The Canadian South East Asia Refugee Historical Research Project

The South East Asian Refugees

Canada 1975-1991

A Brief Overview

The flight of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to other countries around the South China Sea, either by boats 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.  Its initial causes were the victories of national communist armed forces against the governments in all three countries.  As the defender of purportedly “liberal” but, in fact often corrupt local governments, the United States had waged unwinnable struggles after the defeat and withdrawal of France, the former colonial power. Once the communist nationalists won the vicious, terribly destructive Indochinese wars, they were ready to punish their enemies, meaning any supporters, officials or soldiers of the former governments. As well, the new governments 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 re-educated, meaning punished in concentration camp like conditions.  

The first major refugee outflow took place in 1975-76, following the communist victories. 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 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 South East Asia in July 1979, by emptying refugee camps 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 more or less 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 the Indochinese refugee movement was becoming a de facto immigration movement, with many potential immigrants using the refugee resettlement route to gain admission to developed countries. In 1989, through the international Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international community agreed to phase out third country resettlement as the principal solution to population outflows in South East Asia.

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

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 bilingual and bicultural 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 South East 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, the Refugee Matching Centre) that are still in place. The Indochinese refugee movement, especially in course of the high pressure, difficult 1979-80 period, demonstrated the ability of Canadian public servants to meet extreme challenges. 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, patriotic Canadians.