Asia’s Unwanted “Boat People”
By “Awake!” correspondent in Hong Kong
IT IS just a dark speck on the horizon when first spotted. But, as it gets closer, the Marine Police can clearly see that it is what they expected. Here is a repeat of an appalling scene that they have witnessed hundreds of times. They see approaching Hong Kong a narrow, 60-foot, weather-beaten, decrepit excuse for a boat crammed with 180 unwanted people who, with meager rations, may have been on board from two weeks to over a month. With barely sitting room, they have navigated some 600 miles (1,000 km) of the South China Sea from Vietnam.
The unstable vessel is towed very carefully to the Quarantine Anchorage, where its occupants will await their turn to touch land at the government dockyard. The “boat people” breathe a sigh of relief, sure that their worst experiences are in the past. But what they do not know is that many months of waiting, in less than ideal conditions, are ahead of them before they again may have a place to call home.
Who are these woebegone travelers, and what is their story?
Throughout history, unrest, wars, nationalism, prejudice and related problems have produced refugees. Some may have fled for selfish reasons, but more often than not, such refugees are the innocent victims of circumstances. It is estimated that there are over 11 million refugees in the world at present.
Of the more than 300,000 homeless refugees in Southeast Asia, the “boat people” make up the majority. The rest are mainly the “Kampucheans” who have fled from the war zone in Cambodia to Thailand. These have strained the facilities in Thailand and in some cases just exchanged one type of hardship for another.
However, what has especially drawn world attention to the refugee problem is the saga of the so-called “boat people.” These are refugees from Vietnam who have set sail for other Asian ports in all sizes and shapes of overcrowded, and often unseaworthy, vessels. Some of these boats headed south, landing in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and even Australia. Others more or less hugged the coast of South China, perhaps stopping at Hainan Island for water and meager supplies and then limping into Macau and Hong Kong. Such journeys are fraught with dangers.
It has been estimated that, of those who headed south, as many as 70 percent were lost at sea, and for those who headed toward Hong Kong, 40 to 50 percent may have gone to watery graves. What has prompted these people to embark upon such a dangerous voyage?
After the Vietnam War ended, many in the South fled for fear of reprisals from the new government, and others fled for selfish reasons. It was thought that this exodus would end in a relatively short time, and, in fact, the number did decrease. But then, on December 23, 1978, a harbinger of what was to come arrived in Hong Kong waters. The “Huey Fong” attracted world attention with its almost 3,400 refugees aboard. In the next few months, and especially following the Vietnam-China border war in February 1979, tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese and a small number of Vietnamese embarked upon a life-or-death struggle in order to reach other countries.
With the exception of minor details, the story told by the Chinese refugees was the same. They reported that a campaign to expel all ethnic Chinese from Vietnam was being carried on. Over 200,000 fled across the border to China before the border war closed this escape. The Chinese still in Vietnam, especially in the North, where that border war had taken place, were clearly told to get out. One man reported: “At first, we were visited once a month by the police, then every week, and finally every day until we started making arrangements to leave. We had to sell our belongings at low prices to the Vietnamese.” Exit fees were paid first for this man’s family, who left by boat for Hong Kong. He managed to scrape together enough to pay for his exit a few weeks later. Since arriving in Hong Kong, he keeps looking hopefully out to sea. His family has never arrived.
Many of the Chinese still remaining in the north of Vietnam were laborers and therefore did not have much in the way of savings. To get exit and transport out of the country, they reported paying comparatively low prices, around $600 (U.S.) per person. The extent to which racketeers and/or government officials were involved is still a subject of debate and denials. Chinese who did not buy their way out of Vietnam were to be sent to new “economic zones,” which are said to be undeveloped areas with no food or water where they are told to start a new life with only a few implements and some seeds.
In the South, many Chinese were better off materially and had either stored up gold bars or bought them following the Vietnamese War. They reported paying 8 to 15 ounces of gold, worth thousands of dollars (U.S.), per adult to buy passage on one of the boats. It appears that those who paid more were allowed onto larger freighters that were pretending to find the refugees at sea but actually were trafficking in human cargo. The “Huey Fong,” which sailed into Hong Kong in December 1978, was such a ship.
When the “Huey Fong” arrived, it was kept just outside Hong Kong territorial waters. The government held that the ship’s registered first port of call was Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and that the ship should therefore sail on to Taiwan. However, supplies were taken to the ship, sick persons were treated and some even airlifted to the hospital. The almost 3,400 people did not want to stay on board any longer, nor did they want to go to Taiwan, which had already stated that they would not accept the refugees anyway. The captain said he was being threatened by the refugees and was afraid to move the ship. The situation seemed stalemated.
The captain and the refugees claimed that the ship had rescued them from sinking boats and thus asked for permission to land in Hong Kong on humanitarian grounds. After involved diplomatic and governmental negotiations, the “Huey Fong” was allowed into the harbor. In due time, the refugees were taken to crowded, makeshift refugee camps.
The government then started a detailed investigation. There were many discrepancies in the stories told when compared with the ship’s log. In fact, after a thorough search, $13 million (U.S.) in gold was found hidden in the ship. In August 1979, the captain and crew of the “Huey Fong” were brought to trial. Overwhelming evidence was presented proving that this was a gold-seeking venture that had broken many laws and endangered lives. The captain and the crew were sentenced to jail for their part in what the crown counsel called a “journey of deceit.”
Another ship that came into Hong Kong was the “Skyluck.” It arrived on February 7, 1979, with 2,665 refugees on board. Since the ship’s facilities were no better or worse than those of the cramped refugee camps, landing was not allowed. Food and other supplies were sent daily to the anchored ship. This continued for over four months until June 29, when the refugees’ patience ran out and they took matters into their own hands. They took over the ship, cut the anchor chains and let the ship drift until it was grounded precariously on one of the islands of Hong Kong. At this point, the government resettled the refugees in a detention center, which had to be converted from a prison to a refugee camp.
