By Jana K. Lipman, author of In Camps: Vietnamese Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Repatriates

On World Refugee Day, the UNHCR estimates that there are over 25 million refugees around the world.  Although the United States has always accepted refugees selectively based on its political priorities, the number has dwindled to historic lows under the Trump administration. We are living in a decidedly anti-refugee political climate.

My book In Camps tells the stories of Vietnamese men and women in refugee camps from 1975 and into the early 21st century.  It raises questions that resonate in the present.  Who is a refugee?  Who is resettled?  And how have people detained in camps protested and organized politically?

In my research, I found evidence of Vietnamese who protested to gain repatriation in 1975, and Vietnamese who resisted repatriation at all costs in the 1990s. I study Vietnamese in camps in Guam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. In these various sites, they relied on a range of strategies: letter writing, lawsuits, and direct action, including hunger strikes and protests. Vietnamese also found allies and developed transnational networks to make the camps visible and their situation seen as urgent.

These protests resonate today as the U.S. detains thousands of asylum seekers in a network of immigration detention centers, this time on continental U.S. soil. Once again, there are desperate hunger strikes, activist lawyers, and journalistic exposés to draw attention to horrific conditions and the evisceration of legal protections. 

In recent years, the U.S. has also newly targeted a group of vulnerable Southeast Asians, and these contemporary struggles offer strong parallels with my historic scholarship on refugee camps and activism. 

Of the more than one million Vietnamese in the United States, several thousand committed crimes or came in contact with the law before they applied for or gained citizenship. With this blemish on their record, they were unable to become naturalized U.S. citizens. However, they never imagined they might be deported.  The U.S. even entered a Memorandum of Understanding with Vietnam in 2008, exempting this group from deportation.

Then in 2017, under new directives from the Trump administration, ICE began to target this very group.  Take the case of Pham Chi Cuong. In recent years, ICE initiated deportation proceedings against Pham Chi Cuong. Like many others, he had been a teenager when he came to the United States in 1990.  Once in America, he had initial run-ins with the law. Despite these problems, he later became a sushi chef, married, and had three children in Florida.

His deportation in 2018 was a shock, and in many ways a betrayal of the U.S. Vietnamese refugee resettlement program.  From Ho Chi Minh City, he reported, “My life is over, everything is disconnected. . . . I call my family on Viber and try to keep in touch every day. The only thing we can do is pray to God.”

Mirroring earlier moments of activism, Vietnamese Americans mobilized in New Orleans, Houston, and California, and the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC) made advocating against deportations one of its central campaigns.  

In Little Saigon in Westminster, California, Vietnamese Americans took to the streets carrying homemade signs. In English and in Vietnamese, the placards spoke to the long shadow of the U.S. war and emphasized the politics of family and reunification. One woman’s sign reminded American observers of the U.S. war, “We Are Here Because You Were There.” “Pho-get Trump,” proclaimed a second. An elderly man wore a placard stating, “Deporting Vietnam War Refugees Is Shameless, Immoral, Inhuman.”

Although these organizations were unable to stop these deportations, they continue to protest and advocate for new legislation to protect those now facing deportation.

As I was completing In Camps and writing about Hong Kong and Malaysia, I felt almost nostalgic for the time when Malaysian, Hong Kong, Philippine, British, and U.S. government officials worried about international opinion. Hundreds, if not thousands, of documents attest to their fears about sullying their reputation by “pushing off” Vietnamese boats, revelations of dire conditions of the camps, and the success of activist campaigns.  Yet in today’s anti-refugee landscape, the idea that shame or liberal values might influence international refugee policy seems a remote artifact of the Cold War. 

Instead, Vietnamese protests within the camps in the 1990s and ongoing protests against the Trump administration’s xenophobic and anti-refugee politics  demonstrate that the fight for refugee rights is almost always opposed by the state.  It is not a story of progress, but rather one of necessary vigilance and activism.