Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - Viet Nam: End of an era

Refugees Magazine, 1 January 1999

After a quarter century, UNHCR winds down its Viet Nam operations

By Fernando del Mundo

Dinh Son vividly recalls the night in November, 1989 when pirates stormed aboard his fishing boat crammed with 126 men, women and children trying to flee Viet Nam. The attackers armed with knives and hammers stripped the frightened passengers of their possessions and raped women in a four-hour orgy. The anguished cries of the victims continued to give Dinh nightmares long after he arrived in a refugee camp on the Indonesian island of Galang and on his return three years later to Viet Nam.

Thirty-one-year-old Dinh looks back now with a dismissive laugh at that terrible ordeal at sea and later, life in the camp. "It was horrible," he recalls. "In a flash that seemed like eternity, I was on the brink of life and death. I had a choice of jumping into the water infested with sharks, but I stayed and prayed."

He had hoped eventually to fulfil a boyhood dream and go the United States. His father, a former nurse in the defunct South Vietnamese army, had saved $350 for the boat ride out of Viet Nam. When his request for asylum was rejected he returned to his homeland and says today, "I found out this was not a bad place after all." He learned English and office work during his stay in Indonesia and back home in Ho Chi Minh City he turned these skills to his advantage, eventually managing a trendy café in the capital, Hanoi.

Dinh is one of 110,000 Vietnamese who risked pirates and drowning on the high seas in an attempt to gain asylum in the West, but who were rejected and sent home, some after languishing for years in refugee camps around the region. The majority have successfully reintegrated, allowing UNHCR in late 1998 to significantly reduce 25 years of activity in the Southeast Asian nation.

In the beginning

The agency began operations in 1973 on both sides of the 17th Parallel which at that time artificially divded the war-stricken country into North and South Viet Nam. It sent housing material and cotton yarn to the north and helped southern farmers rehabilitate land blasted by years of heavy bombing in Quang Tri province and the Central Highlands.

Within weeks of the war ending in 1975, UNHCR opened an office in Hanoi where it helped establish milk factories, repaired schools, wells, clinics, roads and bridges and financed the care of tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees who had fled conflict in their own country. Some programmes were 'preventive' in nature, long before that term became a buzzword in humanitarian circles in the post-Cold War era.

In May, 1979 UNHCR and Viet Nam signed an agreement in Geneva to establish an "orderly departure programme" as an alternative to the uncontrolled flight of the so-called boat people. When the agency handed over programmes for family reunification and other humanitarian cases to the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in 1991, it had helped more than 330,000 people to emigrate from Viet Nam safely and legally.

Despite the success of that programme, Vietnamese continued to flee their homeland by other means. In 1989, some 70 governments adopted a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) in a bid to halt clandestine departures amid creeping 'compassion fatigue' in Asia, especially in resettlement countries. Regional capitals continued to accept arriving Vietnamese, but screening procedures were introduced to decide who among the boat people qualified as a refugee under the 1951 Convention.

Nearly a half million people had settled in the west before the CPA ended in 1996 at a cost to the international community of $350 million. Viet Nam agreed to accept back those "screened out" and UNHCR began the most intensive evaluation of any return movement in its history. By the middle of this year, UNHCR's seven Vietnamese speaking monitors had individually visited more than 40 percent of the 110,000 returnees a record one diplomat described as "stunning."

Small steps

During its quarter century in the country, UNHCR spent $113 million. This included $71 million for the return of rejected asylum seekers, of which $35 million was a reintegration cash grant and another $14 million to start an estimated 600 small community projects. One of the first ones, a poultry farm just outside Hanoi, continues to supply the capital with chickens and eggs. "Development does not happen in giant leaps, but in small steps," a senior western official in Ho Chin Minh City says. "There has been a continuing awareness of UNHCR's role and its work is frequently mentioned" in government circles.

As the boat people drama unfolded, UNHCR field officer Kai Nielsen recalls,"The situation was very difficult and complicated at the start. And yet we had unhindered access. I went to villages where no white man had gone before, but because of our goodwill, we gained points.We were the honest brokers."

Goran Rosen is one of UNHCR's longest serving international staff members in Viet Nam and says as the first returnees came back it took up to 10 days to get the necessary permission from several ministries and local police authorities to visit them. There was suspicion on all sides. On one of his first visits in 1989 he checked out a Malaysian news headline "Lured Back to a Very Bleak Future" that returnees were being imprisoned. Rosen found not only the report untrue, but relatives of the returnees were actually continuing to organize illegal departures.

No sympathy

In the early years of flight, most refugees came from South Viet Nam. By the late 1980s the pattern had changed and the latest arrivals were mostly from the north. These people received little sympathy from resettlement countries. And though they dreamed of "freedom" according to Goran, most Vietnamese at that time were really fleeing the uncertainties of sweeping economic changes taking place. State firms were being privatized, the country's only employer, the government, was getting rid of state workers. Even university graduates suddenly could not get work.

While the overall reintegration programme has been successful, some Vietnamese have readjusted to life back home better than others. One Hanoi merchant says he spent $50,000 worth of family gold trying to settle "anywhere" other than Viet Nam. He ended up in a Hong Kong camp for five years where he saw his cousin murdered and then received death threats from relatives of the killers he had fingered.

He decided to return to Viet Nam where he built a business from scratch and today avows,"Now, I would never leave. I have money. I can go anywhere as a tourist. I have a business. Nobody prevents me from making money. Ten years ago I could not dream of having all this."

He remembers UNHCR fondly. He had no real chance of gaining refugee status in Hong Kong, he said but "in spite of this we were fed and supported by UNHCR. There were so many demonstrations, hunger strikes, fighting. Yet the UNHCR people still showed sympathy. It was surprising. We were often very aggressive and demanding."

A 53-year-old returnee has had a different experience. He served time in prison for organizing clandestine departures before he left for Hong Kong in 1988. He was 'screened out' for refugee status and was among the last to repatriate before the colony reverted to Chinese rule last year. He had led camp protests and now complains that repeated tear gas attacks by Hong Kong police has ruined both his and his wife's health.

During a visit he urges a UNHCR monitor to pay medical expenses and repair the roof of the room he calls home atop a ramshackle four-storey apartment in downtown Hanoi. He repeatedly threatens to throw himself in front of the car of the Japanese ambassador whose office is nearby, saying this would call the world's attention to his plight. UNHCR staff visit him regularly.

Necessary counselling

Some returnees remain haunted by their experiences. Protection Officer Dirk Hebecker remembers one Vietnamese still traumatized by his voyage on a small fishing boat meant to carry 30 but loaded with 100 desperate passengers. When the boat began leaking the captain ordered male passengers overboard where they could cling to a rope he tossed them. One by one, they lost their grip and drowned. The captain sailed on to Hong Kong.

"The irony of what we are doing here is that we are spending 90 percent or more of our time counselling people how to get on with their lives," Hebecker said. "We are supposed to ask about persecution during our visits, but the question never comes up. They are used to UNHCR providing them everything in the camps, so they talk about their economic difficulties."

In Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnamese still visit the UNHCR office to explore ways of moving overseas. They mention a programme called Rovr, a bilateral arrangement between Hanoi and Washington under which rejected asylum seekers with relatives in the United States have one more chance to emigrate.

"They come asking for help," says UNHCR official Daeng Napaporn. "Some are crying. They think UNHCR can do for them what we did in the camps." But with UNHCR phasing out its presence in the country, the former boat people have begun to realize they are now on their own.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 113 (1999)