Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the award of the Nansen Medal for 1984 to Captain Lewis M. Hiller and the crew of the U.S. merchant ship Rose City

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the award of the Nansen Medal for 1984 to Captain Lewis M. Hiller and the crew of the U.S. merchant ship Rose City

1 October 1984
Nansen Medal Award Ceremony 1984
Language versions:

Mr. President,

I should like first to thank the Secretary General, Mr. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, for the sustained interest he takes in the work for refugees, as reflected once again in the message you just conveyed to us on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Award of the Nansen Medal.

Our attention today is focused on the saga of the boat people and on their rescue by sailors who abide by the time-honoured code of chivalry at sea and follow the noble impulse of their hearts. Among these courageous men are Captain Lewis Hiller, Mr. Jeff Kass and Mr. Gregg Turay of the United States merchant vessel, the "Rose City", whom I have the privilege to welcome in our midst. Their daring rescue of 85 Indo-Chinese refugees in distress by stormy weather in the darkness of the night deserves to be inscribed in golden letters in the annals of maritime and refugee history.

It will soon be one decade since the first wave of boat people left their country and sailed into the open sea in search of a land that would welcome them on its shores. Today their drama continues unabated. Upon the end of the Vietnam war their exodus started, first a trickle, then a stream and soon a flood swelling to hundreds of thousands. Leaving at the fall of night, carrying often only the barest necessities - food and water to last just a few days - they would embark, in frail crafts lacking the equipment needed to cross the high seas. Heading for the nearest country of refuge, inexperienced in navigation, they would often be unable to reach land owing to lack of fuel, breakdown, contrary tide or winds or just rough weather. The least fortunate would be hit by a typhoon or fall a prey to aggression of the most cruel kind.

Of those known to have reached friendly shores, the majority landed in nearby Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia or Thailand; substantial numbers also reached the Philippines and Singapore; some even went as far as Australia.

Well over half a million boat people have fulfilled their objective and have found new homes, thanks to their acceptance for settlement by the United States and other traditional immigration countries, many European countries and also states which admit to their territory refugees rescued by ships sailing under their flag. But how many others have died before their dream was realized? The ordeal suffered by these people defies the imagination. A considerable number of those who flee are never heard of again; many others are marked for life.

All refugees are exposed to physical risks, whether they leave secretly across a border or as stowaways hidden in the luggage hole of a plane or underneath a railway carriage, not to speak of the moral suffering they endure when they leave familiar surroundings for an uncertain future and with the gloomy prospect of camp life. The odyssey of boat people, however, is a never-ending fight for survival from the moment they conceive their flight until they are admitted for permanent settlement - which may take months and sometimes years. Be this as it may, at the risk of their life and of that of their beloved ones, they set out on what might well become their last journey.

After days and sometimes weeks of wandering on the high seas, exhausted from their efforts to keep their unsteady craft going, with roars or makeshift sails after the engine has given up, succumbing to starvation and thirst, these most harassed victims of natural and man-made disasters gather their remaining strength to attract the attention of passing ships; but all too often their hopes are dashed and not just once, but dozens of times, day after day, night after night, their signals of distress are ignored.

In earlier days, ships were more likely to halt and pick up boat people, even if this meant steering a different course and experiencing difficulties in finding a country of first asylum where the refugees could disembark. Of course the rescue ship might be delayed, pending health control and processing for admission - and even more if the refugees are not allowed to land and if it should then proceed to another port. All this would also mean financial losses to the company and, consequently, trouble for the shipmaster. It follows that, especially since the late seventies, rescues have become fewer. It is true that an orderly departure programme put into effect by the Vietnam Government as of 1979 proved to be successful in that it offers a viable alternative to those who wish to depart. Even so, however, the problem of Indo-Chinese refugees has basically remained so that many of these unfortunate people continue to make the hazardous journey.