Various cargo ships on their regular routes between Asian ports did truly rescue refugees from sinking boats and then proceeded to their next port of call. However, this caused problems for the shipping companies because the refugees are not usually allowed to land at such ports unless the ship’s country of origin agrees to accept such refugees for resettlement. Thus, a ship may be delayed in a harbor for days and sometimes weeks. Depending on the size and type of ship, such delays could cost the shipping company anywhere from $5,000 (U.S.) to an estimated $20,000 per day in lost revenue. It is feared that such a situation may have caused some captains to shy away from rescue operations.
Cause for Concern
The situation in Hong Kong illustrates some of the reasons why the refugees met with less than a welcome in the places to which they fled. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was picking up the bill and organizing care for refugees who had arrived up to the end of 1978. However, when thousands began arriving in 1979, Hong Kong started footing most of the bill with some help from welfare organizations. All sorts of emergency plans had to be made to house the refugees with some semblance of order and hygiene.
But Hong Kong is only about 404 square miles (1,045 km2), about one quarter of which is suitable for urban-type development and agriculture. By mid-1978 there were already 4.7 million people here and the metropolitan areas had a density of over 67,000 people per square mile (2.6 km2). Needless to say, a sudden flood of refugees was a cause for real concern.
Further aggravating the situation, legal immigrants from China during the first five months of 1979 averaged almost 10,000 per month. Tens of thousands of illegals were also streaming over the border. So, then, around 22,000 legal and illegal immigrants and refugees were arriving in the colony every month. Police, military and social services were being taxed to the limit. Yet, as many newspaper headlines kept saying: “And still they come . . .”
Other Asian countries and their inhabitants were getting frightened at the future implications such an influx would have on the local economy, inflation and what they called “ethnic balance.” Thus, when refugees headed toward some shores, local inhabitants would throw stones, and push the boats away from their shores. Malaysia, reeling with more than 70,000 “boat people,” started taking what was described as “desperate action by desperate people.” The authorities began repairing the refugee boats and then towing many of them back out to sea. The small Portuguese enclave of Macau, which was already flooded with immigrants from China, said they had reached the saturation point. So, when these boats reached Macau, they would be provided with food, water and medical supplies and then towed back out to sea to be more or less pointed toward Hong Kong, about 41 miles away.
The Hong Kong government commendably stated that, on humanitarian grounds, it would not turn the “boat people” away. Officials said that to turn them away would be like condemning many of them to a watery grave. But foreign help was sorely needed. By the middle of 1979, the government was spending about $50,000 (U.S.) a day to feed, clothe, and house the refugees not under the UNHCR care in Hong Kong.
Asian countries were frantically engaged in diplomatic initiatives with the United Nations and world governments to plead for help. They felt that too much criticism of their refugee facilities and too few offers of help and resettlement were forthcoming from rich nations. Many leaders stressed the urgent need to call an international conference on refugees.
Thus, on July 20, 21, 1979, the United Nations Conference on Indochinese Refugees was called. Representatives from larger countries and Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, attended. The outcome of this conference was that Vietnam agreed to slow down the exodus to an orderly, regulated departure. Also, 26 countries agreed to take 300,000 refugees from Southeast Asia for resettlement. According to the South China Morning Post, July 22, 1979, China offered to accept another 10,000 refugees on top of the 250,000 that they already had. Further, they offered to contribute $1 million (U.S.) to the UNHCR to help meet refugee expenses.
As of September 1, 1979, the UNHCR took over full responsibility for the refugees in Hong Kong. It has been promised that all the refugees in Asia will be resettled in the next 18 months. So, plans and promises have been made. Only time will tell what will actually be done.
Now, it seems that patience is needed by the “boat people” in putting up with cramped conditions until their turn in the lineup for resettlement comes. Even when they move to another country, language barriers, prejudice, misunderstanding and even open confrontation with local inhabitants may still await them. One clergyman in Hong Kong well summed up what many people feel about the refugee problem. He said it is “not solvable.” But why?
Because permanently solving the refugee problem would require that wars be eliminated. It would mean doing away with greed and hatred, and removing the nationalistic divisions that prevent the use of earth’s resources for the full benefit of all mankind. There is no human government, or alliance of human governments, that can hope to achieve all of that.
Yet it is these very things that the Bible shows that mankind’s Creator, Jehovah God, will accomplish. How? By cleaning out of the earth all who foment hatred and greed, and those who instigate war. (Ps. 46:9, 10; 1 John 3:15; 1 Cor. 6:9, 10) He has made provision for a government ruling from heaven and that will have ‘all peoples, national groups and languages’ united in its domain. (Dan. 7:13, 14) As they are being given more freedom of movement outside the refugee camps, the “boat people” are having an opportunity to learn of this only reliable hope. It is an opportunity that is open to you too.
[Blurb on page 13]
‘Of the refugees that headed south from Vietnam, 70 percent were lost at sea; of those who headed north, 40 to 50 percent.’
[Blurb on page 14]
“There are over 11 million refugees in the world.”
[Blurb on page 14]
“When refugees headed toward some shores, local inhabitants would throw stones and push the boats away.”
[Blurb on page 15]
‘Around 22,000 legal and illegal immigrants and refugees were arriving in Hong Kong every month.’
[Blurb on page 16]
‘Refugees picked up at sea are not usually allowed to land anywhere unless the ship’s country of origin agrees to accept them for resettlement.’
[Blurb on page 16]
‘Permanently solving the refugee problem would require the elimination of war, doing away with greed and hatred and removing the nationalistic divisions that prevent the use of earth’s resources for the full benefit of all mankind.’