Vietnames version
Old Saigon Echo website
from 2008 - 2012
Director: Bai An Tran, Ph.D.


  • Font size:
  • Decrease
  • Reset
  • Increase

A Journey to Freedom (1975 - 1980)

Boat People: A Refugee Crisis

They were prepared to risk everything. In the years following the Vietnam 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.

Why they fled: The fall of Saigon

Just before dawn on April 30, 1975, a helicopter rises into the sky over Saigon. It is carrying the last-remaining American marines out of Vietnam. Fourteen years of war between American-backed South Vietnam and communist North Vietnam are over.

But the exodus of people from Vietnam has only begun. Vietnamese refugee Francis Win was only a boy when his family fled, but he talks to CBC Television about the arrival of the Communists and the difficult years that followed.

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 were evacuated.
The scenes were wrenching — people trying and failing to force their way into the U.S. Embassy, men being punched down as they tried to board American helicopters, Vietnamese babies being passed over fences to open hands and an unknown future.

Those South Vietnamese allies left behind faced years of hard labour, imprisonment and death. The same was true for American allies in Laos, where an estimated ten per cent of the Hmong tribespeople were killed by Communist forces.

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.

Did you know?

• During the 18-hour evacuation from Saigon, a fleet of helicopters airlifted 6,500 Vietnamese refugees to American ships offshore.

• The undertaking was called "Operation Frequent Wind."

• The last helicopter from Saigon left behind some 300 South Vietnamese who had been promised escape.

• During evacuations the previous day, so many South Vietnamese helicopters swarmed to American ships that they had to be pushed overboard and destroyed to make room for new arrivals.

• Of the many thousands of refugees evacuated from Vietnam in the month of April, Canada agreed to take 2,000 and also an additional 1,000 who succeeded in escaping on their own.

• Canada also took in 122 war orphans out of the nearly 3,000 children flown out of Vietnam in early April 1975, during America's.
• Before South Vietnam surrendered, Canada sent out 1,100 letters promising Canadian landed immigrant status to 14,000 South Vietnamese with relatives in Canada if they could make it out of Vietnam. It was predicted that no more than a thousand would ever make it to Canada.

• 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.

Re-education camps...or death camps?

The new Vietnamese government decides to "re-educate" thousands of former American allies, government workers, intellectuals and merchants by transforming them into agricultural workers. They are forced from the cities to Vietnam's "new economic zones" — isolated areas of the country which the government hopes to make fruitful. Once there, they're treated as slave labour. As human rights leaders around the world hear about the atrocities, they begin to protest.

Human Rights Committee president Joan Baez describes the camps to CBC Radio.
Vietnamese of Chinese origin are the worst off. Many merchants, most of whom are Chinese, are sent to camps. One and a half million are relocated to new economic zones. In 1978, Vietnam begins expelling 745,000 ethnic Chinese from the country on overcrowded boats. They are the bulk of the large second wave of refugees that begins leaving Vietnam in late 1978: they are the 'boat people,' and they become an international crisis.

Did you know?

• The Communist government took over Chinese businesses, fired Chinese workers, confiscated their ration cards and denied Chinese children schooling.

• Steadily worsening relations between Vietnam and China were one cause of the government's treatment of its Chinese citizens. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, attacking the Chinese-backed Pol Pot regime. In retaliation, China began military action along Vietnam's northern border.
• Not only were Chinese forced out of Vietnam on dangerously overcrowded vessels, they had to pay to leave; roughly $3000 per adult.

• The concept of re-education was borrowed from the Chinese communists. Its purpose was to convince people to accept and conform to the new communist society.

• The re-education camps were not officially considered prisons, but rather places where individuals could be rehabilitated into society through education and socially-constructive labour.

• A camp inmate's day was spent doing hard, often dangerous, labour. Evenings consisted of political classes and forced confessions of anti-communist activities.

• There were two types of labour camps: one required a three-year stay and the second, five years. But many individuals were sentenced to consecutive terms.

• In 1987, at least 15,000 people remained in Vietnamese labour camps. Camp conditions continued to be poor, with little food, no medicine and a high death rate.

Pirates and sinking ships: One refugee's story

If life in Vietnam was unbearable, life on the South China Sea was even worse. On CBC Radio, Dr. Tuan Tran describes his harrowing escape from Vietnam, an attack by pirates and his miraculous arrival at a Malaysian refugee camp.

