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May 1996, Volume 3, Number 5

Vietnamese Boat People

Over one million Vietnamese "boat people" have been resettled since 1975, including 823,000 in the US, 137,000 each in Australia and Canada, 96,000 in France, and 19,000 each in the UK and Germany.

On April 20, a Malaysian navy ship transported 317 Vietnamese boat people to Vietnam in the first of four forced repatriations by ship planned for the next two months. Once offloaded, the returnees are taken to reception centers for screening before being returned to their home villages.

The Malaysian navy will transport 1,765 Vietnamese over the next two months. The remaining 1,363 will be returned by air. Malaysia offers Vietnamese in camps an easy two hour flight home if they volunteer, or forcible return on a boat.

Other Asian countries have avoided sending Vietnamese boat people back by ship-- some critics have branded them prison ships. The Malaysian government has speeded up the return of Vietnamese boat people because it plans to shut down its two remaining detention camps by June 30, when the UNHCR stops funding them.

The Comprehensive Plan of Action for dealing with people leaving Vietnam by boat was adopted in 1989. Since then, some 80,000 boat people were recognized as refugees and resettled elsewhere, 500,000 left Vietnam legally as immigrants under the Orderly Departure Program, and 115,000 Vietnamese left their country in boats, landed in nearby countries, and hoped to be selected to resettle in a third country as refugees.

Most of the 115,000 were determined not to be refugees and were returned to Vietnam, but 35,000 remained in camps in April 1996, including 19,200 in Hong Kong, 4,800 in Thailand, 4,300 in Indonesia, and 3,700 in Malaysia. The camps have been closed to visitors so that they can be emptied by June 30, 1996.

Local events sometimes make it difficult for the Vietnamese in the camps to return to Vietnam quietly. For example, the Philippines government announced plans to close a camp holding 2,000 Vietnamese by June 30, 1996, but after forcibly returning several Vietnamese, the government came under pressure from the Catholic church not to force the Vietnamese into airplanes to send them home.

In Hong Kong, Britain's Privy Council ruled that 15 Vietnamese should go freed because Hanoi was unlikely to take them back--all were ethnic Chinese with Taiwanese travel documents. This raised hopes that other ethnic Chinese could avoid a return to Vietnam.

The Privy Council's decision forced the Hong Kong legislature to table discussion of the new Immigration Bill amendment, which would have given the government the power to indefinitely and arbitrarily detain Vietnamese boat people.

The Vietnamese government says it can handle up to 3,600 returning Vietnamese each month. Each returning person is screened; Vietnam has refused to take hundreds of the people back on the grounds that they are foreign nationals or are ethnically not Vietnamese.

In Vietnam, most reports are that two-thirds of returned boat people have restarted their lives, with the help of cash grants of about $1,000 for a family from the United Nations and European Union, and grants for the communities they return to minimize local jealousy.

"Hong Kong clears first hurdle towards controversial boatpeople law," Agence France Presse, April 24, 1996. Fung Wai-Kong, "Viet bill 'tarnishes' reputation on rights," South China Morning Post, April 25, 1996. "Malaysian ship carrying boat people reaches Vietnam," Reuters, April 20, 1996. John Chalmers, "Vietnam draws fire over mass return of boat people," Reuters, April 20, 1996. Seth Mydans, "Boat people Embark on Sad Voyage Home," New York Times, April 19, 1996. Seth Mydans, "New boat people exodus: back to Vietnam," New York Times, April 17, 1996.