The Indochinese refugee movement and the subsequent evolution of UNHCR and Canadian resettlement selection policies and practices.

Author:Casasola, Michael
Position:United Nations Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - Report


The Indochinese refugee movement cast a long shadow over subsequent resettlement operations, UNHCR has since asserted greater leadership, with resettlement becoming more individually focused and globally diverse, but also more complex. Canadian policy has also evolved to become increasingly focused on protection and supportive of UNHCR's durable solution activities.

This article seeks to compare UNHCR and Canadian resettlement selection policy and practice in place during the time of the Indochinese movement up to mid-2015. It highlights key elements in the evolution of UNHCR and Canadian resettlement policy and the factors behind them. It also identifies aspects of the Indochinese movement that are relevant to contemporary refugee policy.


Le mouvement indochinois des refugies a exerce une influence profonde sur les initiatives subsequentes de reinstallation. Le HCR s'est affirme davantage a la suite en tant que chef de file dans ce domaine, avec une approche a la reinstallation de plus en plus individuelle ainsi que diversifiee a l'echelle mondiale, mais aussi plus complexe. Les politiques canadiennes ont egalement evolue vers la protection comme principe fondamental, ainsi que le soutien des solutions durables promulguees par le HCR.

Cet article a pour objectif de comparer les politiques et pratiques de selectionnement en matiere de reinstallation de la part du HCR et du Canada a partir de l'epoque du mouvement indochinois jusqu'a la premiere moitie de l'annee 2015. Il souligne les elements cles dans l'evolution des politiques et pratiques de reinstallation de la part du HCR et du Canada, ainsi que les facteurs qui les ont influences. Il identifie egalement les aspects du mouvement indochinois qui sont pertinents aux politiques contemporaines en matiere de refugies.


Importance of the Indochinese Movement for Resettlement Internationally and for Canada

Resettlement is an important part of Canada's response to the global refugee population. Canada has always been an immigration country, but the Immigration Act of 1976 for the first time explicitly included the goal of "upholding Canada's humanitarian tradition by welcoming refugees." (1) The structure of Canada's refuge programs was set out in the Act, which also ensured the engagement of Canadian civil society in resettlement through the establishment of a private sponsorship of refugees (PSR) program. However, Canadian resettlement has undergone a series of revisions and updates from the time it came into force in 1978 until mid-2015. The changes were sometimes linked to larger reform measures, but at other times made in isolation.

The refugee protection environment has undergone continuous change over this same period, with new challenges in forced displacement, a litany of new conflicts, entrenchment of conflicts that began decades ago, and the increased inability to find solutions. Resettlement has been presented as one means to address some of these challenges. It has also been presented in some schemes as a legal pathway to respond to mixed migration flows.

Resettlement functions as a tool of protection, providing a durable solution and international responsibility-sharing and is one piece within a broader protection regime. (2) Under the auspices of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it has undergone refinement and reinvigoration since the time of the Indochinese movement. This article follows the evolution in both UNHCR and Canadian resettlement selection policy from the time of the Indochinese movement to mid-2015. It highlights key developments and notes how some elements from the Indochinese era are once again relevant.

The resettlement of Indochinese refugees was a defining movement for refugee resettlement, both internationally and for Canada. Almost two million Indochinese were resettled between 1975 and 1997 from countries of first asylum and through orderly departure programs (legal emigration from the source country). (3) Canada alone resettled over 200,000 Indochinese during this period. (4) The offers of large-scale resettlement ultimately brought an end to the pushback of Vietnamese boats and ensured those fleeing Vietnam access to asylum. (5) While the vast majority went to the United States, Canada, Australia, or France, a large number of countries were involved in resettling Indochinese refugees. (6) Their collective efforts demonstrated the ability of states to work together to resolve a large-scale refugee crisis through resettlement. With the establishment of the Comprehensive Plan of Action (cpa), (7) resettlement became part of a protection framework that included refugee status determination, resettlement of recognized refugees, returns of refused asylum seekers, and an orderly departure program.

