What do Malaysians think of the Vietnamese

Germany archive

Julia Kleinschmidt

The author

Julia Kleinschmidt, M.A., is a PhD scholarship holder of the Hans Böckler Foundation with a dissertation project on the subject of "Global Refugees and Civil Society Engagement. The Human Rights Debate in Western European Asylum Policy". She studied Middle and Modern History, History of Science and Modern German Literature in Göttingen, Nanterre / Paris and Groningen. She has been co-editor and topic editor for the magazine since 2010 Workshop history active.

At the end of 1978 the Federal Republic of Germany decided to accept large numbers of South Vietnamese refugees. This was preceded by intensive media coverage of the misery of the so-called "boat people". So that the 40,000 Vietnamese were spared long asylum procedures, the category of "humanitarian refugees" was created. Julia Kleinschmidt on a turning point in the Federal Republic of Germany's human rights and refugee policy.

South Vietnamese refugees on the "Hai Hong" in December 1978. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

"You can't bear that." [1] With these words, Lower Saxony's Prime Minister Ernst Albrecht confirmed his decision to take in South Vietnamese refugees from the coast of Malaysia. On December 3, 1978, the first 163 of the so-called "boat people" were flown into the Federal Republic of Germany and taken to the Friedland border transit camp (GDL) in southern Lower Saxony. They were among the mostly ethnic Chinese refugees who had been waiting on the overcrowded and ailing cargo ship Hai Hong off Malaysia and who had previously been refused to go ashore. [2] Her fate had only attracted media attention a few weeks earlier and sparked an unprecedented level of civil society activism, such as the last time the Biafra conflict. [3] The media presence of the Indochinese refugee catastrophe led to a wave of solidarity from very different social groups, which to this day shapes the history of humanitarian aid and the role of the Vietnamese as a group of successful integration in the German collective memory. [4]

The catastrophic hygienic conditions and the cramped conditions on site were the central circumstances on which the reporting concentrated and which had aroused loud outrage among charitable associations, politicians and individual citizens. So described The mirror In November the situation on the refugee ship: "A stench of urine, feces and sweat surrounds the ship. People relieve themselves on the railing, others lie motionless on the rusted iron deck of the dilapidated cargo ship." [5] The suffering of the refugees on overcrowded little ones Boats, their impotent waiting for an entry permit or in overcrowded camps on the coast of Thailand and Malaysia as well as on so-called "camp islands" were shared by hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and - albeit less prominently - Laotians and Cambodians in the years from 1975 to 1986. According to the statistics of the host countries, it can be assumed that more than a million people were rescued with the help of international actions, but many countless people drowned or died in the boats and camps. While France and the USA, because of their involvement in the war, saw a special responsibility towards the opponents of the north and made large contingents available for admission, the Federal Republic of Germany also increased the initial admission quota from 10,000 to 38,000 people. [6]

Not only the radical left criticized the war in Vietnam, the German government had also recognized the issue since the 1960s and raised it to a foreign policy issue. In addition to the hospital ship "Helgoland", which was stationed off the South Vietnamese coast in 1965 after a long struggle to determine the extent of West Germany's involvement in the Vietnam War, it also sent established charities such as Caritas, the Protestant Diakonie and the Red Cross in the south of Vietnam. [7] However, after the North Vietnamese army took the southern capital Saigon in 1975, the Federal Republic officially withdrew its representatives from Vietnam and most charitable organizations withdrew their local helpers.

Emotionalized fate

The attention that has been paid to the fate of the refugees can be explained by various developments. When, after the victory of the Viet Cong in 1975, the refugee movements to the surrounding states of Vietnam increased dramatically, widespread media attention led to a widespread scandal of the consequences of the Vietnam War. When people increasingly chose their escape route via the open sea in the late 1970s to get to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore or Hong Kong, they ended up in international waters and thus became a matter for the United Nations and the states that flagged ships frequented this area. Thanks to improved media equipment and the mobility of journalists, what was happening on site found its way into the evening news. "The tropical and picturesque misery of these refugees from Vietnam entertains - in its own way - the western world: As once the war in Indochina, television also transported the refugee drama in color into living rooms" [8], the weekly newspaper judged The time relatively self-critical and early on the role of the media. A few weeks before Christmas 1978, such dramatic television and print images had, according to the incumbent Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, Ernst Albrecht, generated a previously unexpected willingness to make decisions, first from him and then from the federal government. The protagonists of the following rescue operation could count on broad support from society. Up until the Lower Saxony initiative, several citizens had already asked the Federal Ministry of the Interior whether the federal government could intervene in the refugee drama. A letter even called for a symbolic gesture in honor of the 40th anniversary of the November pogrom. [9]

