Boat People rescue operation and memory. Interview with Anh Tuan Dinh-Xuan, a Franco-Vietnamese medical doctor at Parisian Cochin Hospital

Anh Tuan Dinh-Xuan is a French-Vietnamese medical doctor, who currently heads a clinical unit at Cochin Hospital and teaches medicine at the University of Paris. Born in Saigon in 1958, he left Vietnam at the age of 11 with his father, a former Counsellor of the Embassy of the Republic of Vietnam in Morocco and Tunisia, before arriving in Paris in 1973. There he has stayed, studied, and worked till now. He was the first French doctor of Vietnamese origin to take part in the Boat People rescue operations and is still very engaged in the Vietnamese cause through associations such as ‘Fils Rouges Vietnam’.

I left Vietnam with my family in 1969 at the age of 11 because my father went to North Africa to work for the Embassy of the Republic of (South) Vietnam. In 1973, at the end of his four-year mandate, my father had to go back to Vietnam, and my mother and younger sister also went back with him. But they decided to leave me in Paris to finish my high school and start studying medicine in France after the Baccalauréat. I completed my medical studies in Paris. I am not a part of the Boat People, since these events began in 1975, with the reunification of the country for some, and the defeat for others. As all my family went back to Vietnam in 1973, they could have been Boat People. This probably partly explains my commitment towards Médecins du Monde, an NGO with which I participated in Boat People rescue missions from the end of my medical studies, starting in 1982 and ending in 1988.

The rescue missions were launched almost at the same time in 1979 by two independent NGOs: the French NGO Médecins du Mondeunder the lead of Dr Bernard Kouchner, and the German NGO Cap Anamur.[1]It was in this context that ‘Ile de Lumière’ (‘Island of Light’) was created, which was essentially a hospital ship going to the China Sea to provide medical care to the 18,000 Boat People living in Pulau Bidong, a tiny island not larger than a soccer field. The following missions were called ‘Ile de Lumière’ 1, 2, 3 and so on. These boats rescued the Boat People and provided medical care to them on the spot, but did not stay there. At that time, Boat People had a preferential sea route. It consisted of crossing the Gulf of Thailand, a very calm region from a maritime point of view with a very low risk of typhoons. Hence, it presented little risk of sinking. Later, this itinerary became very dangerous with the arrival of pirates, who very soon became aware of such easy prey, who then became easy targets for robberies, rapes, abductions, and murders. In 1979, the pirates were not carrying out attacks because they were not aware of the presence of the Boat People. The Boat People were heading to Malaysia or Thailand. As these countries could not welcome them, the refugees were taken to the island of Pulau Bidong, which had a surface of less than 1 km2. At the peak of the Boat People crisis, there were 40,000 on the island. The greatest risk was epidemics, as they spread very rapidly over the island. It was to contain the risk and cure the sick that ‘Ile de Lumiere’ went to Pulau Bidong in 1979.

Médecins du Mondeoperated solely with private funds. ‘Ile de Lumiere’ had to cease functioning after six months because the funds ran out. The second boat was only launched in June 1982, when there were enough funds available to mobilize a second boat. Television broadcasts were very important to generate awareness among the French and attract donations. I was fortunate to be part of this mission. I had asked Bernard Kouchner, a doctor in the hospital where I was doing my training, to be part of the rescue missions from 1979. He had rightly refused as I was not yet a doctor at that time. I had to wait until 1982, when I had almost finished medical school; it was then that I was allowed to join the rescue team with my first mission on the Ile de Lumière 2 aka the Goelo[2]From 1982 to 1988, Médecins du Mondesent five boats. During the same period, Cap Anamurmanaged to send boats, alternating with Médecins du Monde, to ensure an almost permanent presence in the China Sea, or at the same time (as in 1987).