As the exodus continued relentlessly, the attention of the international community and of the shipping world was drawn to this issue, which far transcends the local context. The question of rescue at sea was considered in detail by experts, who recommended in particular that ships operating in the South China Sea be instructed to help in rescue operations and that a pool of resettlement places be made available to UNHCR. This was intended to facilitate rapid disembarkation at the first port of call, specially when the flag state could not provide a resettlement guarantee or when the rescue ship was flying a flag of convenience. In a spirit of burden-sharing, many resettlement countries gave a favourable response. It thus became possible to work out special devices for disembarkation and for the provision of resettlement offers - (the so-called DISERO plans) - whereby resettlement guarantees could be given to the country of first asylum, where necessary. Guidelines concerning the implementation of these plans were extensively distributed to shipmasters of ships regularly sailing in the area, in the hope that they would then be in a better position to rescue boat people. Even so, a great many cargo ships today either ignore these new facilities or seem unable or unwilling to devote the time and effort needed for rescue operations.

It is all the more gratifying, therefore, that throughout the past nine years there have been sailors and also others who, each in their own field of activity, have helped save some of the boat people who might otherwise have perished. The award is thus also intended to pay a symbolic tribute to all those - often unknown to UNHCR - whose humanitarian action has alleviated the plight of Indo-Chinese at sea. Ranging from organized large-scale sea rescue by cargo ships of greater tonnage, to individual help lent by island villagers to refugees whose boat was stranded underneath steep cliffs, such action also encompasses search and rescue by naval units, by coastal guards and helicopter pilots, not to omit the assistance lent by fishing trawlers, the staff of off-shore rigs as well as medical and social welfare teams ashore.

Today we wish to highlight the remarkable performance of the American Tanker, the "Rose City", under the command of Captain Lewis Hiller. As you were heading for Dumai, in Indonesia, on the stormy evening of 21 September 1983, you sighted a small boat tossed about by wind and waves, which seemed to emit SOS signals. You did not for one moment hesitate to approach the tiny craft filled beyond capacity with a majority of women and children - including, as was learned afterwards, two pregnant women and one 11-month-old baby. They were boat people in distress. In spite of heavy squalls, you, Captain Hiller, and your valiant team carried out the rescue operation which was to last 3-and-a-half hours. And it was the great merit of Messrs. Kass and Turay that, spotting some of the refugees who had fallen overboard, they jumped into the turbulent water and swam towards the refugees to help save their lives.

After the rescue it was discovered that one sixteen-year-old girl was still missing and had presumably perished at sea. Although the Rose City searched for her throughout the night, she could unfortunately not be found.

The refugees were disembarked at Singapore and subsequently resettled in the United States of America.

In a book on "the Boat People", by Bruce Grant, I read a poem from an unknown Vietnamese which says:

"Our cries are lost in the howling wind.
Without food, without water, our children lie exhausted
until they cry no more.
We thirst for land but are turned back from every shore.
our distress signals rise and rise again
but the passing ships do not stop."

You, however, Captain Hiller, decided to stop your 94,000-ton vessel and, together with Mr. Kass and Mr. Turay, you put your heart and soul into a most demanding rescue operation which saved 85 human lives.

It is in recognition of this exemplary behaviour, and of the spirit in which the action was conducted, that the Nansen Committee has decided to give you jointly the Nansen Medal for 1984.

The award is accompanied by a 50,000 US$ prize, which Is to be used for aid to refugees under a project which has been worked out in consultation with the recipients.

I shall now read out the award certificate:


THE NANSEN MEDAL AWARD COMMITTEE, instituted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,

DEEPLY STRUCK by the dramatic plight of Indo-Chinese refugees leaving their country in small boats by sea,

FULLY AWARE of the vital importance of rescuing those in distress at sea and whose life is in peril,

RECALLING that Shipping Companies and Shipmasters in the area are repeatedly being urged to render assistance to everyone found at sea and in danger of being lost,

WISHING, THROUGH THE PRESENT AWARD, TO PAY TRIBUTE to all those persons - often unknown - who through their courageous action contribute to saving the lives of boat people,

RECOGNIZING the humanitarian concern and outstanding performance of the crew of the American merchant vessel, the "Rose City", which rescued 85 Indo-Chinese in stormy seas at night, and

DESIRING to honour especially its Shipmaster, Captain L.M. Hiller who organised the rescue and crew members Mr. G. Turay and Mr. J. Kass who swam towards some of the refugees to help save their lives,

HEREBY AWARDS the Hansen Medal for 1984 jointly to


Captain of the US merchant ship "Rose City"



Members of the crew

President of the Committee

Secretary of the Committee

Geneva, October 1984