Just like the reporting on the refugee drama on site in Southeast Asia and the daily updated information about the decision-making process, the arrival of the first "boat people" in Lower Saxony was also a major media event. The actors in the rescue operation, who brought 2,500 people to West Germany within a very short time, were followed at every turn by the press, radio and television. Even at Langenhagen Airport near Hanover, impressive pictures were taken of refugees wrapped in Red Cross blankets and cared for on arrival. When the first buses then arrived at the Friedland transit camp, camp employees had to hold back a curious crowd of citizens and media representatives from the refugees. [10] Some contemporaries criticized this emotionalization with the help of the media and stated that "they [the refugees, JK] fled in a media-friendly manner. For days and weeks, dramatic film reports were delivered to the door on television, in which one could watch the completely overloaded fishing boats of the Vietnamese refugees could. "[11]

Ernst Albrecht had chosen an emotionally favorable time for the rescue operation based on the supposedly topical explosiveness of a human catastrophe and the upcoming Christmas party. In numerous interviews, he emphasized that the shocking images on television had prompted him to exert pressure in Bonn and to initiate the first transports to West Germany. Initially, it did not matter in public that the USA had been pressing for a long time that some of the refugees should also be taken care of from the German side. According to the files of the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, since the victory of the North Vietnamese troops in 1975 there has been a request from the USA to allies of the western bloc to take care of the Vietnamese opposition members after they had flown out almost 130,000 people at great expense. One week before the arrival of the first refugees, Albrecht made it clear to ZDF that he understood the rescue operation as "... a question for the whole free world" and therefore wanted to "set an example". [13] Ernst Albrecht succeeded in presenting his commitment, which was actually to be expected from the foreign policy relationship with the USA and France as important allies, as an act of mercy in domestic politics.

Humanitarian action

The problem that the Vietnamese were not to be treated according to the Geneva Refugee Convention, but the needy people still needed help, had been preoccupying the federal government for several years and may have been a reason for the late, but non-bureaucratic action in the winter of 1978. [14] Although there had previously been groups that had been accepted as a closed unit, these refugees from Hungary and Chile, who were also taken in and cared for in camps such as Friedland or Unna-Massen, initially had to go through the usual asylum procedure like the first refugees from Vietnam . Lower Saxony's Prime Minister Albrecht, however, created facts through the actions of his cabinet that should be steered into legal channels in the future. As a result of internal political consultations, it was established that "[a] n in view of developments in the international area (...) such actions can also be expected in the future" [15]. The search for a suitable status turned out to be difficult, as not all Vietnamese fell into the category of political refugees and thus entitled to asylum, but were often more economically or socially ostracized victims of the consequences of the war. With the arrival of the first transport in 1978, individual federal and state politicians therefore suggested that the refugees from Vietnam should be equated with the repatriates. [16] Nevertheless, it seemed difficult before the Federal Assembly to justify the equality of humanitarian refugees with immigrants of German origin.

