Refugees, Ghost Ships, and Thatcher

Once again there are desperate people in boats. Scenes of Syrian refugees over the New Year being stranded in abandoned ‘ghost ships’ not only showed the on-going human cost of chaos in the Middle East, but also suggested that international trafficking networks had adopted new tactics: endangering migrants’ lives in the expectation that European coastguard agencies will take them to shore if vessels were abandoned at sea.

Following the deaths of 300 undocumented migrants off Lampedusa in November 2013 Italy launched its operation Mare Nostrum. Lasting a year, it was reported as having saved over 100,000 lives; it was also heavily criticised within Italy for costing around nine million euros a month at a time of on-going austerity, and right across Europe by those who argued that its specific search and rescue remit made the situation worse by encouraging more migrants to come to Europe. Now replaced by the EU border agency, Frontex’s operation Triton, it would seem that the humanitarian impulse behind Mare Nostrum has vanished: Triton is limited to patrolling thirty miles offshore of Italy and does not include search and rescue within its remit, instead tasked with policing the EU border. Still, the UK government has refused to be part of Triton, arguing that such patrols ‘create an unintended ‘’pull factor’’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths’.

 "Fortress Europe" by Philipp Hertzog
“Fortress Europe” by Philipp Hertzog

All this suggests that Europe’s immigration and asylum laws, and perhaps more importantly, humanitarian responses to individuals caught up in the turmoil of the Middle East and much of Africa, are not fit for purpose. But are they without precedent? If we go back to May 1979, and the first weeks of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, which had been elected, in part, on the back of anti-immigration rhetoric. By late May television screens and newspapers were full of pictures of desperate Vietnamese ‘boat people’ fleeing a combination of ethnic repression, Communist reprisals and erupting conflict with Kampuchea and China. In fact Britain had been accepting small numbers of Vietnamese refugees since 1975, but in the early weeks of Thatcher’s government Britain was drawn more deeply into the situation as the British merchant vessels Sibonga and Roachbank operating in the South China Seas picked up nearly 1200 refugees between them, including large numbers of the sick and children. Their plight was worsened when Taiwan, the nearest port of call, refused to let them land, as it did not want responsibility for the refugees; with Hong Kong similarly refusing to allow them to enter its over-crowded refugee camps until there was a commitment that they would be quickly resettled in a third country.

35 Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard the amphibious command ship USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC-19). They are being rescued from a 35 foot fishing boat 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea. Photo by Phil Eggman
35 Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard the amphibious command ship USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC-19). They are being rescued from a 35 foot fishing boat 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea. Photo by Phil Eggman

A Guardian article of 23 May 1979 will seem painfully familiar to anyone who has been following the recent coverage of the situation in the Mediterranean. It rebutted the commonly voiced opinion that ‘the refugees in their boats are somehow pretending to escape – that they are setting out to sea in order to be rescued in a state of artificial pathos and that ship masters ought to leave them where they are’, before going on to argue that this ‘ignores, ignorantly, the compelling situation which exists when one seafarer encounters others in a situation of distress’. It went on to challenge the idea that because the refugees paid to go on the boats they were ‘somehow not refugees’: ‘The fact that a refugee can pay his fare to freedom does not mean that he is not a refugee who feels sufficiently oppressed to leave his country’, pointing out that this is what Jews fleeing Nazi Germany had to do.

If seeing boats full of people fleeing violence feel as familiar as the arguments against helping people in distress, then there are other similarities too between the Vietnamese boat people and the situation of refugees today. Declaring that the act of rescue simply encouraged more people to leave Vietnam, in the last week of May 1979 Thatcher sought advice on a number of possible ways of ensuring that Britain could avoid responsibility for any refugees picked up by British vessels. Options she suggested included removing Britain from the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and withdrawing from long-standing international maritime agreements over the duty to rescue those in distress at sea. She also suggested that all UK-registered merchant ships picking up refugees on board should proceed immediately to their next port of call and not leave until they were allowed to land their rescues. This would have meant that Britain would no longer be responsible for resettling them, but rather the onus would be on the landing country.

