Monday, November 12, 2007


Following the closure of refugee camps in Southeast Asia, a group of Vietnamese refugeees stranded inthe Philippines for over 16 years unable to find home.
A documentary by Duc Nguyen

An article written in 2005
Printed on Nguoi Viet Daily

A Journey Has No End
By Duc Nguyen

As I prepared to travel to the Philippines on a production shoot for my documentary “Bolinao 52”, I began to learn about the predicaments of the stateless Vietnamese. Close to 2000 of these so-called “long-stayers” have been living on the fringe of the Filipino society since 1989 when the UNHCR-sponsored Comprehensive Plan of Action was in place. They are the citizens of nowhere. Without legal status in the Philippines, their lives hung by the whim of sympathy. Unable to buy house, own business, travel freely nor work legally, they resorted to black market and creative ways to make a living. For 16 years they drifted in uncertainty. Not a place called home, the long-stayers carried on a dream of being resettled.

Our production team arrived in the Philippines on a very momentous day for the stateless Vietnamese. On August 16, 2005, the first interview from the CIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) officials were conducted in the flashy Makati section of Manila where high-rises hovered above the dispossessed. After many years operating under radar, the U.S. State Department agreed to accept many of them.

On the first day of the interview, we followed Trong Nguyen and Quoc Nguyen (not related) to the IOM (International Office of Migration) office. Both Trong and Quoc, although had not received their notices for interview yet, want to be there to feel news and perhaps gaining insights to the process.

Trong began escaping Vietnam in 1979. However his luck turned on him. He even tried escaping by road through Cambodia. As he got close to the Thai border, Vietnamese troops captured him. Imprisoned more than nine times and after a handful of failures, Trong arrived in the Philippines by boat in 1989, after CPA program was activated which stated that not everyone who sought asylum would get automatic refugee status. Trong and most other long-stayers were labeled as the PS (Philippines Screened) group. It meant that they were not recognized as refugees and not resettled in a third asylum country. CPA, established by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), was a disservice for many stateless Vietnamese. Set up to be a durable solution, the CPA program was plagued with corruption and mishandling cases. Trong told me that on the day he was interviewed for the CPA program, his interviewer asked him to come up with $300 USD. Frantically seeking out loans from his poor friends, Trong was unable to come up with the cash. He reflected: “If I would have come up with even $100 USD, I would have been resettled.” Trong was rejected on his application to be a refugee.

Quoc on the other hand left Vietnam under the Amerasian program. His case was rejected by the State Department because he used false papers. Quoc is a representative for the stateless Vietnamese in the Baclaran area in metro Manila. His main responsibility is to connect the other long-stayers with the VCA (Vietnamese Community in Australia) office. VCA offers legal advices as well as financial supports to those in-need.

As we arrived at the shinny high-rise building where the interviews were taking place, the first approval case descended down the elevator. Bach Thi Net, a single woman, was the first to be interviewed and accepted to be resettled in the States. Tears streamed down her face while her compatriots surrounded her with questions. We caught up with her but were stopped by the building security when we turned on the camera.

We interviewed her later on a different location. Net left Vietnam after the CPA program was in place by boat. Even though she knew that her chance of resettling in a third country was slim, she determined to leave Vietnam. Their boat voyage lasted more than 4 weeks at sea. Encountered many passing ships, but none were willing to take them. At last, one merchant ship agreed to help, only if they would pitch in to help them cover the cost. The boat people unloaded their jewelries and belongings and paid for the expenses. They were brought to the Philippines in 1989.

Net came to the interview with her housemate Minh. He left Vietnam with his uncle as a teenager. But their boat too, drifted for too long, his uncle died at sea. In the beginning Minh said, dead people were immediately thrown overboard. But then days later, everyone were so weak, the corpses were left on the boat until they stank. Then they were rolled overboard. Minh talked about his escape from Palawan after UNHCR closed all refugee camps. He and his friends sneaked aboard a Filipino ship to Manila. En route, his friend fell aboard and disappeared. Minh then was left alone in the bustling Manila. Both he and Net talked about their struggle in the beginning in a strange land. They scraped a living by selling cheap merchandises to Filipino blue-collar workers. With tears filling her eyes, Net never thought that a day would come that she could leave the Philippines. Facing with loneliness, fears of danger and missing her country, she said that there is no other love better than the love of her country, Vietnam. Her choice of leaving Vietnam brought her many years of difficulty. But as her hope exposed, Net begged for more sympathy for those stateless people like her throughout the world.

