Out of 1.5 million refugees who fled since the South fell, 3,000 are still in limbo–unwilling to go home but unwanted anywhere else.
PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines — The saga of the Vietnamese boat people, one of the most tragic examples of human suffering in the region’s recent history, has finally come to an end.
–U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Hanoi, August 1997
“It’s over?” Nguyen Van Y asked, incredulous. “Then what am I doing still here? When the French ship picked us up, we thought three, maybe six months in the Philippines, then the United States. That was nine years ago.”
The noodle shop on Rizal Avenue was crowded, and “Mr. Bojangles” blasted out of a radio by the stove. Y’s two friends pulled their stools closer to hear what he was saying and to examine the photograph he held–of himself as a 21-year-old soldier in the Mekong Delta, wearing a South Vietnamese uniform.
They too had served with the army of the South, and they nodded when Y said he could never return to a Communist homeland. One of them, Tran Nhu Bam, added: “Nine years is a long time to wait. We hope the Americans will recognize our plight, but I’m not sure anyone knows about us anymore.”
The three men are among the last of the refugees popularly known as the Vietnamese boat people. Of the 1.5 million who fled or were allowed to leave Vietnam after the war two decades ago, it is down to this last, forgotten fraternity of a little more than 3,000. Through a variety of circumstances, they never were resettled and now are left in the Philippines and Hong Kong in a sort of statelessness–unwilling, in most cases, to return to Vietnam and unwanted by any new homeland.
Although some will eventually get to new homes by applying to immigrate through normal channels, a process that can take years, the refugees are stranded because they either failed to convince screeners in the Philippines and Hong Kong that they were political refugees or were deemed by U.S. interviewers to have medical problems or character flaws.
And so, with the crisis declared over, support funds cut off and this country’s refugee camps closed, they live in a twilight zone, having invested a decade in making a dangerous escape to get, really, nowhere.
“We’re the leftovers of the war,” said Pham Thi Nga, 26, the daughter of a U.S. serviceman she has never met. “But what I’d like to know is this: In the United States, you do a crime and go to prison, and one day the sentence ends. For us, this is a sentence. Just tell us how long it will last.”
Amerasians in Squalor
Nga is one of a handful of Amerasians living in a cluster of squat, crumbling buildings that escaped the bulldozer’s blade when the refugee camp here on Palawan island was emptied and leveled 15 months ago. They drink contaminated water, sleep on concrete floors and cover themselves with plastic bags when it rains.
Of the “leftovers,” the Amerasians are surely the most hapless. Carrying U.S. visas, they left Vietnam in the early 1990s not by boat but in planes chartered by Washington to resettle Amerasians in the United States. The Philippines was to be only a transit point. The vast majority of Amerasians made it the rest of the way, to a new home in the United States.
What this last group didn’t understand was that a visa doesn’t guarantee a person entry to a country; it only gets him on an airplane, giving him the right to seek permission to enter when he arrives in the country. And because the Amerasians left Vietnam legally as immigrants, they were required to meet the same standards as, say, any Australian or Mexican applying for U.S. citizenship.
And, for various reasons, the visas of the 200 or so Amerasians now scattered throughout the Philippines were revoked.
In some cases, U.S. officials said, their behavior was deemed “antisocial,” which usually meant drinking and fighting; in others, they had medical problems or, like Nga, had committed fraud by providing false information on their applications. The officials wrote “Canceled” across their visas. Case closed.
Hanoi will not take the Amerasians back because they left under a bilateral agreement with Washington–which won’t accept them because they have been judged unfit for resettlement. And Manila doesn’t want them because they were supposed to be here only a few months in transit to the United States. The Philippines has not deported them as a courtesy to Washington.
But, clearly, wasting away their days in idleness and hopelessness has left scars.
“I am Nguyen Van Diem, No. BV-867523,” said a 26-year-old Amerasian man who has spent so long as a refugee that his former camp number has become part of his identity. “I go to the U.S. Embassy, and they say, ‘Go home to Vietnam,’ and I tell them, ‘I’ve been trying to do that for four years, and Vietnam won’t take me.’ ”
Diem’s room has burlap rice bags for a ceiling. Its walls are decorated with Marlboro posters and graffiti that translate as: “God, I don’t know what to do. Life has been too hard.”
But the Amerasian resettlement program has ended, and Diem will presumably never see his own copy of the letter that sent other children of unknown American servicemen winging toward a new life. It read:
“Congratulations. You soon will depart to the United States. If you have any problems upon arrival, please give this letter to a policeman and he or she will assist you.
“The third page of this letter is a map of the United States to help you familiarize yourself with your new home,” added the letter signed by the Joint Voluntary Agency at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. “Have a safe trip and good luck.”