Such attempts to wriggle out of maritime and humanitarian responsibilities towards the few thousand Vietnamese picked up by European vessels needs to be placed in context. The reality of course is that majority of burden of supporting and housing of refugees lay, and continues to lie, with the countries most proximate to places of conflict: while it was pictures of Vietnamese in boats which made the headlines in Britain, the refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong between them held the majority of the approximately two million refugees. Indeed, it was the continual arrival of Vietnamese on its shores, which prompted the Malaysians, on 14th June, to announce its intention to ship all its 70,000 refugees out to sea and shoot on sight any boat people entering its waters. Today four-fifths of the world’s refugees reside in the global South; the numbers who reach Europe’s shores are a tiny proportion of those displaced by events in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those thousands making it to one of the boats crossing the Mediterranean or who are stuck in bleak and dangerous conditions in Calais are once again a tiny minority.

The differences though, are as interesting as the similarities. The Vietnamese crisis occurred during, and was one of the faces of, the Cold War. This, as much as the violent threats of the Malaysian government formed the context of the rapid international response of the coming months. By July the energetic Danish UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Poul Hartling, had convened an international summit in Geneva, at which he had not only established an international resettlement programme, but also manoeuvred leading Western nations to commit to receiving specific numbers of refugees: the USA eventually accepted 823,000; Australia and Canada 137,000 each; and France 96,000. Pressured by the international community Britain finally took in 19,000, well above Thatcher’s grudging initial suggestion of 1,500.

Like asylum seekers to Britain today, the Vietnamese arrived in a country struggling to deal with a systematic programme of government cuts and a climate of severe austerity. But while Thatcher had predicted riots on the streets if the Vietnamese were offered council housing, in fact local authorities and local reception teams went out of their way to house and find employment for arrivals, and many refugees have positive memories of their experiences of reception and resettlement. Indeed, today it is hard, almost impossible, to imagine the extent of the refugee programme authorised by Thatcher’s first government: refugees, met at the airport by teams of volunteers, spent three months in reception hostels where they were inducted into the basics of British life, given initial language training before being found homes and employment in their resettlement area. Although beset by problems and hampered by inadequate resources, in comparison to today’s experiences of asylum seekers and refugees being left in margins of British society for years on end, it seems almost a fairytale of concerted state and voluntary effort.

South China Sea. Crewmen of the amphibious cargo ship USS Durham (LKA-114) take Vietnamese refugees aboard a small NARA - 558518 by Unknown or not provided - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
South China Sea. Crewmen of the amphibious cargo ship USS Durham (LKA-114) take Vietnamese refugees aboard a small NARA – 558518 by Unknown Author. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Today the clamour of refugees is not safely located in the distant South China Sea, from where we can afford to take our pick of refugees: rather it is knocking urgently on the gates of Fortress Europe. If we want to take lessons from the handling of the Vietnamese crisis we should remember that desperate people will not be deterred by stretches of water, higher walls and more security: they will simply go to greater lengths to try to reach safety, and more of them will die in the process. Aside from resolving the conflicts which are the source of most refugee movements, successfully tackling the existing refugee population points to the importance of determined international action, instigated and co-ordinated by an assertive UN. Domestically, it suggests that marginalising and vilifying asylum seekers and refugees is counter-productive, that resources would be far better orientated towards an active programme of orientation and resettlement which takes as given that refugees are net contributors to British society, economy and culture. Sadly, given the existing international and national climate, this seems even more of a fairy tale than a Thatcher-sponsored programme of refugee resettlement.

One Comment

  1. Hello Becky,

    Good article (& sad). I was on the “Roachbank” and it haunts me to this day, god help them now – there seems as little political will to do anything in the Mediterranean as there was then in the South China Sea!

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