Pressure mounts on boat people to go home

Vietnamese refugees: Twenty years after the harrowing exodus, UN makes deal to end the saga
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The Independent Online
"Boat people, refugees, esp. from Vietnam, who set off in boats to find a country that will admit them."

It is rare for a regional humanitarian crisis to have such an impact that it gives rise to a new entry in the dictionaries.

But the boat people were different from the start. Their agonising drama shook the world. Now, 20 years on, the era is coming to an end. Willingly or not, the remaining 40,000 boat people are about to go home.

The tale of the boat people began with tragedy, mixed with lashings of Western guilt. After the Communist victory in South Vietnam, hundreds of thousands piled into boats in search of a new life. On the open seas they were prey to pirates and sharks; tens of thousands are reckoned to have died.

Their immediate destinations were less than welcoming. Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's Prime Minister, who was then home minister, said it would be necessary to shoot on sight. Bizarrely, in response to international outrage, this was claimed to be a mishearing; according to the sanitised version, he was alleged to have said "shoo on sight". "Push-back" became a standard policy.

Western countries, especially the United States, where many were ashamed of waging the war, losing the war, or both, were embarrassed at seeing Vietnamese brutally driven back. But they gagged at the thought of allowing ever-increasing numbers to arrive.

Instead, it was agreed that the boat people would stay temporarily in the "countries of first asylum", until their applications had been processed, or until they could be persuaded to return home.

At the end of the 1980s, partly because of less stringent controls inside Vietnam, the trickle turned once more into a flood. In 1989 a comprehensive plan of action (CPA) was created, which sought to bring the problem under control.

Attempts to repatriate the boat people were fiercely resisted. In Hong Kong, which has 20,000 Vietnamese, by far the biggest share of the refugees, there have been riots.

In the West there was much queasiness over harrowing pictures of Vietnamese families behind barbed wire. But the United Nations agency for refugees, the UNHCR, remains unwilling to be critical. "The UNHCR is opposed to the use of force ... But these are illegal immigrants who are being deported," emphasises Ruth Marshall, UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva. The UNHCR regards them as "economic migrants" and is confident there will be no persecution of those who return.

For years, the Americans were reluctant to be involved in forced repatriation, to the irritation of countries such as Britain, which believed the problem could long ago have been solved if not for American concerns. In theory there is still a deadlock, as the Republican-led Congress still wants to second-guess UNHCR's screening of would-be refugees.

In practice the returnees seem to have few choices left. A meeting hosted by UNHCR in Bangkok this month agreed the camps will be closed down by the end of June; Hong Kong, with its more than 20,000 boat people, gets 12 months' extra grace. (China, with an eye on next year's handover, has talked of Britain's "unshirkable responsibility" for solving the problem.) A meeting in early March is due to finalise the deal that was agreed in Bangkok.

The deal became possible partly because of a new sense of determination at the UNHCR, which was worried about its involvement in what it sees as an expensive anomaly.

Equally importantly, Vietnam has, in the words of one Hong Kong official, "stopped playing hardball". With its rapidly developing economy, Vietnam wants good relations with its neighbours. It joined Asean, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, last year. Even now it is unclear how it will absorb 40,000 returnees. None the less, it is keen to earn brownie points. The pill is sugared by what the UNHCR describes as a "financially favourable" package: an average annual income (around pounds 230) for each man, woman and child who returns.

Officially everybody is playing down the suggestion of forced repatriation. But the reality is different: whoever refuses to jump will be pushed.

In Malaysia, which still has about 4,000 boat people, one man died and many more were injured in protests this month against the decision to send them home. Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines still have many thousands who will have to go. A small number has begun to return home voluntarily.

However, in the words of Court Robinson, a Bangkok-based academic who has studied the problems of the boat people for years: "People have realised that the US will not be riding in on a white charger. This is real, this is it."

It seems unlikely everybody, in Mr Robinson's words, will go "meekly to the plane". But the story of the boat people, lost in a limbo between their homeland and their hoped-for destination, seems finally to be over.