Hundreds of thousands of Indochinese boat people crossed territorial waters from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia towards south-east Asian states such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Hong Kong.
In 1977, about 15,000 Vietnamese sought asylum in south-east Asian countries. By the end of 1978, the numbers fleeing by boat had quadrupled and 70 per cent of these asylum seekers were Vietnamese of Chinese origin.
By the end of 1978, there were nearly 62,000 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in camps throughout south-east Asia. This tested to breaking point the capacity of those states to absorb the refugees.
As the numbers grew, so too did local hostility and boat ‘push backs’ became routine. Soon images of drowning refugees were shown around the world. Around ten per cent of the boat people were lost at sea, fell victim to pirate attacks, drowned, or died of dehydration.
‘There was moral outrage,’ says Betts who says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees ‘showed enormous political courage’ to produce an agreement whereby south-east Asian nations allowed the refugees to land and disembark. In exchange, all those who were granted refugee status were settled in third countries, such as the United States, Canada and Australia. ‘Those who did not qualify were humanely resettled back home,’ says Betts.
The programme was reinforced in the 1980s. ‘This ultimately led to the rescue of millions of refugees, and they went on to contribute enormously socially and economically to the countries they settled in,’ says Betts. ‘We addressed this crisis, we found a way to do it. We said refugees were a global problem and we decided to deal with it together.’
This is an extract from The Great Escape, published in full in the July issue of Geographical. For an in-depth look at the Refugee Crisis, read Mark Rowe’s complete Dossier in the latest issue, on sale now. Or click here to subscribe and never miss an issue.