THE VIET KIEU 5

IN 1975, with Saigon under the flag of a reunited Vietnam, I spent a month following the trail of refugees through the Pacific-Asia region, shuttling between Hong Kong and the Philippines and Guam. Some¬thing like 140,000 Vietnamese were floating around the South China Sea then, in rickety boats or on U.S. carriers. They were the vanguard of the more than 1 million boat people who would flee Vietnam for political and economic reasons. In the first few days of the exodus, Americans in the United States talked about the human tragedy unfolding on the high seas. Then it struck them: Where are these people going? And the answer was: In many cases, to the United States. In California, Florida, and Arkansas, where authorities were making plans to resettle Vietnamese refugees, protestors gathered to deliver a message to the people the United States had gone to war to help: Stay out. One wire-service photo prominently displayed in many U.S. newspapers showed a factory worker holding a placard that said: “Only [President] Ford Wants Them.”
Everyone said it was about jobs. They were tough to find in the United States in those days. Of course, employment was also something of a problem in Vietnam at the time, because leveling villages and cities with American and Russian ordnance hadn’t created many jobs except in fu¬neral parlors and the army. While following the refugees, I struck up a conversation with an amiably drunk American expat at the bar of a Manila hotel. I asked him what he thought about the United States air¬lifting Vietnamese out of Saigon and rescuing them from their boats in the South China Sea. He said he didn’t really have an opinion one way or the other. Another drink later, he volunteered, “If you ask me, the whole thing stinks. We just don’t need another minority.” After some uncom¬fortably silent moments, he added, “I’m sorry. That’s just how I feel.”
In the half-dozen or so tented refugee camps I visited, I met engineers, doctors, university professors, architects, intelligence analysts, poets, gen¬erals who had commanded thousands of men in battle. It was clear the United States was to be the beneficiary of one of the greatest brain drains in modern history. Many of these people asked me about the picture they had seen of the factory worker with the placard and said, “Do most Americans feel this way?” I understood that the Vietnamese had as many apprehensions about going to America as Americans had misgivings about receiving them, but I don’t remember precisely how I replied. I think I said something about the United States opening its doors to 46 million immigrants since 1803 and believing we could find room for a few more. I might have said that a 105mm artillery round cost $75, and given the fact that we could afford to fire hundreds of thousands of them dur¬ing the war, Washington could probably find some money in its budget to help the refugees. I found in my files the other day an article I had writ¬ten for the Los Angeles Times on May 12, 1975, after spending time in a camp on Guam. It said, in part:
For too long we have had the option of turning off Vietnam with a twist of the TV dial. The war, we have come to say, was a mistake, so let’s forget it.
If we can learn from that mistake, then fine, let’s do so. But let us not for¬get the people who believed what we told them about America being a land that cared about others besides herself.
If the time ever arrives that America becomes so preoccupied with her own problems that she turns Hungarians and Cubans and Vietnamese away from her ports, that she forgets that an individual’s tears and laughter are the same in every language, then surely that is the time to accept medi¬ocrity as a national destiny.
Hundreds of thousands of boat people—the lucky ones who survived rough seas, pirate attacks, a lack of potable water—made landfall in Thai¬land, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They weren’t wanted there either. Some languished for years in detention centers that resembled wartime POW camps. But newcomers kept arriving because until 1989 anyone escaping Vietnam was automatically classified as a po¬litical refugee and eligible for resettlement, usually in North America, Australia, or France. In an effort to end the crisis, the international com-munity, under the auspices of the United Nations, offered $360 to every Vietnamese in the Hong Kong camps who agreed to return to Vietnam. That made the problem worse. Entire villages near Haiphong on Viet¬nam’s northern coast emptied, with everyone getting on boats for Hong Kong to claim refugee status. They collected their reward and were put on charter flights back to Vietnam. A family of four returned with enough money to build a comfortable house in the countryside.
In 1996, the UN began the forced repatriation of Vietnamese refugees from the Southeast Asian camps. Some rioted and were dragged onto planes kicking and screaming. Others left voluntarily. Human-rights groups expressed concern that the Hanoi government would punish the returnees, as it had the Southern supporters of the Saigon regime after the war, and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) monitored the lives of those resettling in Vietnam. It found no persecution or intimidation.

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