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