The Vietnam War ended to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975
Even after 40 years, Van Huynh remembers the exact point where he and his family landed on Pulau Bidong. Back then, the people forced to live there had a very different name for the place - Hell Island.
“I think we landed right there, on that jetty,” said Huynh in a Southern US drawl, as he stood on the idyllic beach.
But things were very different in the late 70s. Bidong was the centre of a global humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, where tens of thousands made the treacherous journey here on boats to escape persecution in Vietnam.
Huynh was back at Bidong technically as a tourist, along with fellow former refugees now resettled in the US, Canada and Australia - many of whom were visiting for the first time since they left.
Their real goal, however, was to commemorate the anniversary of the closing of Bidong to refugees, and to honour the dead.
Huynh began to tear up as their boat docked.
“Wow,” he whispered. “This place gave me a second chance, a second life.”
Danh Do Cao
“The first time I escaped from Vietnam was in April 1988, but I was unsuccessful and I was imprisoned for 4 months.”
Bidong Island was officially opened as a refugee camp on 8 August 1978 with 121 Vietnamese refugees.
Life on Hell Island
Huynh’s boat arrived on Pulau Bidong in 1978, just weeks after the island was opened to refugees.
It was three years after the Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon to the communist North Vietnamese Army.
Like the roughly 800,000 Vietnamese who fled via various routes in the years after, Huynh had found himself on the losing side of the war.
He was also one of 300,000 South Vietnamese sent to “re-education” concentration camps, forced to perform hard labour under gruelling and dangerous conditions. Another one million were forced to live in “New Economic Zones”, rural areas where they had to clear land to grow crops.
“My family lost everything,” said Huynh. “They took our freedom and liberty. They took everything.”
His family had lost their businesses, their home, and even their patriarch. Huynh’s father fought for the South Vietnamese army and committed suicide when they lost the war. That was when the family began making plans to flee the country.
“We could lose everything (leaving the country), even our lives, we knew it back then,” he said. “But all we wanted was a new life and freedom.”
He and the other refugees lived off the land on the island, sleeping on the beach for the first few days, chopping wood to make shelter, and collecting water from rainfall.
“It was terrible,” he said. “The water on the island was not suitable for drinking at all. Everyone said not to dig for water, that there was bacteria in it or something.
“If you drink the water, you’d get diarrhea. If you got diarrhea, you’d die.”
That’s where Bidong got its nickname - Hell Island. It was short on life-saving medical care and rife with disease from overpopulation; designed to only accommodate 4,500 people, but hosting 40,000 refugees at its peak, making it the world’s most densely populated place on the planet at the time.
“I just packed my clothes and told my mom, 'Just let me go, if I die in the sea, it’s okay.'
As Malaysia was and is not bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1954 Convention, or the 1961 Convention, there is no obligation to create laws or procedures to allow for the granting of asylum or registering of refugees. Instead, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) handles all refugee status determinations.
This meant that Huynh and many others were left completely dependant on humanitarian assistance.
“While the government continues to cooperate with UNHCR and normally does not impede other humanitarian organisations from assisting refugees and asylum seekers, human rights concerns are not central to the politics and policies of the state’s refugee policy.
“This makes the future bleak for refugees in Malaysia,” said Amarjit Kaur, a professor of Economic History at the University of New England, Australia.
Amarjit’s research focuses on the economic and social history of Southeast Asia, international labour migration, forced migration, human rights, and the Indian Diaspora.
According to Huynh, the island received assistance from the Malaysian government, UNHCR, and the Red Cross, but the rising number of refugees was higher than anyone could prepare for.
“UNHCR helped set things up but they were not ready for the numbers and the diseases we had,” said Huynh. “We had Vietnamese doctors with us, but with no equipment or medicine, there was nothing they could do.”
Scattered across the island today are the graves of those who never made it to a third country due to treatable illness or injury.
Lydia Nguyen arrived on the island in July 1979 when its population was at its densest. A hospital had sprung up, so had a school, a bathing area, and cafes and restaurants – all built by UNHCR, who were running the show on the island by then.
“Arriving on Pulau Bidong, you didn’t need to walk, people would just push you,” she half-joked.
“You’d be standing somewhere and suddenly you’d find yourself pushed to another corner. That’s how crowded it was.”
The rising flow of Vietnamese refugees to Malaysia in the 1970s and 1980s led to the drafting of the international Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) in Kuala Lumpur in March 1989.
Consensus was achieved between Vietnam to stop the flow of boat people, for host countries of first asylum (including Malaysia) to accept the boat people, and third countries such as Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and European states to resettle them.
According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), Malaysia was “perhaps the most resolute of the Southeast Asian first-asylum countries in pursuing the repatriation of Vietnamese boat people”. Of the nearly 255,000 Vietnamese boat people who were given temporary asylum in Malaysia, a total of 248,410 were resettled in Western countries.
“This was Malaysia’s first and only successful multilateral agreement for refugee resettlement,” said Amarjit.
“We lost everything. I remember that we were unlucky enough that my sister-in-law and I had to share a sandal every 10 minutes.”
Although a few thousand people had fled Vietnam by boat between 1975 and mid-1978, the exodus of the boat people began in September 1978.
Surviving on the island was only half of the arduous and treacherous journey to get to a third country. To get to Pulau Bidong, the refugees had to first escape Vietnam.
“I think we landed right there, on that jetty,” said Huynh in a Southern US drawl, as he stood on the idyllic beach.
