25 June 1996

REF/1147


LAST CAMP FOR VIETNAMESE BOAT PEOPLE IN MALAYSIA CLOSED AT CEREMONY WITH GOVERNMENT, UNHCR OFFICIALS ATTENDING

19960625 GENEVA, 25 June (UNHCR) -- The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Malaysian authorities closed Malaysia's last camp for Vietnamese boat people today, ending 21 years of cooperation in which more than 250,000 people transited the country.

A ceremony to mark the occasion was held at the Sungei Besi camp, near Kuala Lumpur, with Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi and UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello in attendance. The ceremony occurred just five days before the end of the Comprehensive Plan of Action, a multinational effort that was established in 1989 to stem the flow of asylum-seekers who had braved shark-infested waters and pirate attacks to leave Viet Nam and the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

"There are few happy moments in the career of a refugee official, and this is one of them", Mr. Vieira de Mello said at the ceremony. "The Comprehensive Plan of Action has been a model for multilateral cooperation, built on the principles of international solidarity, burden-sharing, and proper acceptance of responsibilities. Its purposes were to end the ongoing tragedy on the high seas and to preserve asylum while reducing incentives for further mass outflow. It has been successful."

At its latest meeting, in March 1996, the Steering Committee envisaged that all Vietnamese non-refugees in the countries of South-East Asia would repatriate prior to the formal closure of the Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, it is estimated that some 24,700 people will still be in camps after 30 June, including 3,500 in Indonesia; 2,300 in the Philippines; 4,000 in Thailand; and 15,000 in Hong Kong.

As of 30 June, in accordance with the conclusions of the seventh Steering Committee meeting, the UNHCR will phase down its care and maintenance activities in South-East Asian countries of first asylum. Transitional arrangements will be implemented for the residual camp populations, and in the case of Hong Kong, which has a much larger caseload than other countries, the UNHCR will maintain its current status. The UNHCR will also continue to assist and monitor the situation of people who return to Viet Nam.

The Plan of Action established an alternative, legal migration route out of Viet Nam, permitting over half a million people to depart by air.

- 2 - Press Release REF/1147 25 June 1996

Screening procedures were established under which the countries of first asylum in South-East Asia individually examined every asylum-seeker's claim to refugee status. Virtually all refugees who had a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin were given resettlement options in Western countries. Those screened out because they could safely return to their country were expected to do so.

The UNHCR set up extensive assistance programmes for returnees in the countries of origin, and monitored their well-being and safety in accordance with those countries' commitments to give returnees the same basic rights as every other citizen. It also chaired the Plan of Action's Steering Committee, assisted with care and maintenance in camps for asylum-seekers, and helped set up refugee status determination procedures.

Since 1975, 840,000 Vietnamese asylum-seekers have arrived in the countries of South-East Asia and Hong Kong. Over 755,000 departed for resettlement in the West. Over 81,000 have returned safely to Viet Nam.

The first boat people landed on the east coast of Malaysia in May 1975. In all, nearly 255,000 Vietnamese boat people were given temporary asylum in Malaysia, where they were cared for by the UNHCR and the Malaysian Red Crescent Society. A total of 248,410 were resettled in Western countries (some of them children born in the camps), and over 9,000 returned to Viet Nam.

At the height of the influx, Malaysia had eight camps for boat people, along the east coast and in Sabah and Serawak. As the wave of arrivals diminished, and as more people were resettled in the West, the remaining population was moved to Sungei Besi.

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