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Keynote address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Seminar on "The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response," Tokyo, 27 October 1995

Speeches and statements

Keynote address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Seminar on "The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response," Tokyo, 27 October 1995

27 October 1995

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address this seminar on the international response to the Indochinese exodus. I am grateful to the Government of Japan and the UN University for co-sponsoring the event. Japan's involvement with UNHCR began in 1979 with the onset of the Indochinese refugee problem. It is only fitting, therefore, that two decades later we should jointly embark on an analysis of the lessons to be learnt from it.

The timing of this seminar is most appropriate. A period of transition and upheaval in world affairs has generated population movements on an unprecedented scale, whether across borders or within them. The crises in former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes have graphically demonstrated the complexity of humanitarian response in the post-Cold War world, while the repatriation to Cambodia has reflected the opportunities for solutions. The marked decline of refugee numbers in Southeast Asia, just when they are spiralling elsewhere, is a remarkable achievement which deserves both recognition and reflection.

It is twenty years since the exodus from Indochina began in the aftermath of what has been described as the longest, most devastating and most internationalized war in the region since World War II. In 1975, at the start of the exodus, there were some 20,000 Lao, Hmong, Thai Dams and Cambodians in Thailand then. Today there are some 40,000 Vietnamese Boat People in the region, in addition to some 6,700 Lao refugees in Thailand. Between these two dates, close to two million persons left the three countries of Indochina. Thousands lost their lives on the high seas. Over 1.2 million were resettled outside the region, while almost half a million returned to their countries of origin. UNHCR spent over 1.5 billion US dollars on the Indochinese refugee programme, while individual countries spent billions more to integrate the resettled refugees. Two international conferences were convened in an attempt to find solutions for the Boat people and the Laotians. The resolution of the refugee issue was an integral part of the Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia.

While it is common to speak of the Indochinese refugee problem, the Vietnamese, Laotian and the Cambodian outflows had both common features in their underlying causes and the international responses, but also distinct differences. All three refugee flows were the direct consequence of a changed political and social order, but the holocaust in Cambodia and the subsequent intervention by Vietnam served to give a distinctly different dimension to the Cambodian refugee problem. Although in time voluntary repatriation became a reality for the majority of Cambodian refugees thanks to a UN-implemented peace plan, for the Vietnamese refugee status remains incompatible with the promotion of voluntary repatriation. Only non-refugees are encouraged to return to Vietnam under the Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The international response to the three refugee problems was influenced as much by national, regional and global security concerns and foreign policy considerations, as by genuine humanitarian compassion for the refugees. In all three cases, the US involvement and attention was a key determinant of the international response. The non-governmental organizations also helped to mobilize public opinion in western countries, which has been subsequently sustained by the refugee communities themselves following their resettlement in those countries

How did security perceptions and strategic goals complicate the humanitarian problem? How did political initiatives ease them? To what extent was the humanitarian imperative sustained in the face of political pressures? What lessons can be learnt from the Indochinese refugee crisis for the prevention and solution of refugee problems in other parts of the world? Today, as we face the dangers of the politicization of humanitarian mandates in different contexts in other regions, the lessons of southeast Asia should not be overlooked. Indeed, I hope this seminar will provoke some discussion on this point.

All refugee problems are inherently political. However, geopolitical interests, or security considerations have rarely transformed the international principles of refugee protection as dramatically as in Southeast Asia. At the height of the Cold War, refugees from eastern Europe were allowed to enter and remain in western countries, refugees from Africa were granted asylum in Africa, refugees from East Pakistan were admitted to India, but for the Vietnamese, with the exception of some 280,000 refugees of Chinese origin who were granted asylum in China, there was no regional scope for asylum.

In the suspicious climate of the Cold War, and in the context of the domino theory of the time, the Vietnamese refugees, particularly the Chinese minority who fled the country in the early days of the exodus, were perceived by ASEAN countries as a security threat, representing a potential fifth column. We must not forget that some ASEAN countries were at that time still engaged in counter-insurgency operations of their own. Singapore was afraid of being overwhelmed by large numbers. Malaysia was concerned about its delicate ethnic balance. Thailand had given temporary asylum to Vietnamese refugees after Dien Bien Phu, but had subsequently managed to negotiate only a partial repatriation after the end of the war. The size of the outflow was less significant than its origin, leading Thailand to be more flexible with the Laotian refugees as compared to the Vietnamese and the Cambodians. Fearing that the outflow was irreversible, that it would destabilize the region and that the receiving states would be stranded with an unmanageable refugee burden, the countries of Southeast Asia refused to receive the Boat people. Rarely before had the institution of asylum come under such a direct threat.

The overriding concern to save the lives of those fleeing in highly precarious conditions led UNHCR in 1979 to organize the International Meeting on Indochinese Refugees, at which Vietnam agreed to impose a moratorium on illegal departures. The Conference affirmed the principle of first asylum in the region but coupled it with the commitment to resettle the Boat people in third countries. It was a death knell for the traditional institution of asylum, but at the same time gave birth to the concept of temporary refuge, a variation of which is today being applied in Europe to Bosnian refugees. The 1979 Indochinese arrangement was to survive for a decade, providing temporary refuge as well as resettlement to over a million refugees, but, as we know, temporary asylum was often very fragile, and resettlement eventually slowed down.

