The Vietnamese refugee crisis of the 1970s and 1980s: a retrospective view from NGO resettlement workers.

Author:Vu, Anna N.


This article examines the role of NGO resettlement workers in refugee camps in Southeast Asia during the late 1970s and 1980s. The workers offered psychological support to refugees whose lives were in turmoil, but they also helped them present themselves in ways that would be most attractive to Western host countries. This process involves both commission and omission, NGO resettlement workers sometimes actively guided refugees by giving them specific advice and training. At other times, they facilitated this endeavour by observing how refugees fit themselves into the selection categories of various states, but chose to remain silent in order to avoid jeopardizing the refugees' chances for resettlement.


Cet article examine le role des travailleurs du secteur de reinstallation oeuvrant pour les ong dans les camps de refugies en Asie du Sud-Est pendant la fin des annees 70 et les annees 80. Les travailleurs ont non seulement fourni des soutiens psychologiques aux refugies dont la vie avait ete bouleversee, mais ils les ont egalement aide a se presenter aux pays d'accueil occidentaux sous des aspects qui seraient les plus favorables a attirer leur interet. C'etait un processus qui impliquait des parts egales de commission et d'omission. Parfois les travailleurs du secteur de reinstallation oeuvrant pour les ong ont activement guide les refugies en leur fournissant des conseils et des formations specifiques, tandis que d'autres fois ils ont choisi de les aider a atteindre leurs objectifs en observant passivement la facon dont les refugies tentaient de se faire conformer aux categories de selection de differents pays, afin d'eviter de mettre en peril leurs chances de reinstallation.


The Vietnamese refugee crisis that began with the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and the harsh reality of communist rule, (1) which culminated in the mass exodus of "boat people" beginning in 1978, was a defining moment for the international community and for countries of resettlement. The unhcr helped to negotiate a unique "orderly departure program" (2) with the Vietnamese government and organized a number of international conferences in order to manage the crisis, (3) and countries like the United States, Australia, and Canada developed new resettlement schemes in response to what was unfolding in the South China Sea. While some refugees returned to Vietnam in the 1990s as part of the Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated with the Vietnamese government, (4) before that many others were selected for resettlement by various governments after spending time in refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia. Over 1.6 million refugees were resettled between 1975 and 1997, mainly in Western countries. (5)

The broad contours of the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees are now well known. (6) Less well known, however, are the activities of "middle people" in the resettlement process-namely, the many Western volunteers and members of NGOS who staffed the refugee camps that were created for the Vietnamese and who provided comfort and aid to refugees and helped them to relocate to a safe third country. Occupying positions at what Steven Castles and Mark Miller call the "meso level" of the migration process, (7) these workers navigated the space between receiving state selection and admission policies and the refugees who were seeking resettlement.

This article focuses on the men and women who worked with Vietnamese refugees in transit camps in Southeast Asia beginning in the late 1970s and their perceptions of how refugees fit themselves into the selection categories of Western states. Data were collected on the basis of oral history interviews with these workers. This article examines how NGO resettlement workers sometimes merely observed the complex ways in which Vietnamese refugees negotiated the process of being accepted for resettlement, and how at other times they acted as direct facilitators in this process. It must be emphasized, however, that even choosing to "observe" rather than act had repercussions. To observe, but to remain silent about some or all of what one sees, is itself a choice, NGO resettlement workers were forced to make these decisions daily, and they realized that action (or inaction) would have profound implications for the future of these refugees.

Theoretical and Conceptual Context

International migration is arguably best understood from a systems perspective. (8) This perspective emphasizes the interconnections between the macro-level social, political, and economic forces that lead people to leave their countries of origin and state policies that define who should be admitted as an immigrant or refugee, and the micro-level individual and household-level calculus involved with decisions to leave and where to move. It also points to the importance of the "meso-level" third-party intermediaries who facilitate the migration. The latter, described by Castles and Miller as the "migration industry," includes immigration lawyers and consultants, travel agents, labour recruiters, and people smugglers, as well as the representatives of voluntary agencies and ngos that help migrants and refugees. (9)

At the macro level, state immigration policies normally contain clear-cut categories defining those it deems admissible and inadmissible. Most countries' immigration laws also specify particular sets of policies governing the selection and admittance of visitors, students, workers (with or without the right of permanent residence), family members, refugees, and the like. (10) These categories tend to be precisely defined and mutually exclusive. As Bakewell argues, (11) policy categories "are used to define those groups of people who are assumed to share particular qualities that make it reasonable to subject them to the same outcomes of policy. The policy will lay out how the organization concerned will interact with people who fall into a particular category; for example granting them legal rights or providing them with resources and services." (12)

These policies are further codified and made progressively more specific in immigration regulations and field processing manuals and guidelines issued to border control agents who are expected to implement policy. Visa issuance and other border control decisions essentially involve fitting individual cases into the boxes of the "admissible" categories within immigration policy. (13) In this light, individuals are not, in some ontological sense, inherently "refugees," "migrant workers," or "permanent residents," but rather become so because they are defined as such by states. (14)

At the micro level, the real world of immigrants and refugees is not as tidy as policy categories imply. (15) As the literature on transnationalism and diasporas has demonstrated, (16) it is actually quite rare for individuals to completely cut their ties and relationships with their home countries, and they often move back and forth between their countries of origin and settlement. This calls into question the seemingly hard and fast distinction between "sending" and "receiving" countries. Moreover, individuals and households often have mixed motives for migration, and it can be difficult to ascertain whether individuals and households move for "economic" or "political" reasons. Though some countries like Canada now recognize "dual intent," insofar as they recognize that an individual may seek temporary admission but also have the longer-term goal of settling permanently, individual visa applicants are assessed on the basis of the rules governing the application category under which they are applying.

As Turton argues in his discussion of how "forced migration" is conceptualized, the distinction between "forced" and "unforced" migration is inherently problematic: (17) "By trying to separate out the categories of migrants along a continuum of choice--free at one end and entirely closed at the other--... [various conceptualization] schemes are in danger of ignoring the most important quality of all migrants and indeed of all human beings: their agency." (18)

Turton is careful, however, to not completely dismiss the utility of the category of "forced migrant." Instead, he pleads for a better understanding of the point of view of refugees, or "forced migrants," their inherent humanity as "purposive actors," and "their active decision making: how they reach the decision to leave, what information is available to them when they make the decision; the way in which their journey is financed, the degree to which it is planned with a specific destination in mind; the extent to which they had prior contact with that country, etc. etc." (19)

Thus, if state border-control decisions involve fitting individual cases into immigration categories, individual migrants and refugees, through their agency, also try to fit themselves into the categories they believe the state is looking for by virtue of its immigration categories. As such, all migrants--whether they apply as students, temporary workers, family members, permanent residents, or refugees--are "purpose actors" (20) who craft their biographies in ways that they believe will maximize their chances of being selected by the country in which they wish to settle. In so doing, they may selectively emphasize, de-emphasize, embellish, and modify aspects of their biographies, identities, and situations that they believe would favourably impress the country of their choice. Of course, the process of biography formation, or what Goffman called the "presentation of self in everyday life," (21) can cross into misrepresentation and fraud where claimed identities, experiences, relationships, and attributes have little or no basis in reality.

In this context, third parties at the meso level also play a key role in this collaborative process of biography formation and categorization. Immigration lawyers and...

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