Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - Final act: closing down the CPA

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1995

The Comprehensive Plan of Action was as vast and unprecedented as the boat-people exodus that spawned it. Now 41,000 screened-out Vietnamese and Laotians must head home by the end of 1995.

(Editor's note: This issue of Refugees focuses on the growing international trend toward comprehensive or regional solutions to refugee problems. This topic is also examined in UNHCR's biennial report, The State of the World's Refugees: The Search for Solutions, published by Oxford University Press in November 1995.)

By Ruth Marshall

Ha Manh Dung was nine years old when he left Viet Nam with his parents and younger brother on board a rickety fishing boat. He is now 15, perched nervously on the seat of his first-ever airplane, flying with 56 other voluntary returnees back to Viet Nam. His family has exhausted every appeal. Neither the Hong Kong government nor UNHCR considers that the Ha family has any claim to refugee status. They are simply unwanted aliens, with no visa and no future in Hong Kong. So they're headed back. "We have been living in a prison for so many years, with no result," says Dung. "This way my parents will get money from the U.N. to start a new life. They will make a small shop in Hai Phong." He admits he has only the vaguest memories of Viet Nam. "A lot of my life has been in detention," he says anxiously as the plane touches down in the country where he must now build a future.

Rows of coiled barbed wire top the high fencing that separates the grim prefab blocks of Whitehead, Hong Kong's biggest camp for Vietnamese boat-people, where 12,000 people live. The wooden beds are stacked three high, with one curtained-off bunk per family. Single men with no kids get top bunk. Windows are barred even inside the camps. Only voluntary repatriation candidates have fans. Children who grow up here have never seen a tree, a dog, a blade of grass or barring birds and rats any living animal. Yet a 25-year-old woman who gives her name as Quynh says she will stay in Whitehead "to give my child a future." Quynh arrived in Hong Kong in 1989. She balances her two year-old born in Whitehead on her hip. "I know there is a chance we will get out, so I will wait as long as I must," she says. "I will not go back to Viet Nam. There is no future there."

Like every screened-out boat-person in Hong Kong, Quynh knows there is a risk she will be forcibly returned to Viet Nam. She knows her case for refugee status has been thoroughly reviewed and conclusively turned down. She knows that screening of Vietnamese boat- people is over in Hong Kong indeed, is over everywhere in South East Asia. But she is determined, as she says, to be "the last to leave."

For 41,000 screened-out former asylum-seekers in South East Asia, this is the end of the line. UNHCR is closing the book on much of its 20-year involvement with the Indochinese caseload. The Comprehensive Plan of Action among the most elaborate and expensive refugee programmes in history will end on 31 December 1995. Status determination has been completed. UNHCR has signed tripartite agreements approving orderly repatriation from Malaysia and Indonesia. The agency is cutting staff and planning to pull out of almost every camp over the course of the year. Other major associated programmes the European Community International Programme (ECIP), Nordic Assistance to Repatriated Vietnamese (NARV) are also folding their tents. The latest CPA fund-raising appeal calls itself the last appeal. "I do not think we can justify the Vietnamese camps in South East Asia much longer," wrote High Commissioner Sadako Ogata in her year-end letter to UNHCR staff in December 1994. "We must make every effort to end the CPA."

It will be hard going. Many camp inmates have no intention of returning without a fight. They command vocal support from overseas Vietnamese communities world-wide. Moreover, first-asylum governments may be reluctant to part with UNHCR support till the last boat- person has left. "If UNHCR pulled out and we were left without international support we would feel very, very let down,"says Brian Bresnihan, Refugee Coordinator for the Hong Kong government. "There would be a tremendous outcry."

"Operationally, it's easy to disengage. Politically, it's going to be tricky," admits Jahanshah Assadi, UNHCR's Chief of Mission in Hong Kong. "But we have nothing to apologize for in this part of the world. We've provided the solutions. If we're going to be reluctant to disengage from the CPA, then we'll never get out of anywhere."

The CPA has been a milestone in the history of UNHCR a solution as vast and unprecedented as the refugee crisis that spawned it. Beginning in 1975, with U.S. withdrawal and the fall of South Viet Nam, an apparently unstemmable flood of exiles left the shores of Indo-China. Every exile who reached the South East Asian countries of first asylum was resettled, mainly in the U.S., Canada, France and Australia. UNHCR ran the camps and facilitated resettlement. By 1979, however, resettlement places were getting scarce. To stave off the specter of government push-backs of hundreds of Vietnamese boats, a first international conference in 1979 resulted in confirmation of the blanket guarantee: resettlement for all.