The aberrations of protection were not exclusive to the Vietnamese boat people. If Vietnamese refugees were viewed with suspicion in the region, the Cambodians were used as pawns by various powers to further political and military goals. Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia at the end of 1978 resulted in some 140,000 refugees entering Thailand. With the mass refoulement of 44,000 refugees in autumn 1979, the protection of Cambodian refugees remained an enormous challenge for UNHCR, and eventually most of them were resettled.

Even more difficult was the situation of the 270,000 Cambodians along the Thai/Cambodian border who, assisted by UNBRO, remained under the effective control of the Cambodian factions until 1991. UNHCR has sometimes been accused of having abandoned the group, although many might have qualified under its mandate. Could UNHCR have acted differently? Should it have taken a more active stand? Or was the humanitarian imperative held hostage to national, regional and global politics? The limits of humanitarianism at the time becomes evident when one recalls that, despite the genocidal horrors, Democratic Kampuchea retained its international legitimacy during the Cold War. Freed of some of the Cold War constraints today the international community can take a more active stand on human rights and humanitarian issues, which has undoubtedly our own ability to protect and assist refugees and internally displaced persons. As UNHCR becomes increasingly involved with internally displaced and war affected population, and is able to take innovative measures to strengthen camp security for Rwandese refugees in eastern Zaire, one can appreciate the dramatic transformation of international humanitarian action in the post-Cold War world. But one is also acutely aware of new dangers to the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian mandates.

If the Indochinese exodus highlights the limits of protection in a politicized context, it also demonstrates the opportunities for solutions offered by an improved international climate. It is perhaps not surprising that southeast Asia should have been one of the first laboratories of a more comprehensive and solution-oriented approach to refugee problems. It is here that UNHCR has felt most acutely the Cold War disequilibrium between the approach to host countries and countries of origin. The 1979 Agreement on Indochinese refugees, for instance, emphasized the obligations of the countries of asylum and the international community, but ignored the responsibility of the country of origin towards its own citizens. It failed to recognize the right to return, far less the right of people to remain in their own homes in safety and security. Even though UNHCR sought to promote voluntary repatriation, especially to Laos, and signed a voluntary repatriation agreement with the Provisional Government of Laos, it became very quickly evident that international support was lacking. On the contrary, the interest appeared to be in encouraging further outflows from Laos and even to use some of the new arrivals in military activities aimed at destabilizing Laos. As far back as 1980, UNHCR established a presence in Phnom Penh and started voluntary repatriation but with very limited results until 1992.

The limited ability to pursue solutions did not negate the value of UNHCR's impartial and neutral presence in the country of origin. On the contrary it enhanced our credibility and operationality. In the case of Vietnam our presence predated the refugee exodus and was originally established in 1974 to assist persons displaced by the war. Although UNHCR's presence in Laos and Viet Nam was viewed with suspicion by some in the 1970s, eventually maintaining a balanced approach was a wise investment. There is little doubt today that our presence in Hanoi was instrumental in allowing us to broker the Orderly Departure Programme (ODP), the first indirect arrangement between US and Vietnam, which helped hundreds of thousands to leave Vietnam safely without risking their lives at sea. There is little doubt, too, that our early presence in Hanoi and Vientiane helped us to gain the confidence and fullest cooperation from both Governments when the time was ripe to launch a new approach to resolving the exodus.

What was perceived in 1979 as a solution - I am referring to the 1979 Agreement on temporary asylum and resettlement - had become, a decade later, precisely the problem. Over the years conditions in Vietnam and Laos had stabilized but the flow continued, thanks to the lure of resettlement in the West. International support waned with growing realization that the boat people were escaping, not persecution, but poverty. Resettlement quotas dwindled, while arrivals rose, leading once again to push-offs of boats, detention and abuse of asylum seekers.

This time, UNHCR exploited the changed international climate to pioneer a regional arrangement, called the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), which was adopted at the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees in 1989. Balancing protection abroad for refugees with solutions at home for non-refugees, the CPA sought to put refugees in the larger context of population movements in today's world. By allowing UNHCR to monitor the returnees, Vietnam acknowledged both the humanitarian interest of international monitoring for the individuals as well as the political value for the country of origin. Five years later, the outflow from Vietnam and Laos has stopped, almost all those identified as refugees have been resettled and more than 73,000 people have returned to Vietnam, which has scrupulously respected its safety assurances.

The issue of what to do with non-refugees who do not volunteer to return remains a thorny one, with US sensitivities revived by the new Congress. It illustrates not only the depth of US emotional attachment to the problem but also the extent to which US-Viet Nam bilateral relations have dominated the design and the implementation of the CPA. I met some of the returnees when I visited Vietnam in April 1992. The economic and social changes in Vietnam are dramatic and deeply impressive. I am optimistic for the future, and hope that those still in the camps will soon return home to contribute to the positive changes.

