Vietnam's boat people: 25 years of fears, hopes and dreams
By Scott McKenzie
(CNN) -- When a teen-age Ngo Van Ha hitched up his jeans and headed for the departure lounge at Hong Kong's now-closed Kai Tak airport six years ago, he became a symbol of hope to thousands of boat people who had languished in camps for years after risking their lives to escape Vietnam.
He was boarding a flight to the United States, a step that would forever remove him from the detention centers so many others were desperate to escape. The alternative for Ha was a return to Vietnam, loss of face, and more importantly, loss of a dream.
For many of Vietnam's boat people, however, return was the only option -- unlike those who fled Vietnam in the "early days" of departures. The latest generation of mostly economic refugees in the 1980s and 1990s had only one option: going home.
The boat people who had once captured the world's sympathy had become something else, and the world had changed its mind.
By the early part of the 1970s it was becoming clear that the United States and its allies were losing the war against North Vietnam. Yes, there were victories, but for the most part it was just a matter of time before the Communists seized control of the entire country.
That time came in April 1975. Tanks rolled through the streets of the southern capital, Saigon. The war was lost. The real losers, however, were those left behind who had stood on the side of South Vietnam and believed their allegiance would see them through.
Fear took over and the exodus began -- the largest mass departure of asylum seekers by sea in modern history.
Images of makeshift camps overflowing with humanity flashed around the world; of rickety boats sinking as they were towed into harbors in countries as far away from Vietnam as Australia; of a people desperate for new lives.
At the time, the world deemed most of them refugees as defined by international criteria -- they faced political, religious or other forms of persecution if they returned to Vietnam.
The early waves of boat people arrived mostly on the doorsteps of Vietnam's neighbors. Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines were hit by an influx their governments admitted they were ill-prepared to deal with.
Each arrival had a different story, but the theme was common. All were seeking resettlement in a third country. In many cases parents still in Vietnam used life savings to put a child on a boat departing the coast of their homeland. Their plan was for the child (typically a son) to win refugee status in a third country, a status that would be the anchor for the rest of the family following.
The world, for the most part, embraced Vietnam's boat people. The United States took in the largest number. Canada, Australia and Britain also pitched in with programs accepting large numbers. But refugees went everywhere. Iceland resettled a handful, as did Bermuda.
A key player in handling the arrivals to the United States was Roger Winter, who wore two hats through the busy years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Initially he led the resettlement efforts of the Carter administration, then for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a private group of which he is now executive director.
"These were not people who were simply seeking to move to the U.S. or some other resettlement country. These were people that needed to be rescued and in that sense of the word it was different than many other migratory movements," Winter told CNN Interactive.
The United States took in the large number of people it did largely for two reasons, Winter said -- a sense of guilt and a sense of loyalty toward the people it had walked away from in 1975, and thus a need to rescue them.
A Vietnamese refugee cares for three small children after she and others were picked up from their wooden boat by a whaling ship in the South China Sea in August 1979
Then, in the late 1970s, the images changed from the ones of caring and help offered in ports of first asylum to the early arrivals. Television footage from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia started showing boatloads of Vietnamese being pushed out to sea -- turned away to face the pirates that trawled the region for easy pickings.
It was widely considered "morally correct" in the United States for the country to play its part, Winter recalled. President Jimmy Carter made a decision to jump resettlement numbers from Southeast Asia to 14,000 a month -- double what it had been.
The flow continued unabated into the 1980s with a significant spike in arrivals in 1980 and 1981, an increase that resulted from Carter's decision. Essentially the enhanced prospects for resettlement sent a surge of people into the South China Sea.
A turning tide
By the late 1980s, however, the ports of first asylum in Asia and the resettlement countries were reconsidering their policies. Resettlement ratios had flip-flopped: Arrivals outweighed departures. A new breed of boat people was taking to the seas. They were, for the most part, economic refugees.
Many arriving in Hong Kong in particular were from North Vietnam. They were farmers, factory workers and laborers looking for a new life. There was no proof many of these arrivals faced persecution if they returned.
