From ‘boat people’ to ‘irregular maritime migrants’: a re-conceptualization of seaborne refugees after 40 years by Olivia Tran

oliviaOLIVIA TRAN is a graduate candidate in Globalization and International Development at the University of Ottawa. Her parents came to Canada as Vietnamese refugees during the Indochinese exodus following the Vietnam War.   






In the 1970s and 80s, over a million Indochinese refugee boat people were resettled following the end of the Vietnam War. Comparatively, today’s “boat people”—or, as they are more commonly termed, irregular maritime migrants–are faced with increasingly difficult odds of being granted asylum and being resettled. Why have state and public opinion towards refugees changed in the past 40 years? I believe there are three main reasons for the shift in reactions to seaborne asylum seekers: a different political climate, the growth of compassion fatigue, and the rise in fear of terrorism.                       .

The “Golden Age” of Refugee Protection

The fall of Saigon to the Communists on April 30, 1975 and the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam sparked an exodus of Indochinese refugees[1], many of whom fled their country on small, ill-equipped boats. In response, coordinated state collaboration and burden-sharing, as part of the Comprehensive Action Plan,[2] resulted in an unprecedented surge in refugee resettlement. By the end of 1988, over a million Indochinese refugees had been resettled.[3] The collaborative international response towards the Indochinese “boat people” has not been repeated in modern times during seaborne refugee crises, such as the crossings of the Mediterranean or to Australia.

From “Boat People” to “Irregular Maritime Migrants”

Unlike the Indochinese who were declared refugees prima facie and were considered political agents, seaborne asylum seekers today are portrayed with less agency, as victims of trafficking, war, or terrorism, or with more agency, capable of acting as threats to domestic security and social stability. Many states have reacted to the swelling number of asylum seekers with increasingly strict policies of containment and deterrence, framing certain asylum seekers as illegal, irregular, and a threat to the social, political, and economic stability of the state.[4] The “problem” with refugees is not merely their growing numbers, but also the way in which they are categorized and interpreted.[5]

In Australia, for example, irregular maritime migrants are portrayed and treated as illegal invaders on Australian shores.[6] One action of the Australian government has been to sign an agreement with the governments of Nauru and Cambodia stipulating that all legitimate refugees in Nauru would be offered the chance to resettle in Cambodia, but barred from settling in Australia.[7] This reaction is in stark contrast to the 1970s and 80s when Australia accepted nearly 160,000 Vietnamese boat people.[8]

What Changed?

The political climate in the years surrounding the Vietnam War was highly polarized and shaped by the Cold War. The world was already divided by the Iron Curtain, creating a sharp dichotomy of East versus West and Democracy versus Communism. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the Communist government took over the southern part of the country. Based on humanitarian and geopolitical interests, the United States and other Western countries promised resettlement for those who “voted with their feet.”[9] As one magazine writer at the time noted: “If this nation [the United States] was willing to commit billions of dollars and 55,000 young Americans it should be willing now to offer its precious soil as sanctuary to those who are left behind.”[10] This political climate, which worked in favour of refugee resettlement, no longer exists for most current refugee situations.

In addition, the compassion of governments and the public towards refugees was located in a different political context. The Vietnam War had ended only twenty-six years after the Second World War and the Holocaust. Guilt over international inaction was still fresh and many people drew parallels between the Holocaust and the Indochinese refugee crisis. An American newspaper commentator in 1979 noted: “Every generation knows what the previous one should have done about its refugees. Who is not ashamed in hindsight of the world’s feeble response to the Nazi persecutions nearly half a century ago? Will our own children be any prouder of our response to Indochina’s holocaust?”[11] During the Vietnam War, desperate scenes of war and escape were also publicly televised for the first time, spurring a wave of sympathy from the general public.[12] For the past 40 years, however, there have been a growing number of refugee crises that have appealed for public and government funding and support. The seemingly never-ending pattern of refugee crises has resulted in “compassion fatigue” and a weakening of concern for the plight of refugees.

Finally, the rise of terrorism and the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 have had an immense impact on the actions and reactions of states. A fear and mistrust of outsiders, including asylum seekers and refugees, was perhaps inevitable. Many refugee claimants today are from Middle Eastern or Muslim countries, and many countries are limiting asylum and linking their response to asylum seekers to terrorism. As the High Commissioner of the UNHCR reminded state representatives: “Don’t confuse refugees with terrorists.”[13] During the Indochinese crisis, fears around religious extremism and terror attacks were not factored into resettlement decisions.