It was a real humanitarian drama at that time, which reminds us a bit of what is happening in recent years in the Mediterranean Sea, but with probably a much higher rate of deaths because of the length of the sea journey, weather conditions, and attacks from pirates who committed unbearable crimes in the Gulf of Siam at that time. The pirates took everything people had and raped women and girls. In case of resistance by the male relatives (husbands, fathers, or bothers) of the victims, the pirates then did not hesitate to beat and kill their opponents. People learned about it quickly. As a result, the Boat People avoided taking the roads beset by pirates and sailed overseas to the Philippines. The route was three or four times longer, and the sea far more turbulent (as compared to the Gulf of Siam) and the fragile boats frequently sank; even when some of them eventually reached the Philippines, the youngest (babies) and oldest passengers often died or were severely ill from exhaustion. Because the Boat People knew that the risks of sinking were much greater, they aimed to reach, half-way to the Philippines, an axis that was called the ‘rail’, a maritime route taken by many merchant navy ships traveling from Singapore to Hong Kong. At first, Boat People were rescued that way. However, the merchant sailors helping them arrive in Hong Kong not only were not allowed to disembark the rescued Boat People, the ship’s crew and its passengers were quarantined for one or two weeks. This put the companies out of business, which eventually stopped rescuing the Boat People. If some of the merchant sailors continued to provide Boat People who crossed their roads with food, a majority of them became accustomed to the situation, and a few deliberately ignored the presence of the frail boats they came across. During our missions, we tried to rescue the Boat People before they reached this axis. To this end, we had to define the maritime area in which we had the best chance of intercepting them and rescuing them before it was too late—when the boats were at risk of sinking, or when the migrants’ dying of hunger became a reality.

Beside the tens of thousands of deaths, few people talk about the fact that Boat People were forced to practise cannibalism. To get an idea of ​​the number, one should ask the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency has figures, but they are relatively confidential. The few people surviving from this terrible condition I met in the camps were naturally completely shocked. All of them first had to witness the loss of their family and even some of them were forced to commit this atrocious act to survive, though only a very few actually admitted it.

Coming back to more practical matters, a couple of factors limited the rescue missions. The first was financial. The second was that we could only disembark these people when their departure to a third country was guaranteed. The guarantee was the existence of visas. Before each operation, the NGOs (i.e. Médecins du Monde and its President, Dr Bernard Kouchner, and Cap Anamur and Dr Rupert Neudeck) tried to obtain a certain number of visas from mostly European governments, at least enough to start the mission. If France granted 300 visas, we were able to disembark 300 boat people in the refugee camps. We brought the castaways in the camps knowing that they would be able to come to France, either as a country of first choice, or because they did not have the possibility to go elsewhere. If the migrants could emigrate to other countries such as the USA or Australia because their relatives were already there, the entry visas to France could then be allocated to other people who were qualified to come to France (e.g. French-speaking Vietnamese). Médecins du Mondewas not responsible for the selection; it was the French Embassy which was. People who spoke French or had studied in France were given priority. For all countries, the first selection criterion was family reunification. The closer the family was, the greater were the chances of getting a visa. Subsequently, it was only personal history that mattered. There were individual approaches, but also agreements between governments, especially at the European level.

Apart from the NGO Cap Anamur, we collaborated with the Vietnamese community living in the United States. In 1985, the third mission of ‘Ile de Lumiere 3’ (a recue ship called Jean Charcot[3]) received extraordinary media coverage because rescue missions took place almost every day during a week. After this episode, we noticed a growing disinterest by the French population in the cause of the Boat People. We were asking ourselves many questions, because we did not feel able to raise as much funding as in the past to carry out a mission in 1986. By chance, I had a scholarship to do an internship at the University of California in San Francisco (USA) just after the 1985 mission. In the United States, I met the founders of an association named Boat People SOS Committee.[4]It brought together Vietnamese doctors and academics who had been trying to find associations rescuing the Boat People for two years. We were in the 1980s; the internet did not exist, and everything that happened in France was not known in the United States. When I arrived, I talked about the cooperation between Médecins du Mondeand Cap Anamurto Boat People SOS Committee. They were directly interested, and I was able to put the three associations in touch. The money, that was previously lacking, was brought in by the Vietnamese community living in the United States. This allowed our initiative to go around the world.

The Vietnamese community living in the United States was much more involved with the Boat People than the Vietnamese community living in France. This difference is first explained by the numerical factor, because the Vietnamese living in France are far less numerous than the Vietnamese living in the United States. The second reason is the stratification of the French Vietnamese community between people with different sociological and political backgrounds. In contrast to the numerous waves of Vietnamese who arrived in France from the end of the First World War, the vast majority of Vietnamese immigrants arrived In the United States after 1975. This community is, therefore, much more linked to the Boat People, because it simply would not exist without the events of 1975. Most of its members left Vietnam because they refused to live under the new regime. In France, the Vietnamese community opposing the regime is less numerous as compared to that in the USA. Museums related to Boat People are, therefore, quite modest. There is, for example, one in Brittany, where a boatoperated byMédecins du Mondedocked with 84 Boat People on board in 1982. In the United States, or in Australia, memory initiatives are carried out with much more resources.