It was at this point the international community, in tandem with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, met to produce what was termed the Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The plan agreed upon in 1989 did two key things. The first was to ensure all arrivals in ports of first asylum continued to be screened, or "tested," to determine whether they were genuine refugees, according to U.N. convention, or economic migrants. The second element of the plan was a return program for those who failed the refugee "test."
The second part of the plan would become the most controversial. For the first time Vietnamese boat people were being repatriated en masse. Ultimately this repatriation, which with some counseling was intended to be voluntary, became deportation.
Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of boat people had run aground, encountered the worst circumstances. The emigrants were living on borrowed time, hoping they would somehow be resettled despite being refused refugee status. Some had even been born in the detention centers that held them.
The catch was that at any time their number could come up for repatriation under Hong Kong's so-called Orderly Repatriation Program. The word "orderly," however, could rarely be applied to what ensued.
The legal battle
Protests in the camps became commonplace. Serious protests.
Security forces in full riot gear were sent into burning camps to pull deportees from rooftops. Again the pictures were flashed around the world. This time there was little sympathy.
The taxpayers of Hong Kong were fed up paying to house the Vietnamese boat people and were prepared to allow brute force to be used. The force came about many years after the United States had urged the need to hold people in detention centers until they made their own decision to return.
Even the United States agreed the only option was repatriation, voluntary or otherwise. It was in this era that legal cases dominated the courts in ports of first asylum.
Again Hong Kong bore the brunt of the court cases as a small team of dedicated lawyers pushed for the rights of individuals such as Ngo Van Ha.
Ha was an orphan whose relatives in Vietnam had refused to take him back. His case became something of a cause celebre for Hong Kong's boat people. When he won the right to join relatives in the United States there was celebration in the camps.
Unfortunately many thought that if they avoided deportation, they too could eventually follow in Ha's footsteps. Most of them were wrong. The Vietnamese detention centers of Asia are empty.
A TRUE STORY
My 5 year old son whispered : - Water, I want water!... I hardly moved my hand, tried to caress his face comforting him : - Hold on for a while, I'll get you water, ok!...Then I fell unconscious. I did not know about the time, I heard that sound again : - I'm thirsty, I'm thirsty!...
That was the third day on the boat, we did not have anything to eat or drink. Couldn't stand it anymore, one man tried to drink seawater. As soon as it got into his stomach, he threw up everything and later on he was very sick. The next day, children seemed very quiet and slept. Fortunately, dark clouds appeared in the sky and minutes later it was rain. People woke up immediately, we tried to drink as much as we could. Men looked for anything to use as containers to store water. We felt so much better, hoping lives returned!
It was still raining heavy and heavier, the boat started to flood. Then I heard some voices : - Oh no! the boat is going to sink, it's too much water, too heavy! We got so scared and started moving, making the boat unbalanced, seawater poured in it. We quickly threw some of our belongings away, bailed out the water as fast as we could. Finally, the rain stopped and water we saved for future use was all gone!!!
Two more days passed, everybody got weaker, no one moved or said a word! It was so quiet and peaceful! Suddenly, a man screamed : - I see a boat over there!... Like magic, we energetically got up and looked to where he pointed his finger. We saw a boat! Everybody was so grateful, we used all kinds of cloth, towel, t-shirt to wave and scream. The boat seemed like approaching us closer and closer but when we saw it clearly, we started to be afraid because there was a fishing boat with more than a dozen mean looking men, dark skin, carrying weapons and speaking Thai language strongly.
When that boat was next to ours, they signaled us to get on their boat, the little boat was empty. Some of them jumped on it starting to search our luggage, they took everything they liked! When they finished searching, we were returned back to our boat and they left.
Hours later, another boat appeared. When it got close to us, five men jumped on our boat and started searching again. They also took some clothes we were wearing. Then they told everybody look away, undressed two teenage girls and took turn raping them for hours. I was so terrified, held my son tightly in my arms and totally shook! We heard the girls cry for help, but we were helpless! What a shame!!! Later on, they left.
It was dark and silent! The girls stopped crying, we stayed numb, no speaking but " oh! God " was the only sound from anyone, sometimes!
Far away, the moon started to show up in the skyline, seawater reflected moonlight according to the waves and their sounds created a traumatic image.
