The South East Asian Refugees

Canada 1975-1991

A Brief Overview

The American involvement in Vietnam began in the aftermath of the Second World War and in the context of the conflict with the Soviet Union which became known as the Cold War. They began providing funds to the French military to support their presence in Vietnam as they fought against forces led by the Communist Party of Vietnam. In 1950, both the Soviet Union and China recognized the Communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam based in Hanoi in the north. A little while later, the US and its allies recognized the State of Vietnam based in Saigon in the south.

On 7 May 1954, after a conflict at Dien Bien Phu with the military forces of the North, the French military surrendered. This marked the end of French military involvement in Indochina. At a peace conference in Geneva, the French negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the North. The country was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel. Under the 1954 Geneva Accords, civilians were given the opportunity to move freely between the two provisional states for a 300-day period. Elections throughout the country were to be held in 1956 to establish a unified government. Subsequently, the Americans repudiated the agreement since it was signed neither by them nor the South Vietnamese government they supported. By the terms of the Geneva agreement, both Laos and Cambodia became independent.

Thousands of mainly Catholic Vietnamese migrated to the south while supporters of the Communist Party moved to the north during the 300 days. In 1956, the last French soldiers left South Vietnam and the remaining solders from China left the north. In the north, Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party consolidated power while in the south Ngô Đình Diệm, appointed Prime Minister, consolidated his power. Unification elections were not held.

American direct involvement in Southeast Asia took place in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from November 1, 1955 to the fall of Saigon, South Vietnam on April 30, 1975. The United States sought to replace France as the dominant power in Southeast Asia and under its containment policy sought to prevent the fall of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam to communist forces.

The Vietnam War was fought between North Vietnam, supported by the Soviet Union and China which supplied political support and war materials, and South Vietnam supported by the United States which began by sending military advisors and eventually intervened directly with ground, air, and naval forces. The war was exceedingly destructive, caused massive internal displacements and was extended into both Laos (1968) and Cambodia (1970). A massive North Vietnamese offensive in 1968 (the Tet Offensive) was defeated militarily by US and South Vietnamese forces but destroyed American popular support for the war, leading to an eventual American withdrawal.

On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon marking the end of the Vietnam war. The victorious communist nationalists were ready to punish their enemies, meaning any supporters, officials, or soldiers of the former government. As well, the new government considered members of the professional or business classes, especially if these were part of minority ethnic groups ? in particular the Chinese - as class enemies to be expelled or re-educated, meaning punished in concentration camp-like conditions. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, which took power in 1975 under the leadership of Pol Pot, arrested and executed those who had any connection with the former government, as well as landowners, businessmen, professionals, and intellectuals. The genocide resulted in an estimated 1.5 to 2 million deaths in camps across the country. The deaths represented about one quarter of the population. In 1978, the forces of the now unified Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Between 1978 and 1992, there were a succession of governments under the influence of the Vietnamese military occupying the country.

For Canada, the Indochinese Refugee Movement was very important for a number of reasons. It was the largest single refugee resettlement movement to Canada since the post-World War II emptying of displaced person camps in Europe.

During the war, relentless bombing resulted in the destruction of the land and rice fields littered with land mines and contaminated with chemicals and herbicides used to destroy rice and other crops. Due to its strategic importance, Laos became part of the US Secret War and was subjected to a US bombing campaign. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. In 1975, the Pathet Lao, the Lao Communist Party, took power in the country after a civil war with the Royal Lao Army which began in 1960. In the years after 1975, many Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians faced food shortages, severe hunger, and death from disease and starvation.

The flight of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to other countries around the South China Sea, either by boat to harbours in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, and Singapore, or overland to Thailand and China, started in April-May 1975 and continued, intermittently, until the early 1990s.

The first major refugee outflow took place in 1975-76, following the communist victories in all three countries. After a short respite during 1977, the refugee outflows again increased rapidly in 1978, both by boat over the South China Sea and across the land borders from Cambodia and the Mekong River from Laos, reaching catastrophic proportions by early 1979. A series of local wars, the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, harvest failures, terrible economic conditions, and the persecution of those people who were termed class and ethnic enemies pushed huge numbers of people to embark on terribly dangerous, often deadly, journeys from their homelands. The international community managed to agree to resolve this major international humanitarian and political crisis in Southeast Asia in July 1979, through resettlement in developed countries.

By the end of 1980, the number of camps was dramatically reduced, and the refugee crisis appeared, at first, to be resolved. By 1981, the three refugee source countries were on a slow, uneven road to internal stabilization. However, through the early 1980s, large parts of their populations felt under pressure and continued to escape to surrounding countries and then to resettlement in the West. By the late 1980s, however, with Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia largely stabilized, it became evident that an increasing proportion of those arriving in refugee camps were motivated by family and economic factors. In 1989, through the international Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international community introduced screening for refugee status and agreed to phase out third country resettlement as the principal solution to population outflows in Southeast Asia.

For Canada, the Indochinese Refugee Movement was very important for a number of reasons. It was the largest single refugee resettlement movement to Canada since the post-World War II emptying of displaced person camps in Europe. It was the first mass refugee movement that resettled visible minority populations that were culturally, ethnically and linguistically very different from the Canadian mainstream. It was the first refugee movement in which ordinary Canadians, the Canadian people, played a decisive role through the newly created private and group sponsorship vehicles. The extraordinary role of ordinary Canadians in resolving the Southeast Asian refugee crisis was recognized internationally when the UN awarded the Nansen Medal (the highest international honour for assisting refugees) to the people of Canada in 1986.

To meet the administrative and operational challenges of the Indochinese refugee movement, Canada's public servants created several innovative solutions (private and group sponsorships, designated classes, and the Refugee Matching Centre) that are still in place. Finally, and most importantly, the successful integration of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees into Canadian society has demonstrated that refugees can, and do, make real contributions to Canada, and that they and their children can and do become committed, productive, patriotic Canadians.