Behind the Numbers: Vietnamese Refugees at Dong Rek Camp

Authored by Marilyn Diliberti

Background Memorandum on Refugee Admissions Program FY 1986

First of four pages summarizing projected refugee admissions for the 1986 fiscal year

More than a decade after Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho shook hands at the Hotel Majestic in Paris and the last weary American troops returned home, Vietnam still held the world’s attention in 1985. The Vietnamese endured economic and social hardship in the years following the official end of the Vietnam War and, with these new challenges, America turned its focus from war to the resettlement of refugees. The number is small; only 1035 Vietnamese refugees from the Dong Rek Camp were accepted for resettlement into the United States in 1985.[1]  Behind the numbers, though, is history that has been all but forgotten, hidden by the lingering shadow of the Vietnam War.

Most of the refugees admitted for resettlement in United States in the mid-80s came from East Asia. The US admitted approximately 42,000 East Asian refugees in 1985 and increased that number to 48,500 the next year.[2] Of these, Vietnamese refugees were of particular interest to the US. Poverty, reeducation, and wars with Thailand and Cambodia were just a few of the miseries suffered by the Vietnamese since the end of the war, forcing some to leave their homeland.[3] Those who could not leave legally or escape by sea trekked sometimes hundreds of miles to the Thai border.[4] The trip was difficult and dangerous. Refugees left their families, paid for protection, braved guerilla warfare, and walked at least part of the way through jungle.[5] After their formidable journey, Vietnamese refugees found themselves at Dong Rek. Dong Rek was a refugee camp in Cambodia near the Thai border and part of a larger complex known as Site II.[6]

Recognizing the lamentable situation of Vietnamese refugees, Pope John Paul II in a 1984 radio address urged “Catholic movements and international bodies” to administer “unselfish aid.”[7] Non-governmental organizations, including a few Catholic agencies, provided aid to the thousands of refugees placed in Site II. Dong Rek was primarily under the control of the International Committee of the Red Cross.[8] The Catholic Office for Emergency and Refugee Relief and the Jesuit Refugee Service also had a presence in Site II, providing medical, dental, social, and educational services.[9] Despite the efforts of all of the relief organizations in Site II, the living conditions in Dong Rek were worse than the other camps in the complex. The produce, livestock, fuel, building materials, and clothing available in Dong Rek were never enough to handle the thousands of refugees.[10] Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees lived in Site II, but the Vietnamese had to contend with more than the others. In addition to the treacherous journey to the border and the inadequate living conditions in the camp, many Vietnamese suffered the aggression and resentment of Cambodian refugees as well as Thai policies intended to deter Vietnamese migration.[11] The 1035 Vietnamese refugees finally accepted by the US in 1985 had spent over a year at Dong Rek.

As Pope Francis reminds the world not to neglect today’s refugees, it is important to remember the experience of other refugees throughout history. “Every human being, every people with its culture, has its own place in the benevolent eyes of the Catholic—universal—Church,” Pope John Paul II told Vietnam more than 30 years ago.[12] His message remains relevant not only for the Church, but the whole world. All peoples must have a place in our collective memory. It is easy to read statistics about refugees including the 1035 Vietnamese from Dong Rek camp, but we must remember the story behind the numbers.

[1] U.S. Department of State, Background Memorandum on Refugee Admissions Program FY 1986, Washington, DC, 1985.

[2] Ibid.

[3] George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975, 2nd ed.

(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 270.

[4] Barbara Crossette, “Perilous Flight of Vietnamese is Thwarted at Thai Border,” New York Times, October 21, 1984, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Richard Rowat, “Site II,” Thai/Cambodia Border Refugee Camps 1975-1999, 2014, http://www.websitesrcg.com/border/index.html.

[7] John Paul II, Radio Address of the Pope John Paul II to the People of Vietnam During the Flight from Port Moresby to Bangkok, Vatican.va, May 10, 1984.

[8] U.S. General Accounting Office, National Security and International Affairs Division, Problemsin Processing Vietnamese Refugees from the Dong Rek Camp in Cambodia by Bill McCollum and Daniel E. Lungren, GAO/NSIAD-85-132, Washington, DC, August 16, 1985, http://www.gao.gov/assets/150/143220.pdf

[9] Rowat, “Site II.”

[10]Josephine Reynell, Socio-economic Evaluation of the Khmer Camps on the Thai/Kampuchean Border. Rome: World Food Programme, 1986, http://repository.forcedmigration.org/show_metadata.jsp?pid=fmo:275.

[11] GAO, Problems in Processing Vietnamese Refugees.

[12] John Paul II, Radio Address.

 

Bibliography

Crossette, Barbara. “Perilous Flight of Vietnamese is Thwarted at Thai Border.” New York Times, October 21, 1984. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam 1950-1975, 2nd ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

John Paul II. Radio Address of the Pope John Paul II to the People of Vietnam During the Flight from Port Moresby to Bangkok. Vatican.va, May 10, 1984.

Reynell, Josephine. Socio-economic Evaluation of the Khmer Camps on the Thai/Kampuchean Border. Rome: World Food Programme, 1986. http://repository.forcedmigration.org/show_metadata.jsp?pid=fmo:275.

Rowat, Richard. “Site II.” Thai/Cambodia Border Refugee Camps 1975-1999. 2014. http://www.websitesrcg.com/border/index.html.

U.S. Department of State. Background Memorandum on Refugee Admissions Program FY 1986. Washington, DC, 1985.

U.S. General Accounting Office. National Security and International Affairs Division. Problems in Processing Vietnamese Refugees from the Dong Rek Camp in Cambodia by Bill McCollum and Daniel E. Lungren. GAO/NSIAD-85-132. Washington, DC, August 16, 1985. http://www.gao.gov/assets/150/143220.pdf

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