Until 1989, anyone escaping Vietnam was automatically classified as a political refugee and eligible for resettlement, usually in North America, Australia or France. That year, with Asia’s camps overflowing–60,000 refugees were in Hong Kong alone–the international community, under U.N. auspices, began screening refugees to determine if they had left for economic or political reasons. It urged all of them to return home voluntarily.
But offering an incentive of $360 per person to return only worsened the problem. Entire villages near Haiphong on Vietnam’s northern coast emptied, with everyone getting on boats for Hong Kong. They collected their reward and in short order were on chartered planes headed back to Vietnam. A family of four returned with enough money to build a house in the countryside.
Slowly, however, with Vietnam promising not to punish or persecute the returnees, camps in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia began to clear. At last count, 110,000 Vietnamese had been repatriated, either voluntarily or forcefully; the only ones who remain behind are 1,600 in the Philippines, 1,700 in Hong Kong and about 50 in other Asian countries. The U.N. ended assistance to Indochinese refugees last June.
Rightly or wrongly, the remaining refugees–who, unlike the Amerasians, are still eligible to return to Vietnam but choose not to go–say they fear persecution.
They speak of risking everything for democracy and freedom–and unquestionably Vietnam offers less of both than the Philippines or the U.S. Most are from what was South Vietnam before its fall in 1975.
“Seriously, if Vietnam wasn’t Communist, I’d go back,” said Y, the former soldier. Another onetime soldier, Nguyen Van Vui, said: “Escaping was dangerous, but we did it for liberty. Just by being here in the Philippines, I am making a statement how much that liberty means to me.”
The U.N. conducted extensive monitoring of the returnees to ensure that the Vietnamese government did not mistreat them. More than 40% were interviewed in their homes or in the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Although it is widely accepted that those who fought for or supported the South are generally viewed by Hanoi as something less than equals, the U.N. found nothing to support their fears of persecution.
“We even had access to returnees imprisoned for criminal offenses after they came back, and we found zero incidents of mistreatment,” said Keisuke Murata, deputy representative of the U.N. refugee agency’s Hanoi office. “The government understands their re-integration into society is important, and it has worked hard to close this chapter of the war.
“Given the industrious nature of the Vietnamese and their basic instinct to seek better lives, I can safely say that although many returnees were disoriented at first, the great majority managed to regain their livelihoods within a few years.”
While other Southeast Asian nations often showed little compassion for the refugees–even pushing them back out to sea in the late 1980s–the Philippines, a Roman Catholic country known for its tolerance, has remained unusually sensitive to their plight.
The only attempt at forced repatriation caused such a public outcry a few years ago that it ended after a single plane had carried a group of about 100 refugees, kicking and screaming, from Puerto Princesa back to their homeland. President Fidel V. Ramos says the Philippines will not again try to return refugees to Vietnam against their wishes.
Ten miles from the old refugee camp that abuts the Puerto Princesa airport, a roadside sign says “Welcome to Vietnamese Village.” Here, in small, tidy homes built with donations from Vietnamese communities in North America, Europe and Australia, 400 refugees are sinking roots into a new life full of uncertainty.
Hoi Trinh, 28, a Vietnamese Australian attorney who works out of the bedroom of his Manila apartment representing refugees on a pro bono basis, was greeted with veneration in the village the other day.
At each turn, one Vietnamese after another tugged at his sleeve to beg a moment of time. They showered him with questions and files stuffed with papers documenting their attempts to immigrate.
For these people who feel abandoned, who are desperate to find anyone who cares or will listen, Trinh is something of a saint. He listened. He scribbled notes, translated letters, heard a score of stories. Sometimes he said, “To be blunt, you just don’t qualify for immigration.” And sometimes, “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Probably a third of these people are eligible to go somewhere,” Trinh said. “I’m not saying everyone left behind is the best of society, but there are good people here. Some were denied political refugee status by the Filipino officers who screened them simply because they didn’t have bribe money or refused demands for sexual favors.”
A Slow Dwindling
In the past year, a small number of the refugees has been accepted for immigration to Western countries. A few have trickled voluntarily back to Vietnam. Dozens of others have applications pending to resettle in countries where they have relatives–a process that takes years. Some, who survive now doing odd jobs, will probably never leave the Philippines.
Trinh returned to Manila on the afternoon flight from Puerto Princesa, the pockets of his Bermuda shorts stuffed with notes and papers. In his small apartment, tucked in a crowded alleyway, 15 Vietnamese refugees had taken up temporary quarters. A pot of tea and a kettle of noodles were simmering on the stove. Trinh cannot remember his flat ever being empty.
One of the refugees, Ha The Thanh, 27, strummed a ukulele. “You can’t give up hope, but you don’t want to have false hope,” he said. “So far, it’s taken me five days in a boat and 12 years waiting. I don’t have immediate family in the States, so getting there will not be easy. I think I will probably have to wait some more.”