Next morning, another boat came and repeated the same actions to the girls. We now had nothing to rob but women to rape!
Last boat came to us, the men were a bit kinder. They first gave us food, water and kept a brief distance from us. Until the next day, they began to rob carefully. They searched everyone's mouth, hair, underwear and everything. Then each of them picked one woman to rape!
By that time, I thought of my father who passed away years ago, I always believe that his spirit has watched over his children to protect them, and I prayed to him. When the guy picked me I was shaking, my son cried, tried to pull me with his little weak hands. I did not cry but showed the fear on my face! That somehow touched his feeling, he released me...
After finishing the actions, everybody got on their boat, they sank our boat, took us to the Kho Kra island and they left.
We felt much better! At least not to die in the ocean. That was a small, beautiful island with green trees, a little stream ran across the mountains through the forest, white sand beach and blue waves.
We were weak and tired, some of us went to get water, others lay on the ground, the two teenagers seemed very ill. Then we went to clean ourselves in water with clothes on and wore wet clothes afterward. We absolutely had nothing but empty hands!
When the night came, we gathered closer, felt the heat from each other and slept on the ground.
Around noon the next day, another boat showed up. We, women were so afraid running to hide under bushes, between rocks, in small caves. Did not matter if there were snakes, spiders, scorpions... Then they kept returning to look for women day after day.
Later on, the Thai Navy showed up, they brought us some food and drink, also told us that they would rescue us soon.
Three days before I left the island, the fishermen brought in another group was about 30 people. A young man got burned his entire body, he lay unconscious on the ground. Then I saw a man sitting on the rock far away from the group looking out at the ocean. I came to him trying to make friends, and found out that his girlfriend was abducted!
We left the island after being there for a week, taken to the refugee camp in Songkla, South Thailand. Staying in Songkla for a while, I had been told many horrible stories of the journeys, the high price to pay for freedom. Also learned that Kho Kra island was the hide out of the fishermen where they tortured, raped, and killed many people.
Coming to the USA in July 1981, three months later I got a letter from my sister to inform that my older brother, his wife and two children left Vietnam a few weeks ago. I was happy that I would reunite them, also worried for them on their way.
But I did not wait too long for the bad news, he was killed on the boat just two days after leaving Vietnam, left behind a wife and two boys, a 5 year old and an 8 month.
My heart ached! I surely imagined how he lost his life although I did not witness the incident.
In early 1982, I got another letter from my father-in-law telling me that his 12 year old son left the country recently. I could not describe the opposite feelings inside of me by knowing that.
However, I never get any news, good or bad from him. The entire boat disappeared! I tried to contact the families whose relatives were on that boat, but they knew nothing, like me still waiting and waiting.... for the news!!!
We have been waiting for that boat for 18 years, but the boat has gone forever! No one knows the truth of its disappearance.
No escape would be complete without the strength of seeking freedom by boat people. No words could describe how terrifying boat people suffered on that unforgettable escape.
The fall of Saigon was the beginning of our adventures to the unknown future. Some of us made it, but others were gone forever!
Leaving the homeland on a little wooden boat with an old rebuilt engine, dozens, hundreds of people sat next to each other like fish in a can. Days and nights went by, then the engine suddenly stopped. We were floated by the wind without food and water. We dealt with fear from the crashing waves every minute. While hearing those sounds we grew worried, and felt like the monotonous tone and rhythm of a boring song playing over and over again never ending. Besides, we suffered the storms, the robbery, the rape repeatedly. We lost husbands, wives, children, parents, relatives. Some of them were abducted, others killed and buried at sea. No more tears on those faces, no more crying or complaining, but holding our breaths to face the unfortunate fact and built up the strength to beat the fate.
We had to survive, maintaining our lives to tell the world our tragedy and what hardship boat people endured. We finally made it.
According to the report of United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees, 1/3 of boat people died at sea by killing, storms, illness,and food shortage. Out of a total 250,000 mixture ages of men, women, and children.
However, there were 160 people died on Kho Kra island, 1,250 rescued within a year. Currently, there are over 1.6 million boat people spread all across the world : USA, Australia, Canada, France, England, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Philippines.