After U.S. war, Vietnamese were stranded 16 years

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Duc Nguyen at a screening of his documentary, “Stateless,” at the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Theater in Seattle on May 23. (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

“Immigration is such a huge topic, and it leads to so many different political and geographical and ecological arenas,” Duc Nguyen said at a screening of his documentary “Stateless” in Seattle last week. “Immigration is really hard to pinpoint, to understand. What we’re doing with the film through community screenings like this is to explore more about [U.S.] immigration reform — explore exactly what it is we are reforming.”

“Stateless” is about Vietnamese refugees who were stranded in the Philippines for more than 16 years after refugee camp closures in Southeast Asia. Many Vietnamese asylum seekers were sent back to Vietnam. Those who refused — the “stateless” — eked out an existence on land they couldn’t own, labored hard for money because they were unemployable, and subsided without any legal status. Stateless people also lack access to health care and education, and are often marginalized and vulnerable to crime and trafficking.

The film helped Duc explore “who got accepted, who got rejected, how people come and how people go — immigration,” he said. “This is part of a larger discussion.”

“Stateless” follows Trong Nguyen, a Vietnamese man and boat person who was one of nearly 2,000 stateless people in the Philippines, as he nervously waits for and undergoes the screening process to be relocated to the United States in 2005.

Boat people are escapees who fled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. These escapees often cited political repression and persecution by the newly formed Communist government as reasons for leaving Vietnam.

They left by small boats or ships oriented toward refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other parts of Southeast Asia. The Southeast Asian countries took in the refugees based on assurances from Western countries that the refugees would be resettled in the West. The number of boat people who escaped Vietnam peaked in the late 1970s and continued through 1995. It is estimated that more than 1 million boat people have been resettled since 1975 — more than 800,000 in the United States. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, about 200,000 to 400,000 boat people died at sea, though such figures are hard to estimate.

Trong first tried to escape Vietnam in 1979. Near the Thai border, he was captured by Vietnamese troops and imprisoned. Additional escape failures colored the ensuing years, which was the norm for many refugees, and it wasn’t until 1989 that Trong landed in the Philippines. He left behind his wife and two young daughters. He wouldn’t be reunited with them in the Philippines until more than a decade later.

In 1989, the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) program was adopted, 14 years after the end of the Vietnam War. Established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, CPA’s goal was to stop the influx of “Indochinese” boat people, as refugee camps were beyond overextended. Also by 1989, the humanitarian fervor felt at the end of the war had significantly dulled.

Most boat people who arrived in refugee camps after designated dates in 1989, about 115,000, were not considered prima facie refugees. Rather, they were asylum seekers who needed to be screened to qualify as refugees. Most didn’t qualify and were repatriated back to Vietnam and Laos.

“[CPA] was a disservice for many stateless Vietnamese,” Duc wrote in a 2005 Nguoi Viet Tay Bac article. “Set up to be a durable solution, the CPA program was plagued with corruption and [mishandled] cases.”

In 1989, Trong was among those not recognized as refugees and wasn’t granted asylum in a Western country. Duc reported that Trong was asked for a bribe by Filipino screeners, but Trong could not secure the hundreds of dollars asked. He was supposed to be repatriated back to Vietnam, but he refused, opting to stay in the Philippines as one of more than 2,000 stateless people.

“Sixteen years ago, I had many dreams,” said Tan Thanh Nguyen in Vietnamese, in “Stateless.” He sat in front of a sparse cement house that is rented, his young son Dao nearby.

“I wanted to be an engineer, a lawyer. After the first rejection, I no longer have my own dreams.”

In 1996, CPA was completed and all refugee camps in Southeast Asia closed.

“We live in a foreign country (the Philippines),” said Net Thi Bach, in Vietnamese, in the film. “It feels very lonely, although it is a democratic nation, we still don’t have civil rights.” Net also escaped Vietnam in 1989. “We live here illegally. We feel very isolated and lost. When the native people raise their voices, we must stay quiet and not argue ever, [otherwise] they might cause problems. We must endure. We have no legal documents, nothing to protect us.”

On Aug. 16, 2005, more than 16 years after the first screening, and due to many years of lobbying, U.S. immigration officials returned to Manila to review more than 2,000 cases of stateless Vietnamese.

In 2005, the United States accepted about 1,500 people for resettlement, including Trong, Thanh, and Net. Canada, Norway, and Australia accepted the remaining 500 by the end of 2007.

Net was the first person approved for resettlement in the United States. In a “Stateless” interview, she recounts the moment she was notified. She said she didn’t plan to or want to cry when she received the good news, but she couldn’t stop her outpour of emotion on the spot. She reported that the U.S. official told her not to be afraid and assured her that they were there to help.

With tears streaming down her face, Net said that there is no love greater than the love for one’s country. “There’s no pain like being a refugee,” said Net.

“Stateless” was screened at the UW Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Theater in Seattle on May 23. Duc participated in a Q&A session after the screening. The film has earned an audience choice award and spotlight award at the 2013 Vietnamese International Film Festival. Duc hopes to get “Stateless” on PBS next year. (end)

For more information on “Stateless,” visit www.statelessdocumentary.com.

Stacy Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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