23 Apr 2013

Immigration archive: resettling the boat people (1984)

The end of the Vietnam war prompted an exodus of refugees, 19,000 of whom found their way, via Hong Kong, to the UK. A 1984 Channel 4 News looked at how one Vietnamese family had fared in Britain.

After the fall of Saigon effectively ended the Vietnam War in 1975, thousands of refugees fled the incoming Communist government, writes Ian Searcey.

For many there was no escape from the country except by sea, and so they risked storms, disease and starvation in overcrowded fishing boats or on makeshift rafts in an attempt to find sanctuary. Thousands died at sea, while others found themselves in refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong.

Their plight became a worldwide concern, with many western nations offering, or being pressurised to offer, to resettle the refugees. The majority were re-homed in the US, Australia and France, while Britain became the destination for around 19,000 Vietnamese from the camps in Hong Kong.

Limited job prospects

In November 1984, following a Home Office report recognising the former boat people as one of the most seriously disadvantaged groups in the country, Michelle Han reported for Channel 4 News from the Isle of Dogs, home of the Van Do family, on the problems still faced by Vietnamese refugees in Britain.

While the Do Van children eat and head off for school, Mr Van Do, though wearing his business suit, remains at home, his lack of English preventing him from actually finding a job.

Most of the Vietnamese who came to Britain were unskilled workers rejected by the US, but some who had enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle in the far east were forced to face the reality of limited employment prospects and a far less affluent future.

Dispersal policy

When the first refugees began to arrive, the government adopted a dispersal policy, scattering people around the country to avoid “ghettoes”, reduce pressure on local agencies, and aid integration.

In reality, as the Home Office later accepted, the failed policy deprived adults, arriving in a totally alien society with poor English language skills, of a local support network of fellow countrymen.

The silver lining to this story is that although the adults found things difficult in their adopted country, their children settled into school and saw their futures very firmly in England, with daughter, Ngai Van Do planning to become a music teacher.

Interviewees in this special report are John Wheeler MP, chairman of the Commons committee on race relations and immigration, and Joyce Pierce, of Ockenden Venture