Ten years later, amid unspeakable suffering and misery, the boat-people and land-people just kept coming. Over a million people had been resettled almost as many as were resettled by the International Refugee Organization after World War II and the mirage of prosperity in Canada or California kept drawing more. It was clear that, 14 years after the end of the war, not all the exiles were bona fide refugees, but the numbers in transit in South East Asian camps were once again surging. Governments again threatened to cut off asylum altogether. A second international conference set up the first UNHCR-brokered package deal: the CPA. The plan focused on stemming the exodus, reinforcing more orderly departure routes, and finding permanent solutions for every exile. The key: individual screening would determine which asylum-seekers were refugees fleeing persection. The remainder would have to return to Viet Nam.

The CPA, unquestionably, worked. The flood was stemmed. A safe alternative system for departure was considerably reinforced. Unprecedented numbers of people were screened. Resettlement slots gave new lives abroad to almost every screened-in refugee. (The struggle to find more places for the remaining caseload continues). Since 1989, more than 78,000 people have begun life in new countries under the auspices of the CPA.

But then there are the screened-out. Voluntary repatriation has been unexpectedly effective: 70,000 people have asked to go back to Viet Nam. But the camps of South East Asia are still crammed with more than 40,000 screened-out Vietnamese and Laotians. Repatriation to Viet Nam is currently low, and falling: from 19,000 in 1993 to a mere 12,500 in 1994. Many of the remaining inmates refuse point-blank to volunteer. In Hong Kong's Tai A Chau island camp, which houses 6,500 mainly southern Vietnamese detainees, Field Officer Neil Farren laments, "More people are born here every month than repatriate."

Tai A Chau is a relatively pleasant place, with shops, several canteens playing music all day, TV rooms, training programmes, income-generation projects, pre-school, kindergarten and sports facilities. Sungei Besi, in Malaysia, was once like that. But now, though minimum standards of decency are clearly observed, conditions at Sungei Besi are becoming harsher. Almost 250,000 Vietnamese boat-people have passed through Malaysia since they first came ashore in 1975. Now there are 5,500 left. All but 400 are screened-out. With Sungei Besi scheduled to close in August 1995, they must go home.

These days in Sungei Besi, only one canteen is open at any time; inmates can no longer while away the day sipping a Fanta. Financial remittances from overseas are limited to US$50 per month; the remainder is banked pending repatriation. Grocery stores are closing. Access to sewing machines has been cut. Training and income-generation activities are limited to repatriation candidates. And UNHCR staff walk inside Sungei Besi only in pairs. As they approach the cinderblock buildings where non-candidates for repatriation are housed, groups of much-tattooed men stare stonily down. "The difficult group is left," says Associate Field Officer Cecilia Abraham, who has worked with Indo-Chinese asylum-seekers since 1978. "They say they would rather fight and die than go back and they are ready to hurt themselves, that is true. We have been lucky so far, but every day is a tense day." As Werner Blatter, Director of UNHCR's Asia division, puts it, "When the tide goes down, the rocks come up."

Barely 50 people chose to repatriate from Sungei Besi in November 1994. Faced with this trickle, several of the first-asylum countries have drafted agreements providing for non-voluntary return to Viet Nam. UNHCR does not participate in Hong Kong's "orderly return" arrangement, which does not exclude the use of force, and which has sent home more than 1,000 detainees to date. UNHCR has, however, signed Indonesia's agreement, which states that return need not be voluntary but specifies that it should take place without using violence. (In other words, the plan gives boat-people the face-saving option of saying they had no choice, but precludes physically forcing them to go). Agreements signed by Malaysia and the Philippines do not refer specifically to use or non-use of force in repatriating people who have not volunteered.

"It's not for us to go round advocating deportations," says Assadi, who was the first Secretary of the steering committee of the CPA, six years ago. "But these are illegal immigrants, not refugees. We've already gone beyond our traditional mandate. We've operated under a special licence to exeptionally exercise our good offices in dealing with the voluntary repatriation of people who are not refugees. That licence is ending, and we're not hanging around indefinitely. Our message to governments is, 'The CPA has met its primary goals. To finish it off, you are in the driver's seat. We have only one year left. We're headed uphill. So let's shift gears."

By agreeing to assist and repatriate people who had been screened-out who were not refugees UNHCR may have participated in creating what is by now widespread confusion about their rights. UNHCR's guidelines on repatriation were developed for refugees. The CPA detainees are overwhelmingly screened-out. In legal terms, they are not greatly different from the illegal aliens whom many countries deport every day.

