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95/07/25 Testimony: Phyllis Oakley on Indochinese Refugees
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Phyllis E. Oakley
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
July 25, 1995
House International Relations Committee
Subcommitties on Asia and the Pacific
International Operations and Human Rights
Mr. Bereuter, Mr. Smith and members of the committee, I welcome this
opportunity to be here this afternoon to discuss with you where we stand
and the concerns we face with regard to the Comprehensive Plan of Action
for Indochinese Refugees (CPA). I look forward to your questions
because I believe it is only when all our concerns are on the table that
we can most effectively move forward together.
The CPA and Vietnamese
Since it has been the object of some attention and criticism in recent
weeks, if you will permit me, I would like to review how the CPA came
about and what has happened over the last six years. As you will
recall, in the late 1980's large numbers of boat people continued to
leave Vietnam and land on the beaches of first asylum countries in
Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. That is, the lucky ones arrived on the
beaches. We know that thousands of others suffered indescribably at the
hands of pirates or drowned and starved en route. The flow of people
was such that some first-asylum countries were stopping the boat people
from landing, leading to further tragedies.
It was in this situation that the international community agreed that
something had to be done to save lives and stem the flow of people from
Vietnam. That something was the CPA which was agreed upon in 1989. As
a result of the CPA, first-asylum countries of Thailand, Malaysia,
Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong agreed to allow the boat
people to land and, in turn, the international community agreed to the
institution of a screening process to try to determine who were true
refugees fleeing persecution and who were not.
Another aspect of the CPA, which we often forget, was the great
expansion of the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) from Vietnam, which
provided a safe alternative to flight by sea for those who were eligible
for refugee status or some other form of legal emigration. Pursuant to
the CPA, the United States negotiated a bilateral agreement with Vietnam
to provide for the safe emigration from Vietnam through ODP of the tens
of thousands of Vietnamese who had been released from reeducation camps,
in addition to Amerasian and family reunion cases. Since its inception,
more than 400,000 Vietnamese have been resettled in the U.S. under the
The CPA has generally worked. Most first asylum governments that were
parties to the CPA sustained their commitments to permit boat people to
land. Since the beginning of screening under the CPA, more than 120,000
Vietnamese have been screened, of whom 33,000 people have been found to
be true refugees and resettled. The United States alone has resettled
almost 13,000 of this number. During the same period, more than 72,000
persons have returned voluntarily to Vietnam. (Since 1975, the United
States has resettled almost one million Vietnamese.) Resettlement in
the U.S. is the end of a process for each asylum seeker who must first
be screened in by the first-asylum screening team and then pass an
individual interview with an officer of the U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service as required by U.S. law.
The combination of the orderly departure program from Vietnam and the
screening process in first asylum countries has led, during the last
several years, to a virtual end of flight by sea from Vietnam.
Thousands of people are alive today because of the CPA. Tens of
thousands of others are now resettled in the U.S. and other countries
because of the CPA.
The screening process has been completed. Approximately 40,000
Vietnamese remain in first asylum camps in the region, more than half of
them in Hong Kong. Most of the 40,000 have been found ineligible for
refugee status and, under the terms of the CPA, must return to Vietnam.
Has the screening process been perfect? No. Has it generally been fair
and in accordance with internationally recognized standards? Yes. We
believe it has been. What is the fate awaiting those who return? The
experience of the 72,000 who have already returned indicates that
returnees will not be persecuted, but they will face the same
challenges, chances and difficulties faced by millions of their fellow
Who has done the screening? Under the CPA, screening it first and
foremost the responsibility of the first-asylum countries. This fact
should not be forgotten as we discuss the screening process. UNHCR had
the responsibility to advise and assist host-government screening teams,
and to try to establish, as much as possible, uniform screening
The Government of Vietnam has made a commitment to the international
community under the CPA that there will be no reprisals against the
returnees. For six years now it has kept to that commitment.
Those who return are monitored by eight Vietnamese-speaking expatriate
employees of UNHCR who visit returnees throughout the country. They are
also monitored by others, such as representatives of the British
Embassy. They receive $290 to help them start their lives again. The
United States has provided, over the last three years, more than
$8 million in assistance to returnees through four U.S. non-governmental
organizations (NGOs). These NGOs have American staff dealing with and
visiting returnees all over Vietnam. All of these present and probing
eyes have not detected any pattern or practice of persecution of those
who have returned.
At a time when Vietnam is becoming a full member of ASEAN, when it is
aggressively seeking foreign investment, and when it is preparing to
begin a new and positive relationship with the U.S. in the wake of the
recent establishment of full diplomatic relations, we firmly believe
that Vietnam has a compelling interest in keeping its word on the
treatment of returnees.
The CPA, then, has been a success in many ways -- in saving lives and in
serving as a model of international humanitarian cooperation. The Sixth
CPA Steering committee in March this year agreed that the end of 1995
would be a target for completion of work under the CPA in first asylum
countries. Rapidly declining voluntary repatriation rates, which may in
part be due to hopes of direct U.S. resettlement from the camps as
suggested in CPA-related provisions of the House foreign affairs
authorization bill have made it increasingly unlikely this target can be
Voluntary repatriation of the screened out always has been the goal of
the CPA. Now hundreds of people who had signed up to return voluntarily
to Vietnam have withdrawn their applications and new voluntary
repatriation registrations have virtually ended. We are deeply
concerned about unrealistic expectations of direct resettlement from
first asylum camps for those who have been deemed not to be refugees.
