China Daily (Hong Kong)

Migrant or refugee: A new lexicon


More than 30 years ago, I took a year off work to volunteer as a logistics officer with the United Nations High Commission­er For Refugees.

It was a time of the Boat People.

The experience was sobering and opened my eyes as a young journalist, still idealistic about politics and reality.

As I took part in rescue operations in the South China Sea, I saw boatloads of Vietnamese refugees risking their lives to leave home in search of greener pastures.

Often, they were attacked by pirates who raped the women and robbed the men of the gold bars strapped to their chests.

Almost four decades later, the news headlines are creating a sense of deja vu.

This Day, That Year

Boatloads of Bangladesh­is and displaced Rohingyas from Myanmar are the new boat people. Now though, they are called migrants, not refugees. It is a difference that is colored in shades of gray.

Bangladesh has always been poor and it is understand­able that some of its people should risk their lives to seek a better future. But, heading up to sea in the hopes of being rescued and given refuge is not a wise move.

The Rohingyas, originally Muslim migrants from the Bangladesh­i delta, have always had an uncomforta­ble existence in Myanmar, which is predominan­tly Buddhist. That they should want to leave again is perhaps more understand­able.

Whatever the reason or cause, it takes either great courage or terrible desperatio­n to embark on such a voyage.

The plight of these new boat people is not the responsibi­lity of one single nation but of humanity as a whole. In offering “temporary shelter”, both Malaysia and Indonesia have shown a compassion that is laudable.

But who will ultimately offer these refugee-migrants final refuge?

Many of the Vietnamese Boat People in the mass exodus in the late 1970s and early 1980s were assimilate­d into countries such as the Netherland­s, France, Australia and the United States. Just as many returned to Vietnam as entreprene­urs now leading their homeland into new prosperity.

I remember Tranh, a young man of 18, who survived 28 days stranded at sea and two vicious pirate attacks. I got to know him well at the refugee camp in Singapore and we became friends.

He appreciate­d the library books I brought him and we kept in touch long after he resettled in the Netherland­s. He became an award-winning scientist and returned to Vietnam to start one of the country’s first hematology laboratori­es.

Throughout the history of mankind, people have been displaced by war, poverty and natural disasters. My own grandfathe­rs left China for Southeast Asia because there was not enough to eat at home.

Behind the statistics and numbers of the news headlines, there are individual stories that need to be told. A lot of these end in tragedy.

We read of the mass graves found on the borders of Malaysia and Thailand, of the camps that rounded up the refugees that could not pay the fare demanded by the trafficker­s.

We, all of us, are migrants ourselves at one time or other. And, whether Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, we should be thoroughly grateful that we were never refugees. Contact the writer at

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