Luise Druke on the Vietnamese boat people crisis and its lessons today

Dr. Luise Druke is co-chair of the Inter-University Committee on International Migration at MIT and an Affiliated Expert at Harvard University. A German scholar and practitioner in the fields of international relations, the United Nations and refugee protection, Dr. Druke also headed offices and missions of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Europe, Southeast and Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa for nearly 30 years. She received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hannover. She was a fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, and visiting researcher at the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program (1987–88). She also received an honorary doctorate in political science and law from Shumen University,2 a master's in public administration from Harvard University, a master of laws from Brussels University, and a master's in economics, finance and management from Webster University, St. Louis. She also has received a diploma from the Sorbonne, a license d'enseignement from Paris VIII University, and a master's in European studies from the European Institute of High International Studies, University of Nice. Dr. Druke was interviewed by Kimaya de Silva '17 on Feb. 8, 2016.

How did you get interested in the refugee issue? In particular, what made you decide to study the international community’s response to the crisis of the boat people in the early 1980s?

I would refer you to the preface of my latest book, Innovations in Refugee Protection, which I published in 2013, where I write about having being born in Germany and learning what the Nazis did to many people. Also, my mother was the president of the Red Cross in the Hannover region, so I grew up becoming more and more interested in this work. While I was a student in France, one of my student colleagues asked me to come visit her in Peru, and then I spent three months in Chile. That coincided with the time of Allende. I left just before the coup d’état. I met many of people from different political sectors. The day I was headed back to Europe was September 11, 1973. We were boarding the plane in Lima airport, when we heard that Pinochet had overthrown the Allende government. I wrote an article right on the plane, which I published on arrival in Germany. When the first refugees arrived from Chile, I received a phone call from the city of Hanover from someone who had read my article. They assumed I spoke Spanish and they asked whether I could help teach German, pick the refugees up from the airport, find work and housing for them, and translate documents. That is how I started my refugee work in January 1974.

What got you into the area of the boat people crisis?

I was very much against the Vietnam War. After I had worked with the Chileans and finished my studies in Germany, I figured that I wanted to do refugee work. The obvious organization for me was the UNHCR, so I applied. I wanted to go to the field and to the most difficult places, such as Hanoi or Laos. There were vacancies, but at that time the UNHCR would not send any women there and instead asked me to start working in its headquarters in Geneva in September 1977. But then I was put in charge of a small family reunification program for Vietnamese families who had been split up after the evacuation in Saigon in 1975. I spent the next three years in the field, first in Malaysia and then in Singapore, as the head of office, where I devised a lot of practical measures to resolve the serious problem of the Vietnamese boat people drowning. I always kept a file of the things we have done. I used this for my doctoral dissertation on preventative measures for refugee-producing situations, which I published in the early 1990s. In this work, I wrote about the war and the response of the Vietnamese boat people. I wanted to reflect on this experience and then see how one could draw lessons from it, not exactly to apply them in other situations, but to show students interested in this field that, as a young official, you are thrown into this situation of working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. You have to take charge and solve problems, and that is why you are in this humanitarian field. To learn about this from my book, I would recommend you to look at the firsthand documentation of how we set up the camp and how I, with my colleagues, had the Vietnamese do a lot for themselves. They were assisting us in the office, translating documents, and so on.

What are the major similarities and differences between the two crises – the Vietnamese boat people crisis several decades ago and the Syrian refugee crisis today – and could you comment on the response of the West to the latest refugee crisis in comparison with that of Vietnam?

As I wrote in my book, the response to the Vietnamese boat people crisis by the international community – the U.N., national organizations and non-governmental organizations – cannot be applied as such but still provides useful lessons learned. What it shows is that the solutions we found were ones that were possible at that time. They were fueled by the historical sense of responsibility by the U.S. For instance in 1979, the United States was very interested in the situation and was certainly not yet envisaging the refugees' return to Vietnam. There was still a perception of the danger of the domino theory, that the Hanoi government would overrun the whole of Southeast Asia. The 1979 Indochinese Conference developed some of the early policy approach toward Vietnam. For example, the Vietnamese authorities should refrain from indiscriminately persecuting those persons of Chinese origin, who had, in one way or another, collaborated with the previous regime or the Americans during the war, or punish the South Vietnamese who had helped the Americans. We could see that the composition of the boat people and the land people from Vietnam turned into more ethnic Vietnamese people.

My colleagues and I noticed that there were many people who would not be considered refugees in the conventional sense if an individual refugee status determination procedure was done. Efforts were made to discourage those who would not be eligible for asylum and refugee status to take the dangerous route. More and more the notion became accepted by the Americans who then supported the second Indochinese Conference in 1989, which adopted a screening program in the refugee camps in South East Asian refugee camps. In addition more and more Vietnamese should be able to leave in an orderly fashion through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). The program saved many lives. The new screening process gave people the opportunity to have an interview. This was implemented by the government offices and supported and advised by the UNHCR. Many people have criticized the fact that there were people who were screened out who should have been screened in. Those who were screened in had the opportunity of resettlement, while those screened out were to return to Vietnam. That was a slow and painful process, especially in Hong Kong where many people were protesting about not wanting to return.