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.

Passing vessels would sometimes stop to save refugees by bringing them on board. But once the ship arrived with its human cargo in Singapore or some other Asian port, they were often turned away. No South Asian country would accept the refugees, many fearing that the influx was a Chinese or Vietnamese plot to upset the racial balance in Asia. The tragedy of so many people with nowhere to go brought the world's attention to the plight of the boat people.

Did you know?

• Malaysia received a great deal of media attention for its treatment of refugees. The country refused to let boats land, towed ramshackle ships back out to sea, and shot at refugees.

• In 1979, Malaysia's deputy prime minister Mahathir Mohamad declared that Malaysia would expel all 76,000 boat people in the country and shoot new arrivals on sight. The government quickly backpedalled.

• Between January and July 1979, Malaysia towed some 58,000 refugees back out to sea.

• 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.

Refuge for the unwanted

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.

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.

• Refuge for the unwanted

The one-man board of immigration

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.

On CBC Television, Mullin interviews a prospective refugee family. He talks about what it's like to do his job and how he thinks refugees will adapt to Canada.

Immigration criteria required that refugees speak English or French, or have a relative in Canada, or have a desirable profession or trade. Refugees who were accepted to Canada had to undergo a medical exam and wait in a holding camp for a few weeks before catching their flight to Canada. 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.
But Canada was slow to respond to the looming crisis. Despite the thousands lingering in refugee camps in Southeast Asia, only 9,000 Indochinese refugees settled in Canada between 1975 and 1978. This may have been because the federal government didn't want to get involved in a situation it felt was the result of America's Vietnam war. But the situation only worsened with time. Public outcry led to the government accepting 60,000 refugees between 1979 and 1980.

Did you know?

• Canada let in more Vietnamese refugees than it had any other ethnic group since 1945. ? Canada accepted 350,000 refugees from 1945 to 1979: 124,000 Eastern Europeans after World War Two; 37,000 Hungarians; 12,000 Czechs; 11,000 Lebanese; 7,000 Ugandan Asians; and 7,000 Chileans.

• Before coming to Asia, Immigration Officer Ian Hamilton was posted in Sweden, Spain, Germany and Australia. He found his two-year stint in Southeast Asia, from 1977 to 1979, to be a bit of a change.

• Hamilton would interview nearly 1,000 refugees per day, taking only one short break and working past midnight. He and his assistant would eat refugee rations and sleep on the wooden benches where they worked.

• Some other pitfalls of the job: Hamilton reported that his hair turned grey, he lost several pounds, and he spent five weeks in bed with hepatitis.

• Scott Mullin was Canada's senior representative in Iran until 1991 and is now vice-president of Government and Community Relations at TD Bank Financial Group.

• A new Canadian Immigration Act went into effect in 1978. It contained Canada's first formal policy on the status of refugees. A provision in the new act allowed the government to admit a whole class of persons — such as Indochinese — into the country under special circumstances.

• The new Immigration Act also contained a provision that permitted and encouraged private sponsorship of refugees. Groups of five or more adult Canadian citizens could sponsor refugees directly.

Sponsoring refugees: Canadians reach out

Toronto's Stephen Tomosvary is one of the many Canadians who wants to help the refugees. He explains to CBC Television that his own experiences as an immigrant from Hungary have inspired him to sponsor a refugee family. As a sponsor, he has pledged to support a family while it gets on its feet — that means helping to provide food, clothing and shelter for up to one year.

The government decides that the number of boat people brought to Canada should be dependent on public support. In July 1979, it introduces a matching formula: the government will sponsor one refugee for each one sponsored privately. Churches, corporations or groups of five or more adult Canadian citizens are eligible to sponsor refugees directly.

The experiment is a roaring success. The goal is 42,000 refugees (21,000 privately-sponsored and 21,000 government-sponsored) over two years, on top of the government's own quota of 8,000. In a mere four months, private sponsorships have reached their goal.

From Mormons to Mennonites, church groups are essential to the success of the program. The Canadian Jewish Congress and the Catholic archdiocese of Toronto both announce campaigns to bring 1000 refugees to Canada.

For some people, the crisis hits close to home: Jewish people remember boatloads of their own refugees fleeing the Holocaust and being turned back from Canadian shores. Immigrants like the 56ers, who fled Russia's 1956 invasion of Hungary, want to repay their debt to society.
Organizations spring up around the country to help them do it; organizations like Toronto's Operation Lifeline, Calgary's Someone Cares, Montreal's Committee to Save the Boat People, and Saskatchewan's Open Door Society.

