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Last Vietnamese boat refugee leaves Malaysia

News Stories, 30 August 2005

© UNHCR/J.M.Micaud
Indo-Chinese "boat people" at Malaysia's Sungai Besi Holding Centre in 1988. The last remaining Vietnamese refugee left Malaysia on August 28, 2005.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 30 (UNHCR) The scene at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Sunday could have happened in any airport, in any country a group of people gathering to bid farewell and good luck to a departing friend.

Except the departure of this man 43-year-old Doan Van Viet marked a significant moment in Malaysia's history. Doan was the last remaining Vietnamese refugee in Malaysia out of over 250,000 Vietnamese refugees who had landed on the eastern shores of Malaysia some 20 years ago.

In May 1975, Malaysia's shores saw the arrival of the first weather-beaten boat, carrying 47 people from Viet Nam. They were the first of what later came to be known as the "boat people", hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees who fled to neighbouring countries in the successive communist victories in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos.

"Life was very hard for us back home. We were always harassed by the authorities. I was imprisoned for seven months because the authorities suspected that I was arranging illegal departures for people," Doan said. "When I was released, I was scared for my life and I left with my brother."

Doan's life in Malaysia began in 1984, when the boat he travelled in washed up on the shores of Pulau Bidong, off the coast of Terengganu in Malaysia. He was 22 then, having fled his home in Chau Thanh in Dong Nai with his brother several days before. In the refugee camp on Pulau Bidong, Doan took classes to learn English and auto mechanic skills.

Looking back, he stressed that he had a very happy time in Malaysia. His ability to speak two local languages, Bahasa Malaysia and Cantonese, helped him fit in, but finding work was still a challenge as Malaysian immigration laws do not distinguish between refugees and undocumented migrants.

When the Pulau Bidong camp closed in 1990, he moved to Sungai Besi. This camp was also closed in 1996, and he had to blend in to local Malaysian life outside the camp.

Twenty years after he fled Viet Nam, Doan is finally returning home with his fiancée, an event welcomed by UNHCR's Representative in Malaysia, Volker Türk.

"The voluntary repatriation of the last Vietnamese refugee from the boat people period marks the end of an important chapter in the history of refugees in Malaysia," said Türk. "It also shows that a permanent solution can be found for a refugee situation. The fact that Doan Van Viet now has reason to be optimistic about his future is in part due to the efforts of UNHCR staff in Malaysia over the past 20 years. I wish Doan Van Viet and his partner all the very best for rebuilding their lives in Viet Nam."

Doan himself expressed his happiness to return and is looking forward to starting a new life. "I want to go home to legally marry her," he said, smiling at the Vietnamese woman he met in Malaysia after she arrived there as an illegal migrant in 2003. "Going back also enables me to be close to my family who I have not met since I left home."

Doan will be met in Viet Nam by his sister.

"I have watched many friends leave Malaysia to be resettled in other countries. My own brother is in France," he said when asked about his decision to finally return to his roots. 'I feel now is the time to return home with my fiancée to start a new life."

Since 1975, the UN refugee agency has helped resettle some 240,000 Vietnamese refugees from Malaysia to third countries, while some 9,000 others opted to return to Viet Nam.

By Bram Steen
UNHCR Malaysia




UNHCR country pages

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.

Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.

Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.

UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

Many Malaysians are astonished to learn that there are refugees living in their country. That's how invisible most of the 67,800 refugees in Malaysian towns and cities are. They don't live in camps, but in low-cost flats and houses alongside the homes of Malaysians. The refugees, overwhelmingly from Myanmar, live in tight-knit groups with as many as 20 or 30 people in one small flat.

As in many other Asian countries, even official UNHCR refugee status does not always afford adequate protection. Refugees are not allowed to work legally, so are subject to exploitation in dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs that locals do not want.

More than in many other countries, refugees in Malaysia have banded together to help themselves in the absence of official services. UNHCR, non-governmental organizations and volunteers support these initiatives, which include small crafts businesses, as well as schools and clinics, but they are largely driven by the refugees themselves.

Malaysia: Refugees helping themselves

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Viet Nam: Without a Country

In the 1970s, thousands of people fled to Viet Nam to escape the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Some of those who stayed in places Like Ho Chi Minh City became stateless.
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Surviving in the City: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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