We believe that such expectations threaten to condemn those in the camps
to a further period of suffering in lives that have already been put on
hold for too long.
The expectations are unrealistic, we believe, because the first asylum
countries have said they are committed to the implementation of the CPA
and will not allow a rescreening in the camps. From their perspective,
the CPA has been the answer to a major humanitarian and political
challenge. The expectations are also unrealistic because in the best of
circumstances, only a limited number of those in the camps would likely
be encompassed within the CPA legislation that is part of the House
bill. In the end, we would likely be back to where we were before the
introduction of the legislation.
Finally, we are concerned about the effect upon Vietnamese in Vietnam of
direct resettlement from first asylum countries of those deemed not to
be refugees. Just as refugee screening and return on non-refugees has
resulted in great reductions in boat flows, the abandonment of this
principle could conceivably invite a new and dangerous exodus.
Given all this, where do we go from here? First of all, I believe that
all of us, those who support the proposed legislation affecting the CPA
and those who oppose it, want to do what is best for those in the camps.
We respect the interest and the humanitarian commitments of the
Chairpersons and Ranking Minority members of both these Subcommittees
and your views have certainly informed our deliberations. Like you, we
want the CPA to end in the most humane and fairest way possible and
always have. We do not put a deadline on the pursuit of fairness and
justice. The CPA still permits review of cases where additional
information may indicate that an initial screening decision was wrong.
UNHCR has looked into allegations that corruption and impropriety might
have been involved in a small number of screening decisions and, we
understand, the results of this review has been given to the committees.
The United States is firmly committed to the integrity of the CPA and to
the principle that there can be no resettlement of non-refugees directly
from first-asylum camps. Our policy has been and continues to be clear:
those who have been deemed not to be refugees pursuant to CPA procedures
would return home to Vietnam.
At the same time, we are prepared to address concerns about those in the
camps who, while they were not deemed to be refugees, might nonetheless
be of special humanitarian interest to the U.S. As we consider this
issue, we are also eager to find creative means to further encourage the
voluntary return process.
For each of these reasons, we are discussing with our CPA partners, and
would be prepared to support, a proposal to provide opportunities for
resettlement interviews upon return to those now in the camps who agree
to return to their homes voluntarily. The exact details of this
proposal would be determined, in part, as a result of consultations with
those governments whose cooperation would be required for its successful
Let me stress again that any such program would have to be consistent
with CPA principles and would thus require that the applicant first
We plan to do all we can, with the support of our international
partners, to bring the CPA to a just conclusion. We believe the best
way to do this is to support the unanimous agreement of the Sixth CPA
Steering Committee to move forward in support of voluntary repatriation
as the preferred method of return for the screened-out. It is only with
this clear message that we can hope to end the confusion and uncertainty
in the camps and allow people to act on self-interest rather than false
The Lao/Hmong in Thailand
I would now like to address the question of the Lao/Hmong refugees in
Thailand, the other group of people covered under the CPA for whom we
have an equally important responsibility. While the Hmong are part of
the CPA, there is a distinct difference between the situation of the
Hmong and the Vietnamese. The Hmong now in Thailand are, in the main,
people who are recognized as refugees by virtue of the fact that they
fled their country and arrived in Thailand before Thailand began basing
refugee status on individual interviews in 1985. The majority of
Vietnamese, on the other hand, have been determined through a
comprehensive screening process not to be refugees.
The United States has admitted some 126,000 Hmong and other Lao
Highlanders to the United States since 1975. There remain approximately
7,000 Hmong refugees in camps in Thailand and the United States is
prepared to accept for resettlement as many as are eligible under our
law. The complicating factor with regard to the Hmong is that many
originally indicated to Thai authorities that they wished to return to
Laos and this decision was considered firm at the time. In fact, more
than 22,000 have returned from Thailand and others continue to do so,
starting new lives with the assistance of UNHCR and programs the U.S.
supports both bilaterally and through UNHCR.
In view of the end-of-1995 target date for ending the CPA established by
the Steering Committee, and considering the fact that this reality may
have caused some Hmong refugees to change their minds about return to
Laos, we are involved in ongoing discussions with the Royal Thai
Government about the possibility of allowing Hmong refugees access one
last time to resettlement in the U.S. While the timing of such access,
which we support, remains the prerogative of the Thai Government, and
the current Thai policy of promoting voluntary repatriation is
consistent with international refugee standards and principles, we
expect the issue will remain the subject of our constructive dialogue
with the Thai on refugee issues.
I would like to conclude by noting again that we fully support the CPA
as it affects both the Vietnamese and Lao/Hmong. We believe the CPA has
accomplished a great deal that is good, and has been a humane and
effective channel through which the United States and the international
community, with the vital assistance of UNHCR, has sought to resolve the
final tragic legacies of the war in Indochina.
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