This was a difficult and a unique situation and it cannot be compared to the current boat people problem. The response to the Vietnamese crisis came from compassion and American historical responsibility. It was a humanitarian crisis with 50,000 people arriving on the beaches in Malaysia, for example, in the summer 1979. The international community pulled together and took action. Today’s situation reminds me of the 1990 science fiction BBC movie The March, directed by David Wheatley). This old BBC film needs to be watched. It shows people who must choose to come to Europe while risking being shot. That is what we are seeing today. Today’s crisis is closer to home, but there is a compassion fatigue.

Last August German Chancellor Angela Merkel started to welcome those who needed protection. The refugees were let in and they were greeted in a positive manner. However, much of that was destroyed by New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other places, where many women were attacked and assaulted. That created fear. Hannover, which has a population of 500,000 people, has more than 30,000 new arrivals. They are being accommodated in old factories, in closed garden centers, in halls. Near my place, you have public squares where you only have young, male, Africans. When they gather, people are closing their doors out of fear. This has an impact on the political response, even though Merkel keeps saying Germany will manage. The fact that they came in without being registered means we really don't know who came. In the first couple of months, Hungary and other countries closed their doors. When the refugees arrived in Austria, they wanted to be sent on to Germany and the Nordic countries, where we have this very sad situation with some of the security enforcement officers are even taking the valuables of the arriving migrants and refugees.

These are cruelties, which are happening about which many people feel badly. Even though unemployment in Germany is probably the lowest in the EU, there is still a great deal of apprehension, which affects policymaking. Also you have seen all those cartoons, which juxtapose the refugee crisis against Germany’s exporting of weapons. In other words, if we are selling weapons abroad, we have to take the people who are running away to escape being killed by those weapons. I am talking about Germany because this is the country I am most concerned about.

Let us turn to the Schengen agreement. I was very involved as the UNHCR senior European Affairs official in Brussels between mid 1990 and end 1994 in preparing its implementation with the member states after it was signed in June 1990. According to the agreement, there should be freedom of movement within the Schengen region, which is now most of the EU countries. However, this agreement also required increased border control at the EU’s external borders. In 2002, the European Commission set up Frontex, the EU agency for external border control. This organization is not operating strictly under EU law as its border officials are seconded by EU member states, with a mission to keep irregular migrants out. When people in need of protection are pushed back and thousands have already drowned, there is a violation of international refugee law, as no one should be pushed back who is in need of protection and who asks for protection on the border. Yet this happens all the time. The former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi and the former head of state of Libya, Gaddafi, had made an agreement by which the Italian marines would pick up those who were in their waters and send them back to Libya some ten years ago. Violations brought to Strasbourg committed under this agreement lead in 2012 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to issue a landmark decision in the case of Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy. The case concerned Somalis and Eritreans who were intercepted at sea by Italian authorities, and then summarily returned to Libya. The Court found, in part, that Italy’s actions had violated the non-refoulement principle.

The last element I need to mention is the perceived and real threat of ISIS. The fear is that it will infiltrate other countries, including the United States and the EU countries. This fear makes the response very difficult. The European Commission with the heads of state have decided to give Turkey 3 billion euros to keep refugees and migrants in its country. The Turkish Prime Minister two weeks ago in the press conference with Angela Merkel just slipped into the press conference that the 3 billion is not enough, it should be 10 billion. Turkey, however, is not where many refugees want to stay. They want to be safe and they do not want to run the risk of getting a bomb on the head or getting into local conflicts. Even though Turkey has amended its legislation to be a little bit more amenable, it ratified the Geneva Convention with a reservation. In the beginning Turkey did a lot to allow more than 2 million Syrians and others arriving at its borders, but the situation became complicated with ISIS’s involvement. The situation is very different now and seriously complicated. That is why you cannot compare the response of the international community and the U.N. in the current crisis to that of the Vietnamese boat people.

We have the most capable U.N. people who are the stars of the U.N system working on this. Staffan de Mistura, the special envoy for the Syrian crisis, is the eminent diplomat and a knowledgeable political analyst. I learned very early on from former High Commissioner, Paul Hartling, that to "to do good humanitarian work, you have to be a good political analyst." Each humanitarian decision and implementation of it has political ramifications. The U.N. is always blamed for not having been able to resolve a difficult situation. However, we have to ask the question, who is the U.N.? The U.N. is state-centered and it is the Security Council’s five permanent member states that are running the show. The various factions and non-state actors are increasingly making international diplomacy and policy very challenging.

In terms of the response to the crisis of the Vietnamese boat people, what were the major mistakes that have been made by the international community, in particular the Europeans?