The movement also highlighted some of the critiques of resettlement. The availability of resettlement was viewed by 1988 as a "pull factor" involving both refugees and economic migrants. (8) Although there were other refugees around the world with needs for serious protection and durable solution that could have been resolved through resettlement, this durable solution was virtually reserved for the Indochinese, as it was not until 1993 that Vietnamese made up less than half of all those resettled globally. (9) The reality that those being resettled were fleeing communist states was consistent with the critique that resettlement was effectively a Cold War instrument. (10) The perceived automatic resettlement of Indochinese asylum-seekers arriving over many years led to a malaise about resettlement inside UNHCR. Many staff began feeling that although this movement enabled access to asylum, UNHCR's work in resettling Indochinese refugees was more akin to that of a travel agency than a protection agency. (11)

For Canada, the Indochinese movement was well timed. A decade earlier Canada had removed race as a factor in immigration selection and had signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. The implementation of the 1976 Immigration Act introduced a more transparent resettlement framework. It also enabled the creation of designated classes, (12) giving Canadian officials the ability to apply a lower threshold in selecting members of a designated group for resettlement. In Canada, individuals and groups were so moved by the plight of the Indochinese that they not only advocated for government action, but also organized a public response encouraging Canadians "to rescue" the Indochinese through the private sponsorship program. This movement was facilitated by an interested media and a government who welcomed the opportunity to tap into the public concern of Canadians. (13) The spirit of volunteerism and the large numbers eventually resettled to Canada were recognized in 1986 when the "People of Canada" were awarded the Nansen Medal, the only time the medal has been awarded to the people of a country.

The Evolution of Resettlement and UNHCR's Increased Leadership Role

In the decades prior to the Indochinese movement, the international community already had experience working together to offer resettlement as part of the response to a select number of refugee crises, mainly in Europe. As noted, while the Indochinese refugees dominated resettlement internationally for some time, the view of resettlement evolved while this movement was effectively winding down. This was noted in the 1994 evaluation UNHCR undertook to review the implementation of its resettlement policy and practice:

The scale of resettlement activities has changed dramatically over the last decade and a half. In 1979, at the peak of the refugee outflows in South East Asia, resettlement was viewed by most, if not all parties concerned, as the only viable durable solution for approximately 1 in 20 of the world's 5-6 million refugees. In 1993, this ratio had fallen dramatically to just 1 in 400. Despite a quadrupling of the world's refugee population in the interim, this represents a significant drop in the absolute number of UNHCR cases being resettled, from over 200,000 a year in the late 1970s to 50-60,000 a year in the mid-1990s. At the same time, major resettlement countries have focussed their efforts on other refugee and refugee-like caseloads, and not those cases identified by UNHCR. (14) The evaluation underscored the fact that a large part of resettlement taking place globally did not involve UNHCR, and that state selection was not always on the basis of the refugee definition. Where UNHCR was involved, questions were raised about the quality of submissions. (15)

The ideas in the evaluation set the course for resettlement for the next few years. While critical of UNHCR in some aspects, it also affirmed that governments were increasingly looking to UNHCR for direction on resettlement. Among the resulting initiatives was a reaffirmation of UNHCR's leadership on resettlement with the support of resettlement states, including the formal endorsement of the resettlement criteria outlined in the 1996 Resettlement Handbook. The Working Group on Resettlement and the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement were established as the forums to engage multilaterally on resettlement. Furthermore, as part of UNHCR's leadership, its headquarters redirected their efforts into policy oversight, training, and tools development.

In 1999 evidence arose concerning widespread malfeasance relating to the refugee status determination and resettlement process in UNHCR's office in Nairobi. (16) The December 2001 report on the investigation conducted by the un Office of Internal Oversight Services concluded that there was a largescale criminal network involving UNHCR and non-UNHCR staff who demanded and received money to enable refugees and others to emigrate from Kenya to Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (17) The report, which made a number of technical recommendations in...

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