As a consequence of the refugee catastrophe in Southeast Asia, the "Law on Measures for Refugees Admitted as Part of Humanitarian Aid Campaigns" [17] was finally passed in 1980 in the Bundestag. With the law, people in group contexts could henceforth be granted an unlimited residence permit due to a crisis situation in their country of origin. [18] As a result, Vietnamese quota refugees could and were treated with significantly privileged status vis-à-vis asylum seekers, since they were spared the asylum recognition process, which often took months or years. Because of their group membership, they were given immediate refugee status, which granted them civil rights. [19]

Lower Saxony's Prime Minister Ernst Albrecht in June 1976. (& copy Federal Archives, B 145 Bild-F048686-0018, Photo: Engelbert Reineke)
The relatively unbureaucratic action of the authorities towards the almost 40,000 Southeast Asian refugees was to characterize their acceptance in the Federal Republic from now on. Even the first refugees who did not fall under this law were able to benefit from broadly initiated integration measures due to the obvious agreement that these people would stay permanently. When asked by ZDF how the refugees in Germany would fare in relation to their previous whereabouts, whether they "might not have a long camp life ahead of them in Europe", Ernst Albrecht replied: "No, I think we will since they can be taken out of the camp in two months at the latest, [...] Our cities and municipalities have actually reacted fantastic ". [20] The finding that the municipalities seem to be generous in providing housing was mainly due to financial reasons. In contrast to the usual asylum procedures, the state assumed the costs of further accommodation. That is why the refugees in Lower Saxony had left the Friedland transit camp by Christmas at the latest and were initially relocated to the charitable dormitory "Sozialwerk Nazareth" in Norden-Norddeich. Roman Siewert, then and now the dormitory director, characterizes Friedland's function as a "water heater", in which everything revolved around the bureaucratic requirements of admission, while comprehensive support was sought afterwards. [21] By the end of the 1980s, the Federal Republic of Germany invested an estimated 52 million Deutsche Mark exclusively in rescue operations and reception services such as language courses, job placement and the search for accommodation for Southeast Asian refugees. [22] The extraordinarily intensive efforts to integrate, combined with an allegedly great willingness to perform, which has been much discussed for several years, contributed to a far more positive attitude in German society towards the Vietnamese than towards other refugee groups. [23]

The helpfulness of the Lower Saxony cabinet is a prominent narrative of state aid to refugees in recent history and is in contrast to the otherwise rigid asylum policy pursued by the CDU, especially in the 1980s that followed. However, given the rejection of the Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to a decidedly West German human rights policy against repressive regimes, a tactical positioning of the CDU could have been in the background. [24] Similar to the thematization of the “social question”, the CDU has now succeeded in advocating for global humanitarian problems and thus making a clear statement on the human rights orientation of federal policy. [25] This Christian Democratic advance in refugee policy fitted into the political concept of the federal government, on the one hand to fulfill the duties towards the High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations, on the other hand to include a controllable and at least ostensibly depoliticized group.

Regulated refugee admission

In the young Federal Republic, the Friedland transit camp was considered to be "the nationwide well-known and symbolically diverse gateway to freedom" [26]. Nevertheless, the camp had given way to public interest since the end of the 1950s and so the welfare associations and authorities had the opportunity to rewrite the place as a symbol of West German, globally active humanity by accepting refugees from Indochina. [27] Since the refugees mostly came from the south of Vietnam or were on the run, it also seemed proven that they were victims of the victorious socialist north. Although it turned out that not all refugees were threatened with life and limb or were already imprisoned in labor camps and prisons, many were at least affected by economic ruin or public abuse as part of the more affluent population. The refugees had the political advantage of being seen as persecuted by communism and thus at least publicly treated as like-minded people in the West. [28]

Despite the announcement that the group admitted to Friedland were only the harbingers of a much larger number of refugees, the willingness to help, especially at the local level, remained extraordinarily generous and consistent until the early 1980s. [29] The exuberant willingness to help and the broad institutional care of the Vietnamese also met with criticism. Refugee activists criticized the in parts very different care and accommodation of the various asylum seekers and called for greater willingness to accept refugees. [30] For example, the Augsburg asylum home, in which up to 15 people had to live in an area of ​​just 45 square meters at the time, was compared with four dormitories for Indochina refugees built between 1979 and 1980, each of which had to take in no more than 80 people, according to the authors of the report "all have an ideal scale." [31]