The memory work of the Boat People tragedy remains very sensitive. As in all events of this type, there is a post-traumatic period during which people prefer not to talk about their experience. That is what I witnessed in the case of the Boat People, and is still the case today. Boat People’s children, who were too young or not yet born at that time, want to know what happened, but parents still have trouble narrating their story. It brings back memories that are too painful.

I think that we need to revisit this part of the history with a more clinical and less emotional approach. It is necessary to focus on the reasons for the departure of these populations, on the prices to be paid on departure, and to obtain figures that are as close to reality as possible. It has been said that one million people have died at sea. In my opinion, this figure is probably overestimated, but who knows? Maybe I am wrong. Having said that, even if the real number only approaches half or a third of the aforementioned one, this is still too high the price to pay for those thousands of unnecessary and mostly premature deaths, not mentioning the painful post-traumatic stress left for all those who survived.[5]An important historian’s work must also be performed to define the berths of the different boats. There were camps, but there were also lesser known places where boats arrived with 10 people, while originally 100 people were on board. It is also a question of retracing the history of the castaways. Young girls were raped, kidnapped, and sold in brothels in Bangkok. It is in particular from the history of the Ko Kra island, on which Boat People were made prisoners and abused,[6]that the boat ‘Ile de Lumière’ was created. There is also no mention of the ‘Land People’, who escaped from Vietnam through Cambodia. The probability of their survival was much lower than by sea.

From what I know, no government has taken official action for the memory work of the Boat People. In my opinion, the reason is not political. The French, at least the government, think that it is not up to it to do this work. Based on the publications of professional historians, I think that it is up to the Vietnamese communities to lobby effectively to trace the events accurately and allow the memory work to be done. What we know about this period of history is more about anecdotes than real documents, because French historians specializing in Vietnam are more interested in the events prior to the Boat People movement. It would be very helpful if a foundation could support this memory work.

The memory work has begun to be carried out by the younger Vietnamese generations of immigrant background through initiatives like the Fils Rouges Vietnam(‘Vietnam Red Wires’). The leaders of the movement are between 25 and 35 years old. They aim to convey the story of the Boat People to the new generations to prevent this period from being forgotten. Before talking about this generation, it is also necessary to talk about their parents. Because they have fled the country and have kept the memory of the Vietnam they knew alive, the parents tend to have a somewhat biased vision of the current Vietnam, which has evolved from the past, with new challenges and needs that are different from the Vietnam they knew.

Vietnam today is no longer what it was in the 1980s: the population no longer seeks to flee the country. This does not mean that the problems do no longer exist, but they are different. For parents, Vietnam remains a country in which no freedom exists. Young people do not have the same vision, probably because they do not share the same vision and concept of what they call freedom. In any case, I have the impression that a majority of Vietnamese born after 1975 do not have the vision (or the memory) of a country that has been subjected to a terrible fratricidal conflict, which had torn families and individuals for almost three decades. I frequently travel to Vietnam, where I can see that the Boat People era is definitively a part of the past now. This is understandable because the events did not happen during the life of most of the population.[7]There is some confusion over history. Vietnamese living in Vietnam sometimes confuse the American period with the French one. For young Vietnamese in France or in the United States, I think that Vietnam is perceived as the country of their parents. Those who are interested learn about Vietnam in a disconnected way, and probably without critical tools. It is for this reason that the testimonies of those who have lived through the events are always important.

There is very little intergenerational dialogue within the French Vietnamese community. I hosted a conference in the presence of Vietnamese who arrived in France during the Second World War. We listened to them but found a clear lack of intergenerational links. Everyone has their own view, which is determined by personal history. Vietnamese coming from North and South do not have the same vision at all. It is, therefore, necessary to trace the exact history of Vietnam. Understanding is very important because once you understand, you can put yourself in another person’s shoes, understand the decisions that have been made, and accept them. In the case of the Boat People, children blame their parents for having left Vietnam because the price was too high. And now, 35 years later, I think that it is not too late to do this memory work. It may even be a little too early.

Interview conducted by Julie Wagner on July 2, 2018 in Paris, under the direction of Ann-Sophie Schoepfel.

[1]Cap Anamuris a German NGO created in 1979 by Christel and Rupert Neudeck in response to the Boat People crisis. Rescue missions led by the association have helped rescue more than 10,000 people. The NGO continues to lead actions in crisis areas.






[7]In 2019, it is estimated that 35% of the Vietnamese population is under 25 years old.

Cite this blog post
Ann-Sophie Schoepfel (2019, November 21). Boat People rescue operation and memory. Interview with Anh Tuan Dinh-Xuan, a Franco-Vietnamese medical doctor at Parisian Cochin Hospital. Reconstructing Memory in European Cities. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from

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