We then moved on to Bolinao ,a fishing village in the Pagansinan region north of Manila for our documentary shoot. There we met Thanh and Toan, two men in their 30s’. Thanh is married with two kids. Toan is still single. They two men met in high school in Vietnam. Then they escaped to the Philippines together. Back in 1996, when the refugee camp in Palawan closed, Toan was forced to repatriate to Vietnam by UNHCR. He went into hiding with the help of his friends. He and Toan then sneaked onto a ship to Manila. Once up on the ship, they looked at the map, picked out a spot and decided to moved there. They came to Alaminos, a seaport near Bolinao.

On the day we met the two men, Toan was accepted to America. Thanh still had not received his appointment for an interview. We stopped at their house for a quick celebration for Toan’s future. During the meal, Thanh was overwhelmed by emotion when he began to talk about his life in the Philippines. Pointing at the cement house that they rented, Thanh said that nothing in that house do not belong to both. They share everything they own. And it was not easy to have what they have today.

During the first days after leaving Palawan, they started their work by taking household items such as rubber sandals, perfumes and fake jewelries from wholesaler and sold door-to-door. The merchandises were fronted to them by wholesaler on a high price than normal. After finished his first batch, Thanh used the money to purchase more items to increase profits. After accumulated a fair share of start-up money, he repaid the debt. Little by little they built up a small livelihood. But without a legal status, Thanh said they had no protection. Once he was swindled by a Filipino. After buying the item from him, the buyer paid him with a paycheck. The amount was more than the price of the item so Thanh gave her most of his cash. But when he went to cash the check, there was no fund. He went to the police, but attempts after attempts there was no result. Thanh was angry but must accept his lost. “We have no rights in this country,” Thanh said.

Although he was happy for Toan, Thanh was nervous about his predicament. He was unable to sleep the last few days. Thanh explained that his dream of becoming an engineer 16 years ago evaporated. He believed that the future belongs to his children, looking at his 4-years-old son, Dao.

As we were leaving the Philippines the future was looking bright for many long-stayers. The acceptance rate was more than 90%. However, the State Department refused to interview a group of long-stayers cases. They were not considered since they have Filipino spouses. The argument was these people have a chance to integrate into Philippines society therefore they are not considering stateless. Hoi Trinh, a lawyer and activist from Australia who started the VCA office in Manila 7 years ago and who was instrumental in lobbying for the long-stayers resettlement, angrily said that policy was unfair and inhumane. Hoi argued that although married to Filipino, these people still don’t have any rights.

Few others long-stayers cases were simply closed because they came after June 1996 when the camps were closed. Just before I left for the airport, I ran into Nhung Thi Ho, a boat person who came in 1990. She was invited to an interview then handed a letter saying that her case was closed. Drowned in tears she appealed for my help. I looked at her letter of rejection along with a letter from a Buddhist priest in Sacramento promising assistance if she comes to the U.S. Without any solution to offer, I asked her to be calm and patient. Nhung told me that she felt like her chance passed her. Disappoint and sad she feared for her safety. One of her friends was stabbed during a robbery when he was selling merchandises on the street. She was afraid that it may happen to her.

Listen to Nhung’s story I couldn’t help but feeling sad. The feeling of being left behind in uncertainty was a feeling that I felt when Saigon fell in 1975. But I cannot imagine what it is like when you are stranded in a strange country and not many people of your kind are around. On the flipside, many stateless Vietnamese are coming to America where they would have rights to function as a human being. The first plane of these long-stayers will arrive in Los Angeles, September 26, 2005.

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