The fact that the Vietnamese refugees had a different status in society and with the authorities than other refugees can be seen from the fact that almost 400 Argentine refugees were rejected at the same time on the grounds that the quota for political refugees is exhausted. The Argentine asylum seekers, like the Chileans who have been admitted since 1973, were opposition members of the left-wing parties.The German authorities counted the number of refugees from Chile against the Argentines, so that the relevant decision-makers came to the conclusion that the Federal Republic would currently have no reception capacities for politically persecuted people from Latin America. [32] Ernst Albrecht tried to depoliticize his decisions in relation to "his" refugees in an interview with the "Länderspiegel" on December 2, 1978 and thus morally hit the critics:

"Yes, there is - this is an experience that I am not having for the first time - always envy, there is always a guilty conscience, which also plays a role, and then you think you have to put unfair motives behind the other. For me this is a question of humanity. We are challenged, we can see what is going on there ". [33]

Lower Saxony State Secretary Gernord Haaßengier put it much more firmly that the unequal treatment was in the interests of politics: "Some come, we get the others. That is the difference." [34]

In the further history of the Federal Republic, however, it became clear that the criteria relating to the Indochina refugees were only partially set as generously as previously announced. The government wanted to keep control over the selection of refugees. After the first refugees had been accepted in Lower Saxony's ad hoc campaigns, the federal government set up a Red Cross ship to bring refugees to West Germany. At the same time, with the help of celebrities, numerous citizens at civil society level also got involved with the refugees from Indochina. Heinrich Böll, Martin Walser, Norbert Blüm and the journalist Rupert Neudeck founded the Cologne association "Ein Boot für Vietnam e.V.", among others. They bought a ship that was sent into the waters around Vietnam to rescue refugees from their boats. Between 1979 and 1986 the "Cap Anamur" was used to rescue 10,375 people from the Pacific. The volunteer crew of the "Cap Anamur" soon came into conflict with the German authorities, as they seldom coordinated their actions with them. Since the crew of the rescue ship repeatedly took over refugees from other ships who were no longer in acute distress, the Foreign Office stepped in and instructed the crew of the "Cap Anamur" to refrain from this practice in the future. [35] From the files of the Federal Ministry of the Interior it can be inferred that more and more of the refugees still to be admitted were already determined in advance. Family reunification was a top priority, and priority was given to people who had worked for German companies or were minors and without relatives. The arbitrariness in setting the quotas became the sore point of the quota regulation. How should the standards be set as to when "enough" would have been included? Politics was not based on the actual number of refugees, but set its own, outwardly opaque parameters in order to establish a final reception capacity. Already called at the beginning of the recording The timeto rethink this approach: "But the Southeast Asian refugees can no longer be helped with Christmas alms. The Federal Republic has to take in more refugees, more than the 2500 Vietnamese at Christmas time." [36]


The admission of the first "boat people" in Lower Saxony marks the start of "humanitarian refugee aid" in the Federal Republic of Germany and thus shows a turning point in German human rights and refugee policy in the 1970s. [37] With the admission of the Vietnamese refugees, the Federal Republic of Germany took a decisive step in the direction of integrating humanitarian, globally oriented aid operations as a political strategy in domestic and foreign policy. With the new category of "humanitarian refugees", the federal politicians equally succeeded in fulfilling their responsibility to the international community and in establishing new, legally anchored instruments for regulating internal refugee policy.

The actual political symbolic power of the "humanitarian refugees" in the Cold War can be illustrated using the example of the Indochina refugees. The contemporary media already recognized that the images of the people on the boats and in the refugee camps in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia contributed to an event experienced collectively, which manifested itself in local engagement. The "boat people" succeeded in a continuity of the reception of Hungarian refugees and Czechoslovak dissidents, unlike that of Chilean Pinochet opponents and political refugees from the Middle East, a change in the meaning of the term "camp" as an institution of dictatorship, of German war guilt and place of dealing with the consequences of the war. Now it was rather a matter of opposing the system enemy with a structure of mercy and capitalist freedom. For the Friedland transit camp in particular, the narrative, as a collection and registration point in the post-war period, was transformed into a place of German humanitarianism and at the same time successfully adhered to the symbolic label of the "gateway to freedom".

Citation: Julia Kleinschmidt, The admission of the first "boat people" to the Federal Republic, in: Germany Archive Online, November 26, 2013, Link: http://www.bpb.de/170611