Vietnamese Boat People Arrive at Indonesia's Anambas Islands

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Vietnamese Boat People Arrive at Indonesia's Anambas Islands


By: Jacques Pavlovsky

Date: August 5, 1979

Source: © Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/Corbis.

About the Photographer: Jacques Pavlovsky is a Paris-based photographer. This photograph is part of the collection of the Corbis Corporation, headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of over 70 million images.


The fall of South Vietnam in April 1975 led to a mass migration of refugees fleeing communist rule. When communists leaders took control of South Vietnam, they ordered the systematic killings of former police officers, South Vietnamese soldiers, and others who had served in the South Vietnamese government. By 1976, some Southerners were being moved from cities to the country, while others were sent to reeducation camps for communist indoctrination or punishment.

Some early refugees were lucky enough to be taken out of the country by the United States, as its forces left the country. By early 1976, however, it was increasingly common for refugees to flee Vietnam by sea in the hopes of reaching Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, or Singapore. These refugees became known as boat people. The craft available to them were small, always packed with people, and often incapable of long journeys. The hazards of journeying on small, overcrowded watercraft combined with tales of inhuman treatment by pirates and, in some cases, governments, to draw international attention to the plight of the boat people.

The boat people were not greeted with open arms by their Southeast Asian neighbors. In Malaysia, Deputy Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad issued statements that the boat people attempting to enter his country would be expelled, that they would be drowned if they tried to sink their boats in Malaysian waters in hope of rescue, and that he would seek legislation enabling Malaysia to shoot on sight any additional refugees trying to come ashore. However, Malaysia did accept 74,000 refugees by mid-1979.

Many of the refugees rejected by Malaysia went to Indonesia. Indonesia had several separate refugee areas, Galang Site 1A, and Galang Site IB, and Galang Site 2. While life in these camps approached normality, a few temporary camps, such as Camp Kuku, became notorious for their inhumanity. Kuku housed about 500 boat people who were given little food and no medical assistance. Guards were notorious for beating the refugees and sexually assaulting the women, while officials took bribes before recommending resettlement. Most boat people who were housed in Galang first reached Indonesia at islands such as Natuna, Tarempa, and Anambas.



See primary source image.


By July 1979, Vietnamese refugees were getting into boats at the rate of 65,000 persons per month. The Conference of Geneva, with fifty countries participating, was the first attempt at an international response to the mass exodus. The meeting led to pledges of resettlement for more than 260,000 refugees and financial pledges to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the Indochina program amounting to $190 million. Perhaps more significantly, the gathering emphasized that the Vietnamese refugees were a worldwide concern not simply a regional issue.

In May 1979, the Vietnamese government reached an agreement with the UNHCR that eventually ended the crisis of the Vietnamese boat people. Under the terms of the agreement, Vietnam permitted the departure of Vietnamese citizens who wanted to leave the country to join relatives abroad or to work. More than two million refugees fled Vietnam in the years from 1975 to 1992, when the exodus largely ended. While some have flourished, many of the refugees have struggled to find countries willing to accept them for resettlement, and to become established in their new countries.



Freeman, James M., and Nguyen Dinh Huu. Voices from the Camps: Vietnamese Children Seeking Asylum. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.

Hitchcox, Linda. Vietnamese Refugees in Southeast Asian Camps. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Stone, Scott C. S., and John E. McGowan. Wrapped in the Wind's Shawl: Refugees of Southeast Asia and the Western World. San Rafael, CA: Presidio, 1980.

Vo, Nghia M. The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975–1992. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

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Vietnamese Boat People Arrive at Indonesia's Anambas Islands

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