Boat People

This small boat of 162 Vietnamese refugees en route to Canada capsized near the coast of Malaysia in 1978. The boat sank a few metres from the shore and the refugees were rescued (photograph by K. Gauger, courtesy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

The Vietnam War ended in 1975. The Communists from the north, who had defeated the American-backed regime in the south, brought in repressive and vindictive measures against southerners, including stripping them of jobs, homes and possessions. Many, driven to despair, saw a chance to escape the country when the government introduced a program in 1978 for ethnic Chinese—whom the regime distrusted because of border skirmishes with China—to leave by boat.

Over the next decade, one million Vietnamese, armed with fake identity papers, would set off in unseaworthy boats off the coast of Vietnam, hoping to reach international waters and be rescued there. Risks were high of drowning, starvation and dehydration, pirates and rape and murder. Those who made it languished in overcrowded and squalid refugee camps in Hong Kong and Malaysia, or remained trapped in boats if refused permission to land.

At the height of the crisis in 1979, the Canadian government responded by sponsoring several thousand refugees. It announced that it would also match any private sector sponsorships. Many Canadians who stepped forward did so in gratitude, for they had been among those who fled to Canada in 1956 when Soviet troops put down an uprising in Hungary. Canada's generosity towards the boat people reflected its growing humanitarianism towards refugees. It stood in stark contrast to half a century earlier, when Canada turned away the Komagata Maru steamer and its Sikh passengers. In all, more than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees were taken in by Canada between 1978 and 1981, making up one-quarter of newcomers to Canada in that time.

Learn more: Boat People: A Refugee Crisis