In contrast to the time of the Indochinese crisis, states today are less inclined to support resettlement and focus their efforts instead on repatriation to manage asylum migration flows.[14] Many states have framed asylum seekers negatively in an effort to dissuade migration attempts and to persuade those who have already made the journey to return to their country of origin. Policies of self-protection are being implemented in a climate of fear to the detriment of human rights and the rights of asylum seekers. This piece does not argue for the full-scale resettlement of refugees to Western countries, but it does seek to broadly explain and draw attention to the worrying shift in refugee discourse and asylum approaches. Recently, the European Union (EU) Commission has discussed plans to redistribute migrants and ease the burden of offshore migrants reaching Italy and other member states, along with a proposal to resettle more Syrian refugees and offer opportunities for high-skilled immigrants to move to the EU.[15] Given the current political climate and context surrounding seaborne asylum seekers and refugees, however, it is uncertain whether a commitment to burden-sharing and crisis resolution can be actualized, and if it is, how it will change the discourse the surrounding seaborne migrants.



Betts, A., Loescher, G. & Milner, J. (2012). UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection. Global Institutions, second edition. New York: Routledge.

Chetty, A.L. (2001) ‘Resolution of the Problem of Boat People: The Case for a Global Initiative. ISIL Year Book of International Humanitarian and Refugee Law, Vol. I, L. Jambholkar (ed). Indian Society of International Law.

Robinson, W.C. (1998). Terms of Refuge. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Zed Books: London.

Hallin, D.C. (1989). The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. University of California Press: Berkley and Los Angeles.

History Learning Site. “The Holocaust.” History Learning Site, World War Two. Retrieved on May 10, 2015 from

Jupp, J. (2002). From White Australia to Woomera: the Story of Australian Immigration. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Maley, W. (2001). ‘Security, people smuggling, and Australia’s new Afghan refugees.’ Australian Defence Studies Centre, Working paper no. 63.

Shacknove, A. (1993). ‘From asylum to containment.’ International Journal or Refugee Law, 5(4), 516-533.

Thomson Reuthers. (2015) “Migrants to Europe will be redistributed among countries under proposed EU plan.” CBC News World. Retrieved on May 11, 2015 from

UNHCR. (2005). “’Don’t confuse refugees with terrorists,’ says Guterres.” UNHCR. Retrieved May 4, 2015 from

UNHCR. (2006). “The State of The World’s Refugees 2006: Human Displacement in the New Millennium.” Chapter 6, Rethinking Durable Solutions. Retrieved on May 10, 2015 from

UNHCR. (2014). “UNHCR statement on Australia-Cambodia agreement on refugee relocation” UNHCR. Retrieved May 6, 2015 from

Zucker, N.L., Zucker, N.F. (1996). Desperate Crossings: Seeking Refuge in America. M.E. Sharp: New York.

[1]The influx of Indochinese fleeing post-Vietnam War was so great that refugee determination processes were stretched beyond capacity. The reason for their escape was evident and thus, as a group, they were recognized as refugees prima facie until further processing at first country asylum camps.

[2] The Comprehensive Action Plan did not purely promote resettlement. It was an agreement between South East Asian states, including Vietnam, and Western states to comprehensively manage the Indochinese refugee crisis. A combination of first country asylum, third country resettlement for genuine refugees, repatriation and departure prevention was implemented.

[3] Betts, Loescher, Milner, 2008, 46.

[4] Shacknove, 1993; Nyers, 2006.

[5] Nyers, 2006, 3.

[6] Jupp, 2002, Nyers, 2006.

[7] UNHCR, 2014.

[8] Robinson, 1998, 20.

[9] Betts, Loescher, Milner, 2008, 41; Chetty, A.L., 2001; Zucker, N.L, Zucker, N.F., 1996, 28.

[10] Chetty, A.L.., 2001.

[11] Chetty, A.L., 2001.

[12] Hallin, 1989.

[13] UNHCR, 2005.

[14] UNHCR, 2006, 130.

[15] Thomson Reuters, 2015.