Vietnamese Refugees Documents of Response

Date / Period
Object Type
Books, Guides and Manuals
Canadian Red Cross
Refugee and Migration

When the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to North Vietnamese military forces, the long Vietnam War finally came to an end. Nearly two million Vietnamese fled political, ethnic, racial, or religious persecution, creating a refugee crisis of vast proportions. The documents and photographs shown here relate to the Canadian Red Cross’s role in responding to the crisis.

The earliest South Vietnamese refugees used their own private resources to leave the country by land, so the communist government of the North sealed the country’s borders. This left only the long coastline and the South China Sea as a way out for refugees. Many took to rickety boats, risking death by drowning or capture by pirates, along the way.

Since refugees typically escape by foot or land-based vehicle, this unusual method of travel led these Vietnamese refugees to be described in the media at the time as “boat people.” By focusing on their means of arrival, rather than on their struggle and need for protection, the term in fact serves as a way to dehumanize the people it describes. Unfortunately, the media was able to make this term part of mainstream language and although you can still hear it being used today it is considered an insensitive phrase to use when describing newcomers.

An estimated 250,000 refugees perished at sea, while others landed at refugee camps in other Southeast Asian countries. From there, more than 120,000 came to Canada between 1975 and 1982 – considered Canada’s largest humanitarian undertaking to that point.

Canada’s refugee response brought together the efforts of governments, churches, groups of citizens, and humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross. This was because the refugees came to Canada in one of two categories: as traditional government-sponsored refugees, or under the brand-new category of privately-sponsored refugees. The opportunity to privately sponsor refugees helped mobilize the population.

The Canadian Red Cross was actively involved in a variety of internationally-organized relief programs in Southeast Asia. In July 1979 it launched a nationwide, three-week campaign to raise $500,000 to assist the newcomers  as well as other refugees and conflict victims in the region. The response was overwhelming, and by November the fund had surpassed $1.2 million.

These donations came from the same broad coalition of support as refugee sponsorships. For example, the Ontario government pledged to match what the Red Cross raised, up to $500,000. In cooperation with UNICEF, the Canadian Red Cross also encouraged the public to donate to relief operations and medical programs for refugees in Cambodia and Thailand.

Vietnamese Refugees Documents of Response

Vietnamese Refugees Documents of Response
Vietnamese croix rouge report, 1974
Vietnamese refugee report
Vietnam report
Vietnamese croix rouge report, 1974

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