Magazine article UN Chronicle

Fresh Hope in South-East Asia

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Fresh Hope in South-East Asia

Article excerpt

The date 14. June 1989 marked a major turning point in the history of South-East Asia, as well as international refugee policy. It was then that the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) tor Indo-Chinese refugees was adopted, establishing a legal framework to address the problem of refugees and asylum seekers from Viet Nam and Laos.

Earlier, on 18 December 1988, Viet Nam and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) signed an agreement in Geneva ensuring that the "boat people" of Viet Nam would not be prosecuted if they returned to their own country. That was the first step in what has since become a model voluntary repatriation effort in the entire region.

Over the past 15 years, 2 million people have left the Indo-Chinese peninsula, with more than half resettling in richer northern countries. Many were resettled directly in the United States, Western Europe and other developed countries under the Orderly Departure Programme (ODP) that was begun in May 1979 to stem the dangerous flight of boat people who often fell prey to pirates.

The ODP offered a safe, organized way for Vietnamese citizens, including former South Vietnamese soldiers, to leave their homeland. Camps in Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines were seen as way stations for asylum seekers, allaying the concerns of regional nations overburdened with refugees.

By late 1988, the situation in Viet Nam had changed. The Vietnamese Government's promise to protect and assist returnees laid the foundation for the new CPA policy of voluntary repatriation.

The CPA entailed a series of interrelated measures designed to encourage safe, organized departures to resettlement countries, discourage activities leading to clandestine departures and offer temporary asylum for all who sought it, pending determination of their status as refugees.

It also established a system of region-wide "screening" of new arrivals from Viet Nam.

Those who failed to qualify for resettlement as refugees were encouraged to return home with financial assistance from the international community. However, many still remain in camps.

"The agreement with Viet Nam marks an important turning point in the Vietnamese exodus", said Michel Moussalli, head of the UNHCR Division of International Protection. "It gives a framework for the international community to provide assistance, by working in cooperation with Governments in the region."

UNHCR has access to all returnees in Viet Nam and Laos and assists and monitors their reintegration. The European Community is funding a bilateral programme in Viet Nam to improve the economic conditions in certain areas from which large numbers of asylum-seekers have departed.

To date, the number of departures under the ODP and similar arrangements ha" steadily increased-from 21,000 in 1988 to more than 57,000 in 1990. This year, some 100,000 Indo-Chinese refugees are expected to resettle in the United States, Australia, Canada and France, among other nations.

At the same time, the arrival by boat of Vietnamese asylum-seekers in the region has diminished from 72,783 in 1989 to 30,930 in 1990. During the first six months of 1991, a total of 14,640 were reported. Over 11,000 Vietnamese have voluntarily returned to Viet Nam from countries of first asylum since the CPA was agreed upon.

Despite this obvious success, some 500,000 Indo-Chinese still remain in camps throughout SouthEast Asia. …

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