South East Asia

Throughout history there have been many different refugee movements in
Southeast Asia. It is highly important to understand the difference between a
refugee and an immigrant. The Webster’s dictionary defines a refugee as “one
who flees to a shelter or place of safety.” A refugee flees the country in
which he or she lives in for many different reasons. It can be the fear of
persecution, fleeing from things like natural disasters, or even war. On the
other hand, immigrants are people who voluntarily depart their homelands to seek
a better life. In Vietnam the word “ty nan” means refugee. ‘Ty’ means to
run away from something, to escape, and ‘nan’ means calamity or disaster (Willmott,
1966: 252). The purpose of this essay is to discuss the Vietnamese refugee
movement in Southeast Asia. It will explore why people left their country of
origin and it will also outline their experiences during their journey in the
countries of their first and final refuge.

The period between 1965 and 1975, was considered to be the ten most violent
years in Vietnam. In the south, almost two million people were killed or wounded
because of immense physical destruction of the countryside (Brainard and
Zaharlick, 1987: 330). According to Brainard and Zaharlick, refugees from
Vietnam were “primarily farmers from war-torn villages who fled the poverty
and hunger in boats in the years that followed” (Brainard and Zaharlick, 1982:

Typically, refugees from Vietnam were thought of as “the boat people.”
However, most of these people left Vietnam by crossing the Chinese boarder and
not by boat. They were also ethnic Chinese, except that they had lived in
Vietnam for generations (Willmott, 1966: 252). According to Willmott these
ethnic Chinese “suffered increasing discrimination and prejudice and
eventually were asked to leave” (Willmott, 1966: 253). After being given no
alternative option these individuals resettled in places like Guangxi and
Guangdong, in and around Southern China and some in Hong Kong (Willmott, 1966:
256). In an interview with a young man Willmott quotes him as saying “my
family lived in Vietnam for seven generations . . . I would prefer; along with
many others to remain in Vietnam but I was forced to leave my Vietnamese wife
and children, along with the country” (Willmott, 1966: 267).

The people of Chinese origin were forced to leave due to a shift in world
politics. There were many tensions between the resident Chinese and Vietnamese.
During the Vietnam War, there was a fear of Chinese dominance and it was
revitalized in 1945 and 1946 by looting during the Chinese occupation. This
forced Hanoi to send Chinese troops on to Vietnamese territory. (Wurfel, 1980:

On the other hand, the Chinese that were referred to as “the boat people”
were forced to flee for completely different reasons. These included economic
hardship, the worst of natural disasters and the United States refusal to
provide the reconstruction aid it had promised in the Geneva Agreement. It was
in this Geneva Agreement that the United States promised to pay three point
seven billion to Vietnam to help them overcome “the destruction by defoliants,
block buster bombs and napalm that had rained down on the countryside of Vietnam
for so many years” (Willmott, 1966: 254). Due to the vast amounts of natural
disasters Vietnamese government decided to force the Chinese into the
countryside and out of urban areas. However, they did not want to become
pheasants. It was here in the countryside that many Chinese found “the work
was hard and the food was scarce” (Willmott, 1966: 254).

The second factor occurred in 1977 and 1978, when the Vietnamese economy
began to drastically change and there was an economic crisis. “The Vietnamese
Communists suddenly nationalized commerce in March of 1978, thus expropriating
many Chinese businessmen in Ho Chi Minh City” (Willmott, 1966: 257). At this
time the Chinese were forced to go to “new economic zones.” Some of these
Chinese decided to embark on a journey on the South China Sea. This was due to
the “blatant discrimination” that was occuring in Vietnam around 1978. Many,
if not all Chinese, were removed from their jobs, their children were denyed
schooling and the Vietnamese even removed their ration cards (Willmott, 1966:

“Boat people” who survived the seas were believed to be less than half
the number who fled. It was estimated that just over “20,000 Boat people are
buried in the South China Sea” (Adelman, 1982: 19). This was due to the fact
that many countries did not want to accept all of these refugees. Many of them
were said to be “lost at sea” meaning they were attacked by