After the fall of Saigon in the Summer of 1975, hundreds of thousands of people began fleeing Vietnam for fear of political persecution. Most were escaping in secret from the country in small, rickety, unseaworthy wooden boats across the Gulf of Thailand or the South China Sea. Most were completely unsuited to the open sea, giving rise to the term "Boat People." Some also escaped by foot through the Camdodian jungle.
Thousands of such refugees died due to diseases, or at the hands of pirates. Thousands more vanished without a trace in the cruel and unforgiving sea, victims of pirates who raped and tortured all the young and old women on board while their male relatives stood helpless. Any men who dared to protest were beaten or tortured, and sometimes got thrown off the boat. The young women were sometimes abducted. Some were taken to Kra Island off the eastern Coast of Southern Thailand, where they were hunted and assaulted by pirates who returned day after day. UNHCR reported that 160 refugees died on the tiny island in just 12 months; 1,250 others were rescued.
Those who escaped such a fate often lost their direction and wandered on the immense, cruel sea for days without food and water, nor the gasoline required to extricate themselves from the situation. Over a quarter of a million people, including children and women, lost their lives at sea. Many others were barely alive when they were fortunate enough to be picked up by passing-by ships.
Why, then, given the inherent risks, would anyone attempt such an exodus? Most simply wanted the freedom to discuss and criticize the government, to worship as they pleased, the freedom to earn a decent living, and, above all, to live under a just and fair government.
Early on, most "Boat People" headed for Southern Thailand, the nearest foreign land. However, that pattern changed when Thai "pirates" (actually small groups of Thai fishermen) began regularly attacking and robbing refugee boats, often raping and killing the occupants. By mid-1977, most Boat People were avoiding Thailand and instead making for Malaysia, despite the additional mileage and longer time at sea. Often they were blown off course or had engine trouble. As a result, they ended up in the Philippines, Brunei and Eastern Malaysian States.
Begining in 1976, the condition in Vietnam worsened, and so the number of people fleeing increased dramatically. The number lept to 8558 in September 1978, 12,540 in October '78, and 21,505 in November'78, surpassing the totals of 15,690 in 1977 and of 5242 in 1976.
By 1989, 14 years after the change of government in South Viet Nam, neighboring countries were becoming increasingly impatient with the ongoing influx, and had threaten to push back new arrivals of Boat People. In 1989, Vietnam agreed to such refugees back, and promised the UN that it would not punish these people simply for trying to escape. So, under UNHCR's Comprehensive Plan of Action, every asylum seeker from Viet Nam was "screened individually for refugee status, and given the right to appeal." Since none of the Asian nations accepted them permanently (except Japan), all those who were given refugee status had to resettle in the West. Non-refugees were ultimately forced to return to Viet Nam under the so-called "orderly departure program." To date, more than 112,000 non-refugees have returned to Viet Nam, based on UNHCR monitoring, which tracks approximately 45% of returned refugees.
The Vietnamese Boat People saga continues today. More than 1.6 million Vietnamese have settled in new countries, and more are escaping constantly. Each Boat Person has his or her own horrible tales to relate. They have left their legacy for generations to come.