businesses. I knew there would be no chance for me to be in the sausage business.' Mr. Tran, whose parents owned a retail liquor shop, echoes similar sentiments. Both families are 'Hoa' ethnic Chinese who made their homes in Vietnam. Most of the Vietnamese 'boat people' are Chinese; by the mid-1970s there were almost 1.5 million Chinese in Vietnam, out of a total population of 50 million.

The Trans and the Phuongs are what the UN High Commission for Refugees calls 'economic refugees'. They were in no direct physical danger from the government, which they freely admit. Their decision may have been courageous, but they don't see it as political. Rather, says Mr. Phuong, 'the outside world always appears to Chinese as a better world with more chance of making a better life.'

Where they went

In 1975, after the American defeat, large industries were quickly taken over by the new Communist government. But it wasn't until March 1978 that all 'capitalist trade' was finally abolished. And by December of that year the government was pushing a programme to resettle many Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese in 'New Economic Zones' in rural areas of the south.

These two policy decisions were instrumental in the decision by many of the Chinese 'boat people' to leave. The refugees are overwhelmingly urban, usually small businessmen. For them, like Mr. Tran, the thought of moving to the New Economic Zones to grow rice and re-establish the country's agriculture did not go down very well. Many young men were also alarmed by the prospect of having to join the army. Both Mr. Tran and Mr. Phuong feared they might be pressed into the military to fight in the Cambodian war.

According to Mr. Tran, it is not just the Chinese who wanted to leave Vietnam. (In fact, it is estimated that as many as 15 per cent of the refugees may be Vietnamese nationals.) However, since most Vietnamese are not in business, most could not pay the passage. Though the boats were in disrepair and their ultimate destination unknown, the fare was pricey, especially for the average Vietnamese peasant. Passage had to be paid in gold; half going to the government and half to the Chinese businessmen who controlled the refugee boats.

Fares were said to be as high as $2,500 per adult. The Trans and the Phuongs said they paid about $450 per person. The money was scraped together from parents and relatives and they are both now trying to raise enough to pay for their parents' passage,

The Tran and Phuong families are untypical in that they are neither skilled nor well-educated. The men say they worked as motorcycle mechanics in Vietnam. Mr. Phuong has an unskilled job in a Toronto factory earning $4.20 an hour - a low, but average wage in small, unorganised industries. Mr. Tran, like the others, studies English. But, because of injuries he blames on his rough experience in the Malaysian refugee camp, he can't work. His wife supports the family, operating an industrial sewing machine in Toronto's garment district. She earns $3.00 an hour, the legal minimum wage, and nods appreciatively when asked if she likes her work. Questions about her working conditions are dropped when the translator, himself a former refugee, says he thinks it is important to be positive and supportive about the refugees' accomplishments.

Their reasons for leaving Vietnam were pragmatic and their reasons for choosing Canada are just as pragmatic. Neither of the families had friends or relatives in the country. But others in the refugee camps did. Mr. Phuong says he heard from those who had relatives already in Canada that the sponsorship programme meant Canada was generous and there was a good chance of being accepted.

Wayne Ellwood

Across the Gulf

Until 1975 - at the time of 'the events' (the fall of Saigon) - Dang Thanh Liem was a schoolteacher. As a public servant, he was required by the new government to undergo 're-education', a mixture of hard labour and eight-hours-a-day instruction in the new ideology.

Although 'clearance' eventually entitled him to seek work, his 'history' as it appeared on official documents made it impossible for him to obtain a job.

One night in April last year Liem and friends, along with about 700 others, became boat people'. In darkness, they slipped down-river from Camau past several check points until, at the last one before the open ocean, a small patrol boat made its way toward them. That was the only occasion on which their machine-gun was fired. There was an exchange of shots and one refugee was wounded in the chest. The patrol boat did not persist.

Four days on calm seas lay ahead - but the going was not to prove easy. At the end of the second day almost all petrol was gone and the engines were stilled to preserve what was left for a final burst to shore should they drift near land.

Then came two encounters with Thai pirates. The first they met were not a violent lot even though they threatened violence with hammers and knives. They boarded the boat on the pretext of offering help. Discretion prevailed and the refugees meekly handed over almost everything of value. The pirates didn't exactly thank them but they did leave the refugees food. Within a day another pirate vessel challenged but the boat people showed a determination to resist by bringing the machine gun into sight. On this occasion the discretion lay with the pirates. So Liem and company were left to wallow until a big fishing boat came into sight.

The fishing boat's master was no pirate. His price for a tow ashore was simply everything worth having that was left on the boat - including the machine gun. When they were cast adrift, the refugees had enough fuel to drive themselves ashore about 10 kilometres along the coast from Songhkla camp on the east coast of peninsular Thailand.

Today they are settled with Liam's sister and her husband in Canberra.

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