In the heat of the crisis, such distinctions were far from vital. "The flood of people; the pushbacks; the piracy; the attacks; the robbery; the killing; the rape; the machine-gunning of boats; the breakdown of the obligation to systematically rescue persons at risk on high seas; the threats of closure of territorial waters we faced a problem so peculiar, so specific and so dramatic that we had to act," recalls Sergio Vieira de Mello, UNHCR's Director of Policy Planning and Operations, who helped negotiate the CPA. "There was certainly no emergency in Viet Nam by 1989, and conditions there no longer justified the automatic recognition and resettlement of any person leaving the country. Once you establish for the Vietnamese the same criteria as for any other group of asylum-seekers, then, by definition, you have to accept that some the non-refugees must go back. I faced all kinds of criticism. But I had no problem with mandatory return if people had been determined not to be refugees under the most generous, all embracing criteria that could be found and then failed to avail themselves of the opportunities offered to them for voluntary, organized and safe repatriation."

The CPA's status determination mechanism has been a flashpoint for criticism of the whole plan, mainly by those who refuse to accept that asylum-seekers who failed to make a case for refugee status would have to return to Viet Nam. Specifically, critics have alleged corruption in the screening process. UNHCR staff concede that this may, in a few cases, be true. "It may have happened," says Lennart Hansson, Head of Desk for the CPA. "But the real question is, have any people who are refugees been screened-out because of corruption? We do not think so. Our main concern is that someone who should qualify for refugee status should get that status. We have checked and checked every candidate, and we are satisfied."

Director for Protection, Dennis McNamara, says the CPA caseload benefits from "more due process than any asylum-seeker in Europe or the U.S." Criteria for status determination are among the most generous in the world. Every candidate is interviewed at length, sometimes repeatedly. Each one has the right to appeal and in some cases, can claim a third review. In Thailand, for example, UNHCR sits on all screening boards and writes an opinion on every case. Finally, UNHCR can use its mandate to declare any asylum-seeker a bona fide refugee: a further guarantee of fair treatment.

Another guarantee rests in UNHCR's presence in Viet Nam, where the agency monitors returnees and sets up micro-projects, both to help them reintegrate and to "anchor" other Vietnamese citizens to their homeland. Monitoring has encountered no serious difficulties. "The Vietnamese government has really gone out of its way to adhere to its commitments under the CPA," says UNHCR Representative Christopher Carpenter. "Most complaints are related to delays in receiving money, or registering their address, or in straightening out housing. Nothing really discriminatory that has to do with them leaving the country."

At UNHCR's Hanoi bureau, an office is lined with current files of letters of complaint and notes from monitors' visits. They vary. A family in Hai Hung, with one child, came back in December 1993 after four years in Hong Kong. With their three $360 reintegration grants, they bought a small house that has risen considerably in value. They installed a motorcycle repair workshop on the ground floor, secured a preferential loan from ECIP, and now employ three trainees. On the other hand, Nguyen V.K., who was forcibly returned from Hong Kong in January 1994, was arrested 14 days after his return and charged with robbery and murder. A former student at Hanoi's Foreign Language Institute and an activist in Hong Kong who slashed himself in one protest, Nguyen allegedly left Viet Nam after killing and robbing an acquaintance.

So far, UNHCR has learned of 65 returnees investigated or detained by police, says Associate Repatriation Officer Dirk Hebecker. Most are accused of stealing the fishing boats they left with. Monitoring officers say every claim of police harrassment has been found to be linked with arrest warrants or jail terms handed down before departure. Despite particularly careful follow-up of delicate cases involving imprisonment, monitors have never uncovered any convincing cases of judicial harrassment linked to the decision to leave Viet Nam or to activism in the camps.

Typical complaints centre on economic difficulties. Nguyen Anh Tien, 40, lives with his wife and two daughters (14 and 11) and his 70 year-old mother in Hanoi in a tiny cubicle down a rabbit-warren of tunnel-like corridors. When they arrived in Hong Kong, the family missed by just three weeks the cut-off date that could have given them an automatic ticket to California or the C├┤te d'Azur. In September 1994, after six years in detention, they were forcibly returned. "I was forced to come back. How could I be happy about it?" says Nguyen. "The children are in school but we have found no work and it is very difficult. The U.N. gives you money it looks like a lot, but now a lot of it has gone. Viet Nam has changed. You need to worry about more, and it's not easy to find your way. The reality is you need money to invest to start a business and I don't have it."

