Events resulting from the Vietnam War led many people in Cambodia, Laos, and especially Vietnam to become refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s, after the fall of Saigon. In Vietnam, the new communist government sent many people who supported the old government in the South to “re-education camps”, and others to “new economic zones.” An estimated 1 million people were imprisoned without formal charges or trials. According to published academic studies in the United States and Europe, 165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s re-education camps. Thousands were abused, tortured, and executed. These factors, coupled with poverty and the total destruction of the country that happened during the Vietnam war, caused hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to flee the country. In 1979, Vietnam was at war (Sino-Vietnamese War) with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Many ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam, who felt that the government’s policies directly targeted them, also became “boat people.” On the open seas, the boat people had to confront forces of nature, and elude pirates.
People employed many methods to leave the country. Most were secret and transpired at night; some involved the bribing of officials. Some people bought places in large boats that held 400 passengers. Others organized smaller groups or went on makeshift rafts. Many families were split up during this period because they could only afford to send one or a few members of the family. One method used involved middle-class refugees from Saigon, armed with forged identity documents, traveling 1,100 km to Danang by road. On arrival, they would take refuge for up to two days in safe houses while waiting for fishing junks and trawlers to take small groups into international waters. Planning for such a trip took many months and even years. Although these attempts often depleted resources, people usually had several false starts before they managed to escape.
The boats, most not intended for navigating open waters, would typically head for busy international shipping lanes some 240 km to the east. The lucky ones would succeed in being rescued by freighters and taken to Hong Kong, some 2,200 km away. Others landed on the shores of Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, and Hong Kong. The unlucky ones would continue their perilous journey at sea, sometimes lasting over 6 months long, suffering from hunger and thirst before finding safety. Rudolph Rummel estimates that nearly 500,000 of the 2 million Vietnamese boat people died during their escape with “50% not blamed on Vietnamese Government”. Many other estimates are considerably lower ranging from 30,000 to 250,000.
The plight of the boat people became an international humanitarian crisis. There were untold miseries, rapes and murders on the South China Sea committed by Thai pirates who preyed on the refugees who had sold all their possessions and carried gold with them on the trips. The UNHCR, under the auspices of the United Nations, set up refugee camps in neighbouring countries to process the “boat people”. They received the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize for this.
Camps were set up in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. According to stories told by the Vietnamese refugees, the conditions at the camps were poor. The women and children were raped and beaten. Very little of the aid money donated primarily by the United States actually got to the refugees. Refugees at Thai camps were maltreated and many were brutally bullied by the Thai guards. Some 77% of refugee boats leaving in 1981 were attacked by Thais. 863 Vietnamese were known to be raped, 763 people physically attacked and killed, and 489 people abducted.
Most of the refugees came from the former South Vietnam. However, soon after the first wave between 1975–1978, North Vietnamese from seaside cities such as Haiphong started to escape and land in Hong Kong. Among them were genuine ethnically Chinese Vietnamese refugees who escaped from Vietnam and headed to China and Hong Kong.
Evenually, many refugee status had been accepted and sponsored by receiving countries, like the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, and Japan.