The plight of the boat people
After decades of war in Vietnam, in 1975 the South Vietnamese capital Saigon fell to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese forces. The social upheaval and adverse economic conditions arising from the Vietnam War, combined with fear and uncertainty under a new Communist government, led to a mass exodus of Vietnamese people during the late 1970s and early 1980s. For most, the decision to emigrate was not one of choice – they risked everything to escape.
These refugees were called ‘boat people’ because they fled their war-ravaged country in crowded boats. The voyage was often made in dangerously unfit vessels to nearby countries including Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia. During these perilous journeys they suffered ill health, food shortages, piracy, rape and murder.
On arrival in asylum countries they were placed in camps to await official refugee status, which allowed them to apply for permanent resettlement in countries such as New Zealand.
Arriving in New Zealand
New Zealand assisted in the international effort to resettle Vietnamese refugees. Initially this was on the condition that they held United Nations status as refugees and had an occupational qualification useful to New Zealand.
The first settlement approvals were granted in 1976, one year after the fall of Saigon. Initial approvals were to those already in New Zealand – diplomats, their families and staff – and to Vietnamese students. The acceptance of 412 refugees in 1977 truly marked the start of Vietnamese migration to New Zealand.
The greatest intake of Vietnamese refugees occurred between 1979 and 1980 when approximately 1,500 arrived. The following year approvals declined significantly, and ever since have fluctuated at much lower levels.
Who are the refugees?
The official categories under which refugees were selected included:
- Family reunification – any refugee who had a relative in New Zealand was assured of resettlement, regardless of work or language skills.
- ‘Hardcore’ or ‘chronic’ refugees – those who have lived in a camp for a long period or have children born in the camp.
- Disabled refugees – those who are physically, medically and/or socially disabled.
Generally Vietnamese who arrived in New Zealand during the post-war period (early 1980s) had limited education and only basic English. Although the majority worked in fishing or farming, others were professionals, soldiers and businesspeople.
During the 1990s and early 2000s few Vietnamese entered New Zealand as refugees. They came to be reunited with their family members, or as general migrants.
As a result of the government’s resettlement policy at the time, Vietnamese who came in the late 1970s were settled in various towns and cities. Many gravitated towards the main centres to be nearer friends and relatives, as in Vietnamese culture the extended family is important for mutual support and assistance. There were also greater work opportunities and established services such as churches, community centres and associations.
By 1998 around one-third of the population had moved on to Australia as they found it easier to get work, the climate was more favourable and there were larger Vietnamese communities in Sydney and Melbourne. After three years in New Zealand they could apply for New Zealand citizenship, which allowed them to freely enter Australia. Many had felt lonely and had lost their factory jobs in New Zealand’s economic troubles of the 1980s.
In 2013, 6,660 Vietnamese were living in New Zealand, most of them in distinct suburban concentrations in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Auckland groups were evident in Ōtāhuhu, Papatoetoe, Manurewa, Māngere, Howick and Papakura. As Vietnamese people integrated into New Zealand society, more were establishing themselves in other parts of Auckland.