Despite his frustration and tough financial straits, even Nguyen seems fortunate compared with some of the other former boat-people, who remain emotionally trapped in the zombie world of detention camps. Hong Kong's Pillar Point, an open "camp" that resembles a low-income housing project, shelters roughly 600 refugees. Some have been screened in on the basis of persecution; others are pre-CPA arrivals who received the blanket right to resettlement. But they failed to step up for resettlement. Or they turned down a place in a country they didn't want. Or they were never offered a resettlement place because of their costly social or medical conditions. Or they were turned down because they use drugs.

Blatter insists UNHCR will fight tooth and nail to get places for the "expensive" refugees people who may have twelve children, or cancer, but who nonetheless have a right to be resettled. Drug-users are a tougher proposition. Destination countries now test for drugs, and most refuse addicts. Despite a small pilot detox programme, field staff estimate that three-quarters of adult men in Pillar Point use heroin. At noon, during nap-time, when those with jobs are out and those with none are sleeping, a brief walk round the camp yields six syringes lying openly in the soft earth.

In Ban Napho camp, near Thailand's border with Laos, drug use has become an equally intractable problem: a symptom of the malaise of a group forced by circumstances to live in camps for far too long. Ramshackle bamboo sheds with beaten-earth floors, divided into 20 or so living units, house 9,000 people. Almost all are Hmong from Laos, some of whom sided with the U.S. during its long involvement with Indo-China. Almost all are, technically, refugees, since most arrived in Thailand before the cut-off date when screening started. But as with the residents of Pillar Point many of them turned down resettlement places, and then did not step forward when the Thai government and UNHCR issued a 1993 deadline for resettlement applications. Others were refused places when one or more family members tested positive for opium, a drug that is traditional to many Hmong. Now their only option is to volunteer to go back to Laos.

But though repatriation has picked up recently, for a total of 5,200 in 1994, many Ban Napho residents seem unlikely to volunteer. A January 1994 survey in the camp indicated that of the 8,469 Hmong then in Ban Napho, 2,500 expressed no opinion about repatriating. Nearly 2,000 said they would stay till facilities were cut off, and then move. Some 1,400 said they would move if schools, healthcare and other services were transferred to Laos. Others cited family difficulties. Only 155 claimed political objections to the Laotian government. The main thrust was simply inertia. "In Laos, they have to work," explains Boosin Nubthuesuk, a social counsellor. "Here, everything is free: rations, rice, school, medical equipment. But we also have a lot of social problems."

Xien Khouang, the aged, almost toothless patriarch of an 11-person household, left his home in the highlands in 1961, and quit Laos altogether in 1975. Much of his family has no practical experience of self-sufficiency or of Laos, and after nearly 20 years in Thailand's camps a kind of unreality has set in. "If the camp closes we will go to the U.S.," he asserts. A black-smeared opium pipe-head lies broken in the earth at the entrance of the family's housing, and a 13-year-old grandson barely bothers to hide the pipe in his hand. "In Laos, we would worry about our sons and our husbands," ventures one daughter-in-law. Outsiders might worry more about them right where they are.

The Ban Napho caseload is a special issue, since most people there have refugee status. Elsewhere, however, even many long-time activists for the Indo-Chinese asylum-seekers accept that repatriation is their only option the sooner the better. "The advocacy community should refocus its efforts for the boat people, to concentrate on issues and activities inside Viet Nam," wrote a joint delegation of ten American NGOs after a December 1994 mission to South East Asia. "[We] firmly believe that the vast majority of asylum-seekers would be better off returning to Viet Nam voluntarily."

As more asylum-seekers come to accept that reality, the pace of return will step up in 1995. Tentatively, warily, more families will head back home to a country that many of the children, and even some adults, barely recall. The change will be disorienting. Viet Nam is vastly altered, its economy booming 9% GDP growth in 1994 and its society undergoing dramatic change.

Pham Thi Dan, 54, gets off her brand-new, bright red bicycle and opens the door to her home. She shares a one-room mezzanine in a Hanoi tenement with her husband, infant and six other people three to a bed. Pham used to collect and sell empty bottles for a living. Her husband was a truck driver in the army. They bought a ticket on a boat headed for Hong Kong in May 1989. Since returning in January 1994, they still haven't found jobs. Still, Pham is astonishingly upbeat. "Our main problem is lack of space. We have to make it better step by step. There is a huge difference in Viet Nam today. Five years ago I could have been arrested for picking up bottles, having an unauthorized business. Now I can do what I please set up a food-stall if I want to. My child can study a foreign language and get a job with a foreign company. We decided to come back to our family, and to give the child a future. And I am glad."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (1995)