Did you know?

• Sponsoring a family cost private groups between $2,500 and $8,000, depending on the size of the family sponsored and how long it took them to get established. The general rule was $1200 per refugee.

• The money went to providing clothing, food and accommodation for a family for a maximum of one year. A government pamphlet assured sponsors that refugee families usually became self-supporting in 4 to 6 months.

• On June 24, 1979, York University philosophy professor Howard Adelman organized The Campaign to Save the Boat People in the federal riding of St. Paul's in Toronto. Its goal of saving 50 families was surpassed in nine days.

• In six days, there were 10 more groups like the one in St. Paul's. In nine days, 58. The Campaign to Save the Boat People became Operation Lifeline, an umbrella organization to help support the other Ontario groups.

• The desire to help crossed many boundaries. In Kitchener, Ont., Adelman was hugged by a man who said: "Would you believe it? Me, a Mennonite, hugging you, a Jew, over sponsoring a Buddhist."

Welcome to Canada

In July 1979, flights full of refugees start arriving in Canada every three days. Two staging areas are set up at military barracks near Edmonton and Montreal. There the refugees will be processed; filling in paperwork, undergoing a medical exam and receiving a crash course on Canadian culture. Sally Caudwell reports on the first flight of refugees arriving from Hong Kong at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

The private sponsorship program disperses refugees across the country, although many eventually migrate to the larger centres of Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.

Many refugees can hardly speak a word of English or French. Nonetheless, government-sponsored refugees are turned loose with little more than a city map and a lecture on how to get around on the transit system. Private sponsors, on the other hand, have pledged emotional support and advice.

Orientation lectures like the ones at Operation Lifeline's Welcome House are designed to fill in the gaps. They provide an introduction to the Canadian postal system, Canadian money, opening a bank account and English language basics. With these skills in hand, refugees go forth to make a new life — to find a job, a place to live, a school for their children.

Did you know?

• Initially, the refugees settled across Canada: 23,000 in Ontario; 13,000 in Quebec; 8,000 in Alberta; 7,000 British Columbia; 5,000 in Manitoba; 3,000 in Saskatchewan; and 2,000 in the Maritime provinces.

• The cost to the federal government was $122 million. That included airline tickets, setting up and manning the staging areas, relocating refugees, medical insurance bills, rent guarantees, job and language training and paying community orientation workers.

• The refugees signed a form agreeing to pay the government $750 per person for the cost of their flight to Canada. However, most refugees were unable to read the forms they were signing and were surprised to discover they were in debt.

• Debt repayment took some time. Many refugees had lost all their worldly possessions and were unable to find skilled work in their former professions.

• Ontario's health insurance plan wouldn't cover medical costs for the refugees during their first month in Canada. Mount Sinai and Sick Children's Hospital in Toronto offered free medical care. The service was organized by Dr. Allan Adelman, head of cardiology at Mount Sinai, and brother of Howard Adelman, Operation Lifeline's founder.

...But some say 'Go home.'

Phone-in callers comment about the influx of immigrants. Not everybody is happy. Some people are worried about the multi-million dollar price tag. Others are worried that land and gas prices will skyrocket and unemployment will increase. They worry that Canada is ignoring its own poor and unemployed. They worry that the immigration screening process is too lax. And they worry that Canada will suffer what Doug Collins refers to on CBC Radio as a "racial imbalance." (Note: explicit language.)

Did you know?

• On Aug. 24, 1979, a full-page ad appeared on page 3 of the Globe and Mail protesting Canada's acceptance of so many boat people. The ad, paid for by the National Citizens' Coalition, warned that each refugee might sponsor as many as 15 relatives, turning 50,000 immigrants into 750,000.
• On Sept. 12, 1979, a second ad appeared to counteract the controversy from the first. Each ad cost $10,000 — enough to sponsor sixteen refugees.

• In December 1979, due to the huge success of private sponsorships, the federal government decided to back down on its promise to match sponsorship with sponsorship. The funds saved could be better spent on Cambodian relief, it decided. But the public did not agree.

• On April 2, 1980, Immigration Minister Lloyd Axworthy announced that Canada would take an additional 10,000 boat people, bringing the two-year total to 60,000.

