Vietnamese and Hmong Refugees

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Thirty-plus years of warfare in Vietnam forced various groups to shift locations both within Southeast Asia and beyond. The most substantial exodus of people, however, came between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, after the government of South Vietnam collapsed and Saigon came under communist control in April 1975. Subsequently, increasing numbers of political refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia entered the United States and other countries.

During their last years in South Vietnam, political officials, educators, lawyers, doctors, and others connected to the former Saigon government feared for their lives and those of their families. Many left the country, often secretively and under dangerous conditions. The Vietnamese government reportedly developed reeducation camps in isolated areas, both to punish and to indoctrinate an estimated 50,000 to 400,000 people, an estimated 250,000 of whom died.

An estimated 700,000 to 2.5 million people attempted to leave Vietnam by sea after 1975. Researchers estimate that 10 to 50 percent of them died from drowning, exposure, border patrol clashes, and pirate attacks. Some refugees fled overland to Thailand, but the overwhelming majority used small boats, rafts, and other vessels to reach Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, or major shipping lanes to seek safety. The refugees often lacked food and water and endured robberies, rapes, and other abuses by sea-going bandits.

American officials and voluntary organizations made efforts to assist and relocate some of the Southeast Asians. One U.S. program airlifted homeless children from southern Vietnam, relocating about 14,000 in all. President Jimmy Carter called for international assistance in offering sanctuary to the fleeing Indochinese. American laws were expanded to admit many of these refugees, but many more remained in Thai, Guamanian, and Filipino refugee camps, and a U.S. "dispersal policy" (a 1975 federal directive that no more than 3,000 refugees could be

resettled in one state) led to charges of forced assimilation, fractured families, and cultural insensitivity.

The ethnic Vietnamese as well as the ethnic Chinese and other minority peoples from Vietnam have had a significant economic and social impact on American urban areas as well as on U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation efforts. As of 2003, approximately half of all Southeast Asian refugees live in the United States and the rest have forged new communities in countries such as France, Canada, Australia, and Germany. The United States is host to approximately 700,000 political refugees, many of whom have settled in California (most notably Orange County), New York City, and Houston.

The Hmong, a minority group from the mountainous areas between Vietnam and Laos, also fled the country. They had been recruited, trained, and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, working to assist the United States and the South Vietnamese government as scouts and intelligence gatherers and on rescue missions. The Hmong also provided a defense perimeter along the Laotian border as Americans forces sought to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Approximately 100,000 Hmong fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and found temporary sanctuary in Thailand. The Thai government, overwhelmed by the rapid influx of refugees, established border camps. With camp conditions deteriorating, the number of asylum-seekers arriving in the United States reached 250,000 by the end of the twentieth century. Most Hmong resettled in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Recent issues within the Vietnamese community in the United States include political disagreements about the policies of the present Vietnamese government. Moves by the United States, and even by former South Vietnamese leaders, toward reconciliation have met with vehement denunciations in sections of the Vietnamese community. In 1999, protests erupted against a Vietnamese video store owner in California who displayed a picture of Ho Chi Minh in his window. During a 2002 celebration to honor foreign students at a community college in Olympia, Washington, the Vietnamese community protested against the use of the present-day Vietnamese flag. Both Hmong and other peoples from Vietnam face additional complex challenges, including social acceptance and assimilation, cultural preservation and unity, and generational fragmentation.


Cargill, Mary Terrell, and Ngoc Quang Huynh, Jade, eds. Voices of Vietnamese Boat People: Nineteen Narratives of Escape and Survival. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.

Hamilton-Merritt, Jane. Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942–1992. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Isaacs, Arnold R. Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Koltyk, Jo Ann. New Pioneers in the Heartland: Hmong Life in Wisconsin. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

Morrison, Gayle L. Sky is Falling: An Oral History of the CIA's Evacuation of the Hmong from Laos. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999.

Ong, Aihwa. Buddha Is in Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New American. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Rutledge, Paul James. The Vietnamese Experience in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Sucheng, Chan. Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Ginger R. Davis

See also:Fiction and Memoirs, Vietnam; Kissinger, Henry; Multiculturalism and Cold War; Nixon, Richard M.; Vietnam War and the Economy.

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Vietnamese and Hmong Refugees

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