‘Boat people’ and refugees

The 20th century — and into the 21st — was one of continual exodus and diaspora thanks to wars, border changes, and political shifts. Jewish people fled Europe in the Second World War, desperately seeking refuge from the Nazis. Survivors of the Vietnam war scattered after the fall of Saigon. Residents of the Balkans were pushed into refugee camps, as were Iraqis after the war — in Sudan, in Rwanda, in countless nations all over the world, people found themselves ejected from their homelands and forced to live on borrowed time and borrowed ground, utterly dependent on world aid agencies for assistance and the tools they needed for survival.

The history of the ‘boat people,’ the refugees who fled Vietnam after the war, is particularly interesting, in part because the history of the vast diaspora isn’t often taught; and when it is, the scope isn’t discussed. An event that was key in the lives of Vietnamese people all over the world is only a vague and hazy moment in history, if anything at all, to many Westerners, and the narratives that surround the Vietnamese diaspora can be misleading.

Referring to refugees in and of themselves as ‘boat people’ is somewhat dehumanising, and it’s telling that nations continue to use this kind of language as they refuse refugees and asylum-seekers who reach their shores and beg for assistance. Distancing themselves allows world governments to dodge the issue, avoiding the fact that these aren’t vague and amorphous masses, but actual human beings who have been living in dangerous conditions and are seeking safety. Refugees aren’t just people ‘seeking better lives’ or looking for chances to build new lives and careers in a different homeland.

Many are people who feel wrenched way from their traditions, their roots, and their culture, but have no choice. Some are in danger for their lives or need to flee to protect family members — in war-torn regions, the losers must flee from the victors, as seen in Vietnam in the 1960s and well through the 1980s. In other areas, people left with nothing as a result of exploitation, climate change, and wars over resources are also pushed out of their communities — just like those who are forced out by settlements and colonial takeovers of their homes. This isn’t about wanting to take advantage of wealthy nations, but about a fight for survival.

As was the case for Vietnamese nationals desperately trying to get out of Vietnam in the wake of the war. Many knew that staying could be incredibly dangerous, with significant risks for those who chose to remain or who were forced into continuing to serve the new government. They fled via any means possible, including over land and sea, paying a fortune for entry and exit documents, to human traffickers, to anyone they could to help them escape. And thus was born the exodus that brought what may be as many as 1.3 million Vietnamese people out of the troubled nation.

Like modern-day refugees endangering themselves to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, Vietnamese (along with Laotian and Cambodian) refugees crammed themselves into small, poorly-maintained boats that were incredibly vulnerable to the elements. Thousands died in storms, because their boats drifted off course, because their boats simply sank, or at the hands of pirates who looted the refugees of the scarce belongings they managed to take along with them. Those who patrolled the waters could reap a fortune in stolen goods, waiting like sharks for vulnerable refugees to pass by.

The inevitable result of the flood of refugees was a crisis as people of all ages, genders, and abilities spread across Southeast Asia. Many lived in dangerous and poor conditions, including refugee camps, before nations started severely restricting immigration or refusing refugees altogether, setting them adrift and forcing them to search elsewhere. Some ended up on deserted islands, watching members of their cohort die one by one. Ultimately, nations like the US and Canada began opening their borders to a limited number of refugees, creating more opportunities for people to seek safety and create new lives for themselves since they couldn’t go home.

But resettling meant giving up home and the familiar¬†in Vietnam. It sometimes meant being separated from family members, and not necessarily knowing what had happened to them. It meant that refugees were forced to start from scratch, even if they’d had capital, professional qualifications, and connections at home. As second, third, and fourth generations are born, they may be abstracted from the experiences of their parents, but they still live with the legacy of the refugee crisis — even if they aren’t aware of it. The mass exodus of refugees from Vietnam had a profound effect on the world, and it’s being slowly wiped away from history.

We need to retain these histories, and these events, to preserve the culture of the communities affected by them. We also need to understand what happened and why because it’s relevant to what may happen next — Vietnam wasn’t the first or the last country that faced a refugee crisis, and the experience of resettling refugees should have provided instructive experiences for national governments, but it didn’t. We’re reinventing the wheel in multiple countries right now as the world attempts to figure out how to cope with refugees, all while engaging in the same humanitarian violations of the 1960s and 1970s. People are turned away from the borders in places like Italy and Australia, held in immigration facilities that resemble jails more than shelters, left to die and tormented by the governments they’re appealing to for help.

Is this the kind of world we want to live in?

Image: HUE 1968, manhhai (Terry Fincher/Getty Images), Flickr