The mistakes of the international community at the time of the Vietnamese refugee crisis, were based on the fact that we at the UNHCR were not prepared because we underestimated the number and challenges of people that would make the decision to leave by boat or by land (latter through Cambodia to Thailand). We also had some very reluctant governments in Southeast Asia. Thailand had the problem of pirates raping women and killing entire boatloads of refugees. From mid-1979, Malaysia’s policy allowed for shooting on sight of incoming boats. This was an unacceptable response. However, the Southeast Asian states had a legitimate concern. They believed that this quantity of people was too large, especially with the West not resettling the Indochinese as rapidly as to avoid backlogs. They did not want to get stuck with so many refugees and have to deal with any residual case law. Once they did let refugees in, they isolated them from the local population. Malaysia had them isolated on two islands, Thailand had them locked up in closed camps, and Singapore was also in favor of stringent control. In fact, in Singapore the authorities did not allow any direct arrivals and only accepted people who were rescued at sea on the condition that there would be a guarantee by the flag state of the country rescuing them, like the U.S. or France or Germany. But if it was a Vietnamese boat, a Singaporean, Pakistani, or Liberian vessel that had rescued Vietnamese then of course there was no guarantee, and that was a serious problem. I ran from embassy to embassy to have individuals, families and entire groups accepted. That was when I devised the disembarkation resettlement offer.

At a lunch I briefed the Belgian ambassador about the situation as suggested that Brussels might consider helping with visas, in view of the fact that Belgium did not have a fleet circulating in Southeast Asia and thus not risking to have to rescue boat people drowning. Therefore, in order to be part of solving the refugee problem, Belgium provided 200 visas. Thus the Belgian authorities offered guarantees for those people rescued by the flag states not guaranteed like Singapore. I made sure that we resettled the maximum number possible. After several months there were more than 1000 people who could be disembarked after being rescued against the 200 visas from Belgium.

UNHCR Headquarters saw the benefit of this arrangement and launched a wider initiative with other Western states. They would contribute to the pool of visas of the disembarkation resettlement offer that came to be known as DISERO, which in the end helped to rescue and resettle some 65,000 Vietnamese boat people. That is about 10% of all of the Vietnamese boat people.

What are some of the barriers today that didn’t exist then in terms of resettlement?

The UNHCR has been working hard for the refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and many other countries worldwide. We would need yearly 100,000 resettlement places at a minimum to have some sort of impact on the resettlement opportunities for people in need of it. The resettlement of the Syrian refugees in the U.S. is almost a joke. Politicians will say that these people are a security risk. They have to be vetted for two years, and they cannot be let into the country. There are governors in the U.S., who have quite clearly spoken up about not wanting any Syrians resettled in their states. Even if President Obama wanted to resettle people in the U.S., he has opposition within the country. Now after the massive influx since mid-2015, it is becoming very difficult to resettle refugees from refugee camps in Europe. Early 2016, even Sweden has decided that it cannot take in any more refugees. How do you expect countries to take in additional Syrians if they don't know where to put those who entered in large numbers in the first place? The three permanent solutions for refugees: local integration (and eventually obtaining a new nationality), repatriation if the situation allows, or resettlement is becoming a serious challenge. The third solution to solve refugee problems is very weak because of the total saturation and because of the great distortion in the view of these refugees.

Could you tell us briefly what happened to the refugees who fled Vietnam three decades ago after they resettled in the West? In the cases of success, what were the main factors that facilitated the settlement and integration of the Vietnamese refugees three decades ago?

I went back to study the Vietnamese refugees years later, to talk with people about their lives, in California, in Hamburg and in Hannover in Germany. It is quite clear that the Vietnamese stand out in terms of resourcefulness, hard work and ensuring that their children get an education. I know a Vietnamese woman born two weeks before the fall of Saigon. Her father spent 6 years in the re-education camp and finally in 1990, they managed to come to the U.S. She was the sixth of six children. She very quickly learnt English, completed high school, attended MIT, did her Ph.D. and is now a very successful scientist in oceanography. Her mother still does not speak much English. Vietnamese parents have done everything possible for the education of their children in the U.S.A. but also elsewhere. I met another former refugee in Hamburg who became very successful in the shipping industry. Many other Vietnamese have taken up professions in all sorts of fields and have made a good living. They came with an open mind; they were willing to work hard, initially for little money. Of course you have some gangs and problems in some places where Vietnamese are fighting among each other. Nevertheless the bottom line is that the Vietnamese integration process is going to stand out in history as one of the most successful ones.

If you were in charge of the UNHCR today, what different measures would you adopt to deal with the current refugee crisis?

I have the highest respect for all the high commissioners, including the new U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who assumed his functions in January 2016. Many of us in UNHCR have worked with him for many years. He is capable, friendly, caring, and forward-looking. I am just one of thousands of UNHCR colleagues and friends and people in the governmental and non-governmental organizations who is very happy about this choice. I hope that he draws from his decades of experience in the field and at UNHCR Headquarters, as well as the Head of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. He knows the Middle East, he knows North Africa, and he knows so many intricate regions and issues. To do humanitarian work, you have to be a good politician; you have to be a good manager and a leader. Otherwise you do not deserve to be in this kind of position.

2Recommended reading: Innovations in Refugee Protection: A Compendium of UNHCR’s 60 Years, Including Case Studies on IT Communities in Humanitarian Operations, Vietnamese Boat People in Singapore, Chilean Exile and Namibian Repatriation. Peter Lang Academic Publishers: New York, Frankfurt. 2013.

Kimaya de Silva '17Student Journalist
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