Ensuring an orderly departure for Afghan refugees


Making comparisons between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam has become a cottage industry. But as commentators continue to argue on what we should learn of the two tragedies, there is a more positive lesson to be learned from how Washington handled the humanitarian consequences of its defeat in Vietnam.

After the fall of Saigon, the United States faced the question of how to help the countless interpreters, soldiers and bureaucrats who were left behind. Over 100,000 Vietnamese were evacuated by sea and air during the last days of April 1975 – similar to number of Afghans evacuated in August this year. But the greatest exodus did not come until later. While a small number of refugees gradually fled Vietnam after 1975, the mass migration of Vietnamese, known as the “Boat People”, did not resume until mid-1978.

In response to this crisis, the United States implemented a program called an Orderly Departure. Although politically unpopular at the time, this effort ultimately facilitated the successful resettlement of some 500,000 Vietnamese refugees in the United States. A look back at how the Orderly Departure works shows both the possibility and the importance of a similar effort today.

Orderly departure

In mid-1979 there was a estimated at 350,000 Indochinese refugees in camps in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, the vast majority of Vietnam. These included people who had worked for American entities or for the South Vietnamese government, and therefore likely faced re-education camps or other persecution. It also included many people fleeing economic hardship or general oppression, especially the Chinese ethnic minority, viewed with suspicion by Hanoi as a potential fifth column for China. These refugees faced terrible ordeals: death at sea, predation by pirates and the threat of being “driven back” if they reached another country. An unknown number died during their travels, with estimates ranging from 10 To 50 percent Of those who fled.

A key element of the international response to this humanitarian disaster has been the Orderly start program. Established by a 1979 memorandum of understanding between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government, it aimed to “provide a safe and legal way for people to leave Vietnam rather than smuggled by boat”. Experts with long memories have already suggested using the Orderly start program as a model for the current challenge, so it may be useful to review the program in detail. As part of this program, countries willing to accept refugees have provided lists of such people to the Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese government in turn provided lists of citizens eligible for emigration. Names on one list but not on the other were subject to bilateral negotiations.

The United States has accepted applications in three categories: family members of persons in the United States currently ineligible for immigrant visas; former US government employees; and others closely associated or identified with the U.S. presence in Vietnam, a category that included Amerasian children left behind by US servicemen and their families.

Even before the United States and Vietnam reestablished formal diplomatic relations in 1995, State Department consular officials and representatives from the Immigration and Nationalities Service traveled to Vietnam to interview the candidates, the orderly departure program eventually establishing a permanent office in Ho Chi Minh City. . From 1979 until the end of the program at the end of 1999, the program ran on 500,000 Vietnamese for admission to the United States as refugees and immigrants. Almost half were resettled to join family members in the United States. The number also included more than 4,000 former U.S. government employees. In 1989, the United States established a Special Orderly Departure Program that assisted some 165,000 former re-education camp inmates and their families to relocate to the United States. In total, between 1975 and 2000, the United States resettled approximately 900,000 Vietnamese, many of whom were resettled from refugee camps in the region.

There were of course many shortcomings in the Orderly Departure Program process, including allegations would-be emigrants had to pay bribes to obtain their exit documents. Moreover, not everyone who wanted to escape the hardships of life in Vietnam was not qualified for inclusion. Looking ahead to 2021, however, it’s fair to view the tidy start-up schedule as a success. It reduced the flow of “boat people”, saving the lives of many potential refugees and mitigating the impact on Vietnam’s neighbors, which included American allies and partners. This showed that the United States, albeit belatedly, was taking responsibility for “its own” Vietnamese. Other countries also participated, hosting more than 100,000 refugees, with Canada and Australia being the main participants.

Lessons for today

What lessons can we learn from this story? Three are particularly important. First, despite decades of war and enmity, the Vietnamese government was ready to cooperate with the international community in this project. It didn’t require great altruism. Hanoi has managed to cultivate a more positive relationship with the international community through its cooperation and at the same time get rid of a difficult minority. Second, the United States and other countries missed the opportunity to take effective action from 1975 to address the legitimate fears of the thousands of Vietnamese who had opposed the Communist takeover. The tidal wave of Vietnamese fleeing as repression and hunger spread took a toll destabilizing effect across the region, as neighboring countries struggled to cope with the relentless flow of refugees. The international community should not have waited to act until thousands of people died at sea, or flooded refugee camps from Thailand to Hong Kong. Third, international institutions have fulfilled their role, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees providing a useful umbrella under which the United States and others could support orderly emigration.

Would the new Afghan government agree to a program similar to the Orderly Departure Program? The obvious answer is that we won’t know until we try. The international community has reasonable leverage at this point, given Afghanistan’s dependence on international support. The types of Afghans most likely to be helped by an orderly departure program – workers in non-governmental organizations, former employees of foreign governments, bureaucrats in Kabul – are unlikely to be seen as a great loss to them. Taliban, who are already facing protests from reluctant citizens. give up the rights they have enjoyed in recent years.

How big would such a program be? Afghanistan has 38 million inhabitants, compared to 49 million in Vietnam in 1975. The nature of American involvement in Afghanistan was much more limited than in Vietnam. More importantly, if the international community acts swiftly to provide a safe and legal outcome to cases of humanitarian concern – and acts to help prevent a complete collapse of the Afghan economy in order to alleviate economic migration – it can, hopefully, the, avoid the kind of tragic mass exodus. that Vietnam has lived through. If Afghans at risk know that there is ultimately a safety net to resettle if necessary, they may be less likely to flee as refugees.

Political resistance

Using the Orderly Departure Program model provides a possible answer to the question of how to help Afghans at risk of persecution. Now all that is needed is political will.

It’s easy to forget that the resettlement of Vietnamese and other refugees from the Vietnam War was very unpopular in the United States at the time. In 1975, a Time survey showed that only 36% of Americans were in favor of admitting Vietnamese refugees. Governor Jerry Brown vehemently opposed initial efforts to relocate evacuees to California. After the initial influx of the 1975 evacuation, opposition remained fairly stable: CBS /New York Times survey From 1979, the question of whether the United States should double the admission of Indochina refugees to 14,000 per month revealed that 62 percent opposed the change.

Although the Ford and Carter administrations and Congress have provided bipartisan support for the resettlement efforts, many voters felt differently. The first wave of refugees in 1975 had, on average, some education and were more likely to speak English. The last wave of “boat people”, on the other hand, was less likely to have language skills or an education to facilitate their relocation – they fought for entry-level jobs with Americans already struggling economically during the recession that began in 1980. Along the Gulf Coast, extreme tensions over fishing practices have grown. degenerated into violence, carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. Many Americans harbored a very emotional resentment towards all Vietnamese because of the trauma of the war.

At the same time, American organizations and individuals have mobilized to help these newcomers, and the resettled Vietnamese have demonstrated impressive qualities of resilience. While we must avoid the mistake of lumping all Asian Americans into the category of “model minority”, most Americans today would view the Vietnamese refugees as an achievement, especially as the generation of Americans of Vietnamese descent who came as children or who were born in the United States are taking their place as members of Congress, award-winning authors, entrepreneurs, and scientists. The United States made the right decision in 1979 to establish the Orderly Departure Program and can apply the lessons learned from that experience to live up to its responsibilities in Afghanistan today.

Susan Sutton was a member of the Senior Foreign Service. In addition to other assignments in Washington, Asia and Eastern Europe, she served as Deputy Chef de Mission in Vietnam and Laos, and worked on refugee issues in Asia and Europe. The opinions and characteristics in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the US government.

Picture: Department of State (Photo by Ron Przysucha)


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