boat people

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Refugees who escaped by sea from the Vietnamese communist regime after the fall of Saigon in 1975, a process that continued for about fifteen years. The exodus across the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea began slowly. About 5,240 escaped in 1976, but in 1977 there were 15,690, and in 1978, when ethnic Chinese joined the exodus, the numbers rose dramatically. In November 1978 alone the number of escapees exceeded 21,000, and January–July 1979 over 65,000, most of them ethnic Chinese, reached Hong Kong.

At first most Boat People attempted to reach the nearest landfall, southern Thailand, but acts of piracy by Thai fishermen were so rampant that from 1977 most tried to reach Malaysia instead. However, they were often blown off course or their rickety craft suffered engine failure, and they ended up as far away as Indonesia and Japan, and even Australia. The loss of life through bad weather, piracy, disease, and starvation amounted, according to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to about one-third of those who attempted the voyage.

The brutality of the Thai fishermen who preyed on these vessels was quite shocking, and at first the Thai government, reluctant to receive large boatloads of refugees, did little to stop the killing, raping, and looting that was so often the fate of those trying to escape. In 1981, the year the United Nations launched its anti-piracy programme, 1,100 attacks were recorded. One of the most effective laws introduced by the $2.6 million programme, which was financed by the USA and ten other countries including the UK, was that all 15,000 Thai fishing boats were required to have numbers prominently displayed on their bows, and their crews were photographed on leaving harbour. The photographs were then circulated to refugee camps and other ports in an attempt to identify the pirates. The programme reduced the number of attacks as it deterred all but the most hardened criminals. However, it also resulted in even greater loss of life as the hard-core pirates attempted to kill every witness to their attacks.

Eventually, Vietnam agreed to take back any Boat People who wanted to return, and not punish them. As a result of this initiative, during the 1990s the exodus all but ceased, but not before it had created a refugee crisis of international proportions in places such as Hong Kong and Malaysia.

The term Boat People was also applied to asylum seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere, who during the 1990s paid smugglers to take them by sea to Australia. Four thousand one hundred and seventy-five arrived in Australia between July 1999 and July 2000 and a further 4,141 arrived during the following twelve months. In one, well-publicized, incident in August 2001 the Norwegian container ship Tampa picked up 433 mainly Afghan asylum seekers from their sinking vessel off the Indonesian coast, the captain citing his obligation to do so under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. Both Australia and Indonesia refused them permission to land and eventually they were dispersed to other countries.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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