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The Boat People

The Boat People was first published in GRANTA, issue 50, 1995


MY GRANDMOTHER LIVED in America for forty years before her death, yet she never stopped referring to herself as a refugee. She was a naturalized US citizen, a busy professional with native-born grandchildren and she remained a displaced person. As a child, I listened to her stories, and my imagination was filled with a succession of historical crises in Russia and Europe: revolutions, world wars, imprisonments, assassinations, executions and exterminations. What the trouble was about – the politics of it – was beyond me; I knew only that there were the people who fled and the people they were fleeing, and that there was always flight and more flight for the guys who survived.

Flight was how they survived, and for that you had to have papers. Papers, papers, papers. When my grandmother said the word, it carried a talismanic power. But I understood this notion of papers even less than I understood the politics that made them so necessary; it was too remote from my own luxurious experience of American citizenship.

To make it as a refugee, you had to have certain bits of paper. You had to have papers to leave a place, and to get into a new one, and often just to go about your life where you were. The papers had to be in order, and papers that were good in the morning might not be good in the afternoon. There were never enough papers to meet the demand, and there were always people who could take your papers away. These people could also take you away, and you might never be seen or heard from again. You had to be very resourceful to stay on top of this business of papers, and you had to have luck.

Without papers, you were a dead letter – undeliverable and unreturnable. You had no identity; you had only your character. Years went by, and lives ran out, while refugees waited for papers. My grandmother never spoke of the suicides as insane or weak: just overburdened.

I want to say that her stories, repeated and expanded with each visit, make up my most vivid childhood memories. But I must be careful. I cannot remember another’s past, only her account of it. It was my imagination my grandmother fed, not my memory.

In the spring of 1975, when I was thirteen, I watched the fall of Saigon on television, those famous scenes of aftermath – people fighting to get out of there, people carrying only a bag, people tossing their infants on to planes from which they themselves were kicked away, people hanging from helicopters, clinging to flight by their fingertips, people dropping into the South China Sea.

The moment of excitement quickly passed, and I came of age in an America in retreat from Vietnam. The war, I was taught, had been an act of national self-laceration. It was our shame and our shackle. The diagnosis of the day was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the afflicted veterans discovered that they were valued – if at all – not as men who had served when called, but as victims of crimes they were forced to commit.

I simplify, but only to describe a mood that hung heavily over the next twenty years of American life, so heavily that, in American speech, Vietnam became the name less of a foreign land than of a national pathology. And the Vietnamese – no longer of use as foils in our debate – were for the most part forgotten.

Recalling the fall of Saigon, James Fenton has described how eager he was to witness a Communist victory over American imperialism, and how wrong he had been to imagine that the enemy of his enemy would be his friend. But despite the horrors of Vietnam’s Stalinist dictatorship, people who had opposed America’s prosecution of the Vietnam war never got too worked up about the boat people. After all, they were not fleeing the war. They were fleeing the peace.

Since 1975, at least seven hundred thousand Vietnamese boat people – some say one million – crossed the South China Sea to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Hong Kong, where they were placed in camps to wait for refugee visas from the United States and other western ‘receiver nations’. Nobody knows how many died at sea, but estimates run as high as one out of every three who set sail. Still the boat people kept coming, and in 1989, the “international community” – led by the United States, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – decided to stop the exodus.

A new set of rules was established: escapees from Vietnam would no longer be rewarded automatically with refugee visas. They would now be known as “asylum seekers” and subjected to a quasi-judicial screening process during which they would have to prove “a well-founded fear of persecution”. Those who were ‘screened in’ would be resettled, as before. Those who were “screened out” would be classified as “economic migrants”, a standard euphemism for illegal aliens: they would then be required to return to Vietnam under a scheme called “Voluntary Repatriation”.

The new rules succeeded in reducing the flow of refugees to a trickle. But the screening process was characterized by sluggishness, incompetence and corruption. In November 1994, nearly twenty years after the end of the war, approximately fifty thousand boat people were still in camps, leftovers of the longest-standing refugee crisis in a world that now boasts some twenty million refugees. Most had been in detention for four or five years–they had exhausted their appeals for refugee visas, and they refused to participate in Voluntary Repatriation. The UNHCR said that the camps would close by the end of 1995. What would happen to the hold-outs?

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