The last remaining Vietnamese refugee in Malaysia, out of more than 250,000 "boat people" who began landing there 30 years ago, has returned home, marking a significant milestone in the history of the exodus, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
Since 1975, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has helped resettle some 240,000 Vietnamese refugees from Malaysia to third countries, while some 9,000 others opted to return to Viet Nam.
“The voluntary repatriation of the last Vietnamese refugee from the boat people period marks the end of an important chapter in the history of refugees in Malaysia,” UNHCR Representative in Malaysia Volker Türk said. “It also shows that a permanent solution can be found for a refugee situation.”
Doan Van Viet, 43, left Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Sunday with his fiancée, expressing happiness to return and looking forward to starting a new life. “I want to go home to legally marry her,” he said, smiling at the Vietnamese woman he met in Malaysia after she arrived there as an illegal migrant in 2003. “Going back also enables me to be close to my family whom I have not met since I left home.”
Doan's life in Malaysia began in 1984 when the boat he travelled in washed up on the shores of Pulau Bidong, off the coast of Terengganu in Malaysia. He was 22 then, having fled his home in Chau Thanh in Dong Nai with his brother several days before.
“Life was very hard for us back home,” he said. “We were always harassed by the authorities. I was imprisoned for seven months because the authorities suspected that I was arranging illegal departures for people. When I was released, I was scared for my life and I left with my brother.”
In the refugee camp on Pulau Bidong, he took classes to learn English and auto mechanic skills. When the camp closed in 1990, he moved to Sungai Bes, which closed in 1996. Since then, he had to blend in to local Malaysian life outside the camp.
The first boat people came to Malaysia in May 1975, with the arrival of a weather-beaten boat, carrying 47 people from Vietnam, precursors of hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees who fled to neighbouring countries in the successive communist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.