While the voluntary repatriation to Laos started on a very modest scale in the early eighties, it gained momentum in recent years. By now 26,000 Laotians, including ethnic minority groups, have successfully repatriated to Laos.

The successful repatriation of the Cambodian refugees two years ago brought an end to another tragic, and perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Indochinese exodus. Voluntary repatriation was an integral part of the UN operation which implemented the Peace Accords. As part of a new generation of peace-keeping operations, following the tradition of Namibia and blazing the trail for Mozambique and Angola, UNTAC sought to address humanitarian and human rights issues in conjunction with the underlying political and military problems.

Beginning in March 1992, ending some thirteen months later and spending over US$ 128 million, UNHCR moved 370,000 refugees from the Thai border back to areas of their choice in Cambodia, in time to participate in the UN-supervised elections. The refugees were eager to return and the movements occurred safely and voluntarily, without coercion in the camps or mistreatment on return. UNHCR monitored the situation of returnees in all parts of Cambodia, including areas under the control of the Khmer Rouge. In cooperation with UNDP, and building on our experience in central America, we launched a host of small community-based quick impact projects to help reintegrate the returnees. Today, the returnees are in no different situation than the local population, which is no mean achievement when one considers their long and difficult exile.

Looking at Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, one can see how the end of the Cold War, coupled with changes in the countries of origin, have revolutionized perceptions which had once coloured the humanitarian response and stymied solutions. Yesterday's enemies have become today's ally and economic partner. While sustained economic development, improved standards of living, and institutions of civic society are signs of stability in parts of southeast Asia, it is too early to be complacent about Indochina. Having come full cycle on solutions, the work must continue on prevention. Through economic progress peace must be sustained, through respect for human rights of all ethnic and religious groups democracy must be nurtured and stability promoted. Those countries of southeast Asia which once received refugees must now work on a preventive strategy which does not build barriers to keep people but tackles the causes which force people to flee.

Disparate economic growth and labour needs in the region, as well as improved mobility of people, are creating new migratory pressures. The establishment of clear immigration policies and procedures must therefore be a priority. Within the context of an immigration policy, the necessary safeguards must be built in to guarantee that refugees are protected. As in the past, UNHCR remains ready to help Governments to work out procedures that meet the needs of refugees and the interests of States.

To conclude, what are the lessons that we must cull from the Indochinese exodus and response? They are manifold, but let me emphasize a few in the light of what I have so far said.

First and foremost, a flexible interpretation of responsibilities. Principles need to be interpreted imaginatively and applied pragmatically. The role we played in Vietnam for the past two decades, beginning with the internally displaced and continuing to ODP and mass information campaigns under the CPA have shown how resilient our mandate can be with imaginative, yet judicious handling. Our capacity to evolve and innovate is fundamental to our ability to promote comprehensive responses in a rapidly changing world.

Secondly, the need to address the plight of the internally displaced. Today refugees are part of a larger picture of displacement. As Cambodia continues to demonstrate, protection of the internally displaced is important in order to contain refugee situations and to facilitate conditions conducive to the return of refugees. The international community must remain alert to the needs of the internally displaced.

Thirdly, asylum must remain a possibility even if it is not permanent. The concept of temporary refuge has proved its value in regions beyond Asia, most notably Europe, and should continue to be upheld by Asian governments. Through such a concept, refugees can find the sanctuary they badly need, while governments can afford to be more generous in the knowledge of the temporary nature of their burden.

Fourthly, an effective and early presence. As our experience in Hanoi, Vientiane and Phnom Penh showed, international presence is one of the most practical means of protecting returning refugees and internally displaced persons. It is also an important confidence-building measure, for returnees as well as the governments concerned.

Fifthly, rehabilitation of post-conflict societies. The reintegration of refugees depends on the socio-economic recovery of their home countries. UNHCR's quick-impact projects may help to reduce somewhat the gap between relief and development but it cannot address the rehabilitation and development needs of post-conflict societies like Cambodia and Laos. Unless there is the commitment, capacity and resources to tackle these diverse and difficult challenges, refugee solutions will remain at best fragile, at worst elusive.

Finally, the need for an integrated approach, as the CPA and Cambodia have shown. Refugee issues must be placed within a larger strategy of peace, development and human rights. Our twenty years of involvement in Indochina have vividly demonstrated that humanitarian action can buy time and space for political action, but it cannot be a substitute for the political will to resolve conflicts, or political commitment to prevent new outbreak of crisis.

I am convinced that our experience in Indochina has been invaluable. Here we learned to forsake old assumptions and fashion new concepts. We learned to mix action with imagination. Most importantly of all, we learned to work with a wide range of governmental and non-governmental partners. Together we have overcome some of the largest and longest refugee flows ever. Let us examine together both the strengths and weakness. I think Asian governments, the refugees and the international community can be justly proud of Asia's amazing "humanitarian miracle".