Search for Haven on a Stranded Boat: Refugees’ Need for Community Explored through the Perspective of Vietnamese ‘Boat People’
It is rightfully considered humanitarian to welcome refugees and provide them with a new homeland. Accordingly, the process of the refugees making their way and being accepted to—or rejected from—a foreign country is broadcasted and reported widely. Yet, as we concern over the refugees’ search for a new homeland, do we ever question whether the shore that allows refugees to set foot is an actual haven for them, in the following years of their lives? The refugees’ search for haven does not end when they are accepted into a country; rather, it begins at the moment they are accepted.
In 1905, the British Parliament passed the “Aliens Act” which controls the immigration of foreigners into the country. The act initially applied to Jewish and Eastern European refugees, in particular to those fleeing from Nazi rule and war. For the refugees entering the UK, the irony of the term “aliens” here lies in the fact that as much as the refugees are alien to the UK, the UK is alien to the refugees. This reveals the poignant reality that the simple arrival to a country does not guarantee a haven for refugees. The refugees are thrust onto the new country’s shore, faced with the difficult path towards establishing a secure haven—a community they can identify with.
Now let us follow the journey of the Vietnamese refugees who arrived at the shore of the UK and the US on staggering, unstable boats. Let us stop not at their arrival but journey through their seek for a community, a life, in an alien land.
After the Vietnam war ended in 1975 and the communist regime took over, Vietnamese people increasingly left their home country in overloaded boats, the number becoming regular by 1978. Most were fleeing from the controlling regime while some Chinese descendant Vietnamese were attempting to escape racial discrimination. The British public initially welcomed the Vietnamese boat people, stretching a hand of friendship to those who strove for freedom from communism. Yet, the reception and generosity were provided given the British typecasting of the refugees as helpless and sympathetic victims. This meant that if the Vietnamese refugees were to deviate from this stereotype as they settled in the UK, the hand of assistance could be easily withdrawn. Stranded outside the Vietnamese society where Vietnamese people were not abject refugees but ordinary citizens, the Vietnamese boat people became distant foreigners in the eyes of the British public.
The alienation was exacerbated by the loss of the Vietnamese refugees’ previous lifestyles within their acquainted community. Namely, the Vietnamese refugees had to undergo a vast shift in their socio-economic status. The majority of Vietnamese boat people were primary sector laborers with little transferable skills they could make use of in the UK. This forced the previously self-sufficient and autonomous families into dependency. Refugees who used to be affluent and prospering in Vietnam were no exception; they suffered from even more drastic changes in social status as a lack of English language skills hindered them from acquiring a job that could sustain themselves and their families as in the past. This led many refugees to suffer from existential feelings of alienation. Not only they could not communicate with the British communities but also they had to depend upon their children, who often acquired language faster, feeling a growing sense of frustration.
For instance, as one of the Vietnamese refugees, Hung Nguyen was accepted at a prestigious medical school while he was in Vietnam but had to start from scratch in the UK. He disclosed that schooling in the UK was “very rough” as he had to learn English to access education.
Fragmentation and Dispersal
The Thatcher government responded to the inflow of Vietnamese refugees with the controversial dispersal policy; namely, the refugees, after going through a resettlement program, were ‘dispersed’ into different parts of the country. The policy was the government’s attempt to prevent the development of ‘ghettos’ and local antagonism against the refugee settlements.
Nonetheless, the prescribed failure of the dispersal policy was already apparent through its previous implications for Ugandan Asians. The British government assigned “red” and “green” zones depending on the ethnic population within the area and encouraged the Ugandan Asian refugees to settle in “green” zones with a lower concentration of ethnic population. Job and housing search were supposed to be easier for refugees in the “green” zones; yet, the assignment of zones depending on ethnic minority population meant that some areas with housing shortages, such as Glasgow, were also labeled “green.” Furthermore, the uncomfortable essence of the dispersal policy, to dilute the presence of refugees, or ethnic population, equated to the erasure of the refugees’ presence, as ethnic beings, within a white-dominated community. Hence, many Ugandan Asian refugees chose to make their own way to “red” zones where they had family, friends, and existing networks.
Similarly, the dispersed Vietnamese refugees ended up resettling in areas with larger Vietnamese and Chinese populations. Many Vietnamese refugees started their own businesses for income and the majority of the businesses targeted towards co-nationals including Vietnamese and Chinese people. This meant that the self-employed Vietnamese population increasingly moved to live alongside a larger Vietnamese population, for both work and inclusion within a community. This demonstrates that the refugees are often in need of an identifiable, co-national community; they feel less isolated from the wider community as well as being able to evade racial harassment.
Turning to the perspective of the children of Vietnamese refugees in the US, the 1.5-generation refugees’ sense of ‘in-betweenness’ amid American and Vietnamese culture conveys a person’s need for a secure establishment within a community. This feeling of estrangement is often interconnected with the refugees’ relationship with the English language.
While first-generation refugees are more accustomed to their native languages, their children acquire English in school. This causes the generational gap between the children and their parents becomes wider. While the parents usually retain their native language and cultural ties, the children conflict between their ethnic heritage and the American culture. Especially for 1.5 generation refugees, they can be formally classified as fluent in English but may miss several nuances conveyed by speakers from English-speaking backgrounds. This displaces the 1.5-generation refugees from their peer groups; at the same time, they feel disconnected from their ethnic culture as well since they have come to America as children.
Vietnamese language classes for the 1.5- and second-generation refugees in the US proved to be a viable solution to this problem, demonstrating what the fulfillment of the need for the community can achieve. Ethnic organizations in Little Saigon provided these Vietnamese language classes which became the second most common community activity for Vietnamese children, following ethnic church or temple attendances. These activities granted the Vietnamese-American students a sense of ethnic group membership, to some extent reconciling the feeling of displacement the students may feel.
The need for connection and acceptance is one of the seven fundamental human needs as defined by Dr. Kenneth Acha. Individuals yearn for a sense of belonging—being connected to a group of people who one share similarities with. Belonging can be felt through enduring relationships and connections within a community. Thus, it is quite natural for the refugees to feel estranged when they arrive in a foreign country to find no identifiable community, or worse, to become dispersed to disparate regions with little ethnic population. The frightful journey on a boat is not over until the refugees can find a secure community within the shores of the New Homelands where the boat docked.
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Dayoun is a first year English student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.