'They take the jobs Canadians don't want...'

One hundred boat people descend on the town of Vegreville, Alta., population 4700. Many of the refugees have been sponsored by the owner of Ezee-On Manufacturing, a farm equipment factory. Owner Eugene Denkiw has promised jobs for the refugees. He says he's had trouble keeping locals on staff. Former employees cite poor working conditions and even poorer pay. In the past, attempts to unionize have met with swift action. Locals can find other work. The Vietnamese, however, have few options.

Refugees need money to support their families, repay the federal government for their airfare, and send money to relatives remaining in Vietnam. And many refugees are high in professional skills and low in English ability. They take whatever unskilled jobs they can get. It's just as the government says, reassuring people who are worried about high unemployment: "The refugees take jobs Canadians don't want."

Did you know?

• A Carleton University study conducted in 1980 found that a refugee's ability to adjust to Canada largely depended on his ability to get and keep a job similar to the one he had before immigrating.

• According to an Operation Lifeline study in 1980, 93 per cent of Indochinese refugees had found jobs.

• However, a study of refugees in Ottawa concluded that most men were in unskilled jobs paying $3 per hour.

• Women tended to make slightly more, since the average wage for a chambermaid was higher than that of a dishwasher.

• The boat people sometimes found themselves caught in the centre of labour disputes. In one example, forty-two employees of Canadiana Outdoor Products in Brampton were laid off in November 1980. They claimed to have been replaced by refugees. 'They take the jobs Canadians don't want...'

Adjusting to Canada: From ABCs to -40 degrees

Peter Tran, a refugee living in Toronto since 1975, talks about adjusting to life in Canada; he tells what it's like to go from being a lecturer in Vietnam to a dishwasher in Toronto. And he advises Canadians on the little things that they can do to help.

Life in Canada is a big adjustment in many ways: new home, new language, new climate, new food, new culture, new customs, new kind of job. Those over fifty find themselves a burden, unable to find work. The young, so infinitely adaptable, have an easier time.

The boat people have more difficulty adjusting to Canada than other refugees have in the past. The psychological trauma they've endured is a major factor: they suffer the loss of family, possessions, position, self-esteem and respect. Some have been raped. Others have seen family members killed. They carry guilt for being the survivors, the ones who got out.

Did you know?

• The boat people faced institutional blocks, such as refusals to accept their university degrees or former professional status.

• Some refugee families, uncomfortable with the large houses sponsors provided for them, would move the entire family's beds into one room.

• Many refugees experienced conflict between their traditional culture and the cultural values they encountered in Canada. In Vietnam, husbands supported their families. But in Canada, the wife sometimes found herself the sole breadwinner.

• In Asia, family is traditionally all important. But some refugees found themselves far from their extended families and unable to afford children.

• There were more divorces amongst Vietnamese refugees than Chinese immigrants, despite the fact that divorce was still considered shameful in both cultures. In part, this was because the Vietnamese lacked the help and support usually provided by parents and other family members.

Looking back, 25 years later

Ottawa hosts a reunion between refugees and their sponsors 25 years after the fall of Saigon. And Peter Tran looks back at his life in Canada, appreciative of all he's gained. His son Anthony says he has no desire to return to the country of his parents. Vietnam has become a memory. Today, most Canadian cities offer a range of Indochinese-owned retail stores, restaurants and businesses. And many refugee families have been reunited through family-sponsored immigration.

However, there are still a great number who remain incomplete, particularly families from Cambodia who lost members under Pol Pot's genocidal regime. And many refugees remain in jobs beneath their skill level. Despite that, thousands still arrive every year. But nowadays, they come through normal immigration channels. Not through refugee camps. Not over the sea.

Did you know?

• Refugees who remained in refugee camps had a different story. 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.

• Many of the refugees who remained were considered undesirable because of criminal records or drug addictions.

• In the ensuing five years, thousands of refugees were labelled as economic migrants people looking for a better life, but not in mortal danger ? and were forced to return to Vietnam. This produced regular riots in the camps.

• 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 1994, refugees still in camps numbered 60,000. Half of these were in Hong Kong.

• On May 28, 1997, the last Vietnamese boat people to voluntarily return home from Hong Kong camps boarded their flights.

• 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.

• At midnight, May 31, 2000, Hong Kong closed Pillar Point Refugee Center ? the last remaining refugee camp.

Switch mode views: