boat people

boat people

boat people, term used to describe the Indochinese refugees who fled Communist rule after the Vietnam War (1975) in small boats and the many ethnic Chinese who left Vietnam similarly after China's invasion of Vietnam in 1979. More than one million people became refugees. Many perished, and others, upon reaching other Southeast Asian countries, discovered they could not remain permanently. The United States, Canada, and other nations accepted most of the refugees in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Although people continued to flee Vietnam into the mid-1990s, nearly all later boat people have been regarded as economic, not political, refugees. In 1996 the United Nations decided to end the financing of the camps holding the remaining 40,000 boat people, and Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines returned most of the remaining refugees to Vietnam. The term boat people has also been used to describe political and economic refugees from other areas, such as Haiti, who fled their homelands by similar means.

Boat people is a term that usually refers to illegal immigrants or asylum seekers who emigrate en masse in boats that are sometimes old and crudely made rendering them unseaworthy and unsafe. The term came into common use during the late 1970s with the mass departure of Vietnamese refugees from Communist-controlled Vietnam, following the Vietnam War.


Boats have been a widely used form of migration or escape for people migrating from Cuba (often under the Cuban Adjustment Act or Wet-foot, Dry-foot policy), Haiti, Dominican Republic , Morocco, Vietnam or Albania. They often risk their lives on dangerously crude and overcrowded boats, to escape oppression or poverty in their home nations. In 2001, 353 asylum-seekers sailing from Indonesia to Australia drowned when their vessel sank. Many of the political refugees have also been attacked by pirates on the high seas or upon isolated islands, or have been turned away by unsympathetic governments and forced to return.

Boat people are frequently a source of controversy in the nation they seek to immigrate to, such as the United States, Canada, Italy, Spain and Australia. Boat people are often forcibly prevented from landing at their destination, such as under Australia's "Pacific Solution", or they are subjected to mandatory detention after their arrival. Unlike the wave of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and early 1980s, most boat people arriving more recently in Western countries, Australia, or the USA have purchased their passage on large but overcrowded seaworthy boats.

Vietnamese boat people

Events resulting from the Vietnam War led many people in Cambodia, Laos, and especially Vietnam to become refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s, after the fall of Saigon. In Vietnam, the new communist government sent many people who supported the old government in the South to "re-education camps", and others to "new economic zones." An estimated 1 million people were imprisoned without formal charges or trials. According to published academic studies in the United States and Europe, 165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's re-education camps. Thousands were abused or tortured. These factors, coupled with poverty, caused hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to flee the country. In 1979, Vietnam was at war (Sino-Vietnamese War) with the People's Republic of China (PRC). Many ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam, who felt that the government's policies directly targeted them, also became "boat people." On the open seas, the boat people had to confront forces of nature, and elude pirates.

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge regime murdered millions of people in the "Killing Fields" massacres. Many people attempted to escape.

Escape route

There were many different ways people used to leave the country. Most were secret; some involved the bribing of officials. Some people bought places in large boats that held 400 passengers. Others organized smaller groups. Many families were split up during this period because they could only afford to send off one or a few members of the family. One method saw would-be middle-class refugees from Saigon, armed with forged identity documents, travel 1,100 km to Danang by road. On arrival, they would take refuge for up to two days in safe houses while waiting for fishing junks and trawlers to take small groups into international waters. Planning for such a trip took many months, even years. Although these attempts often depleted resources, people often had several false starts before they managed to escape.

The boats, most not intended for navigating open waters, would typically head for busy international shipping lanes some 240 km to the east. The lucky ones would succeed in being rescued by freighters and taken to Hong Kong, some 2,200 km away. Others landed on the shores of Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. The unlucky ones would face a two-week long or even 6-month perilous journey in rickety craft; stopping every now and again in Chinese shores, suffering hunger and thirst.

Refugee camps

The plight of the boat people became an international humanitarian crisis. There were untold miseries, rapes and murders on the South China Sea committed by Thai pirates who preyed on the refugees who had sold all their possessions and carried gold with them on the trips. The UNHCR, under the auspices of the United Nations, set up refugee camps in neighbouring countries to process the "boat people". They received the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize for this.

Camps were set up in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. According to stories told by the Vietnamese refugees, the conditions at the camps were bad. Not much of the generous aid money actually got to the refugees. Refugees at Thai camps were maltreated and many were brutally bullied by the Thai guards. Most of the refugees came from the former South Vietnam. However, soon after the first wave between 1975-1978, North Vietnamese from seaside cities such as Haiphong started to escape and land in Hong Kong. Among them were genuine ethnically Chinese Vietnamese refugees who escaped from Vietnam and headed to China and the city of Hong Kong.

One forgotten group of Vietnamese boat people were those who escaped by land across the Cambodian and Thailand border. They did not travel by boat, but they ended up at the same camps just like those who braved the seas.

The Orderly Departure Program from 1979 until 1994 helped to resettle refugees in the United States. In this program, refugees were asked to go back to Vietnam and waited for assessment. If they were deemed to be eligible to be re-settled in the US (according to criteria the US government had established), they would be allowed to immigrate.

Humanitarian Operation (HO) was set up to benefit former South Vietnamese who were involved in the former regime or worked for the US. They were to be allowed to immigrate to the US if they had suffered persecution by the communist regime after 1975. Half-American children in Vietnam, descendants of servicemen, were also allowed to immigrate along with their mothers or foster parents. This program sparked a wave of rich Vietnamese parents buying the immigration right from the real mothers or foster parents. They paid money (in the black market) to transfer the half-American children into their custody, then applied for visas to emigrate to the USA. Most of these half-American children were born of American soldiers and prostitutes. They were subject to discrimination, poverty, neglects and abuse. on November 15, 2005, the United States and Vietnam signed an agreement allowing additional Vietnamese to immigrate who were not able to do so before the humanitarian operation program ended in 1994. Effectively this new agreement was the extension and also final chapter of the HO program.

Hong Kong adopted the "port of first asylum policy," and received over 100,000 Vietnamese at the peak of emigration in the late 1980s. Many refugee camps were set up in its territories. Frequent violent clashes between the boat people and security forces caused public outcry and mounting concerns in the early 1990s since many camps were very close to high-density residential areas.

For Australia, there was a major policy shift by the Fraser government. It abolished the White Australia policy by letting more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees to immigrate at a quick pace. The countries that accepted most of the Vietnamese refugees were:

By the late 1980s, Western Europe, the United States and Australia received fewer Vietnamese refugees . It became much harder for refugees to get visas to settle in those countries. The refugees faced prospects of staying years in the camps and ultimate repatriation back to Vietnam. They were branded, rightly or wrongly, as economic refugees. By the mid-1990s, the number of refugees fleeing from Vietnam had dwindled. Many refugee camps were closed. Most of the well educated or those with genuine refugee status had already been accepted by receiving countries.

There appeared to be some unwritten rules in Western countries. Officials gave preference to married couples, young families and women over 18 years old, leaving single men and minors to languish at the camps for years. Among these unwanted, those who worked and studied hard and involved themselves in constructive refugee community activities were eventually accepted by the West by recommendations from UNHCR workers. Hong Kong was open about its willingness to take the remnants at its camp, but only some refugees took up the offer. Many refugees would have been accepted by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, but hardly any wanted to settle in these countries.

The market reforms of Vietnam, the imminent return of Hong Kong to China by Britain and the financial incentives for voluntary return to Vietnam caused many boat people to return to Vietnam during the 1990s. Most remaining asylum seekers were voluntarily or forcibly repatriated to Vietnam, although a small number (about 2,500) were granted residency by the Hong Kong Government in 2002, marking an end to the Vietnam boat people history. In 2005, the remaining refugees in the Philippines (around 200) were granted asylum in Canada, Norway and the United States.


  • Boat People is a 1982 fictional film by Hong Kong director Ann Hui about the fate of a group of boat people, as seen through the eyes of a Japanese journalist.
  • Green Dragon, a 2001 film by the Vietnamese-American director Timothy Linh Bui, depicts the lives and struggles of Vietnamese refugees at Camp Pendleton following the Fall of Saigon.
  • Journey from the Fall (Vượt Sóng) is an independent movie by writer/director/editor Ham Tran in 2005, about the Vietnamese refugee camp and boat people experience following the Fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975.
  • Bolinao 52 (2007) is a documentary by Vietnamese-American director Duc Nguyen about the Vietnamese boat people ship stranded in the Pacific Ocean in 1988.

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