Together with 61 other people, Huynh stole a cargo boat and left in the dead of night. The boat was full of oil and food, perfect for a getaway.
“We studied the boat before we stole it,” he said. “So we knew when they would fill it with oil and food supplies, how long it took to make a run, how many runs they took, and how long it would take for them to empty the boat.”
Either no one noticed their disappearance or nobody cared, because no one came after them.
“Maybe they knew we were dead men walking, that’s why they didn’t bother with us,” said Huynh.
The journey to any of the neighbouring countries was fraught with dangers, firstly due to the size and conditions of the boats. According to UNHCR, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 boat people died at sea, either due to storms, diseases, starvation, or pirates.
Lam Son Thach’s ship had been approached by another boat claiming to offer help with their voyage. They turned out to be pirates, brandishing knives and abducting the eight women on board.
“In our boat, we all were all teenagers. There were just a few adults,” said Lam, who was 17 then.
“One of the girls was my neighbor, she was just 13 years old. She asked me to save her. I tried to pull her back, but they threatened to cut my neck.”
The girls were taken aboard the pirates’ ship, presumably raped, and forced to stand at its helm to lure other Vietnamese refugee boats. One of those boats was boat MC 381. Lam’s friend Hoang had been on the boat.
“Hoang’s boat had some weapons and they tried to resist but they still couldn’t. The pirates captured another 18 women from his boat.
“A few of them died because they resisted. They were killed and their bodies were thrown overboard,” recalled Lam.
Faced with the grim reality of entire families perishing in the treacherous sea voyage, some refugees opted not to travel together, with the hope that at least one or two family members would survive the journey.
One such family was Tranh Trinh’s. She was only 11 when she escaped with her sister.
“Basically, there was no future for any of us (in Vietnam) anymore,” said Tranh.
Tranh followed her mother in the dead of night to a safe house full of people. That was when she and her sister were separated from their mother.
“The owner of the house told my mum that she couldn’t let all of us go together because it was too dangerous.”
Instead, the woman told Tranh and her sister to follow her from a distance as they made their way to the next safe house.
“She just kept walking, she never turned around to look at us,” said Tranh. “And I was so scared that we’d lose her, because then I wouldn’t be able to find my mother.”
They spent a week trying to keep up with the woman through throngs of market goers, empty alleyways and even jumping after her onto a moving water taxi, until they finally made their way to the promised ship that would take them away.
“As we were boarding the ship, I called my sister to come up after me,” said Tranh. “That was when I heard my mother’s voice saying ‘Oh, thank god’.”
An international refugee conference in Geneva in June 1989 produced the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) which had the aim of reducing the migration of boat people by requiring that all new arrivals be screened to determine if they were genuine refugees."
Leaving Hell Island
The last Vietnamese refugee left Pulau Bidong on 30 August 2005, and according to Amarjit, this signaled the end to an era of “voluntary” Malaysian cooperation with the UNHCR.
“Since the ending of the CPA in 2001, the UNHCR has had no formal written agreement with the Malaysian government to handle the managing of refugees in the country,” said Amarjit.
“The Malaysian state’s broader context of dealing with irregular migratory movements and refugee flows continues to take place outside a human rights framework, and means that refugees form a particularly vulnerable group of people in Malaysia.”
“I stayed in Pulau Bidong since October 22, 1989 until November 21, 1991. That’s when they had the programme to transit everybody to Sungai Besi [detention centre].”
Lydia Nguyen stayed on Bidong Island for four months before being resettled in California. There, she sang to pay for her education, graduated with a degree in Computer Science, and worked in the US Labour Department for 20 years as compliance specialist before retiring.
One day she hopes to tell her two children the full story of how she made it to America.
“It’s not because it’s a story about me or about anyone,” she said. “The story is important because it tells you how to appreciate the freedom you have.”
“So many people never got the chance I did,” she said, tearing up. “We were lucky. Very lucky.”
Huynh stayed for eleven months in Bidong Island before going to Georgia to live with his aunt and her American soldier husband.
“If you look at the recent refugee crises across the world, you’d see that it’s not a refugee problem, it’s a war problem. As long as we have wars, we’ll have refugees.” he said.
“The solution isn’t to stop refugees from migrating, it’s to stop the wars from happening.”
Since the CPA ended, there hasn’t been any comprehensive multilateral agreements regarding the issue, despite similar refugee crises in Myanmar, and Pakistan.
For the past 40 years, Malaysia has been a major destination for refugees seeking either temporary or permanent refuge from conflicts in the region and further afield.
Asylum seekers have included Filipino refugees during the late 70s and early 80s, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees during the 80s and 90s, a small number of Bosnian refugees in the early 90s, and Indonesians from Aceh in the early 2000s.
Malaysia also continues to receive refugees from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, the Chins and Rohingyas.
However, till today, Malaysia does not have a policy framework to deal with refugees, leaving refugees in the country with no legal status and technically at risk of arrest and detention under immigration laws.
“Malaysia needs to learn from its experience dealing with the Indochina crisis,” said Amarjit. “Only through the combined efforts of all actors on the domestic and international stage can a lasting solution to the problems of refugees be found.”
“I keep hoping that history won’t repeat itself,” said Huynh. “I hope that what we’ve been through will be looked at and learned from by the younger generation, and I’d like to see the world without borders, but I don’t think so. But I hope so.
“We are all human, treat each other like humans.”
“These young people who were born [in Vietnam] have no idea about refugees or Pulau Bidong. It seems like a part of history has been forgotten.”