Securing an Orderly Departure for Afghan Refugees

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Drawing comparisons between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam has become a cottage industry. But as commentators continue to argue over what we should learn from both tragedies, there is a more positive lesson to be found in how Washington dealt with the humanitarian aftermath of its defeat in Vietnam.

After the fall of Saigon, the United States faced the question of how to help the countless interpreters, soldiers, and bureaucrats who were left behind. Well over 100,000 Vietnamese were evacuated by sea and air during the last few days of April 1975 — similar to the number of Afghans evacuated in August of this year. But the biggest exodus only came later. While a small number of refugees steadily fled Vietnam after 1975, the mass migration of Vietnamese remembered as the “Boat People” did not pick up until mid-1978.



In response to this crisis, the United States instituted a program called Orderly Departure. Though politically unpopular at the time, this effort ultimately facilitated the successful resettlement of some 500,000 Vietnamese refugees in the United States. Looking back at how Orderly Departure worked shows both the possibility and importance of a similar effort today.

Orderly Departure

By mid-1979, there were an estimated 350,000 Indochinese refugee in camps in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, the vast majority from Vietnam. These included people who had worked for U.S. entities or for the South Vietnamese government, and therefore possibly faced re-education camps or other persecution. It also included many who were fleeing economic hardship or general oppression, especially the ethnic Chinese minority, viewed with suspicion by Hanoi as a potential fifth column for China. These refugees faced terrible hardships — death at sea, predation by pirates, and the threat of being “pushed back” if they did reach another country. An unknown number died on their journeys, with estimates ranging from 10 to 50 percent of those who fled.

A key element of the international response to this humanitarian disaster was the Orderly Departure Program. Established by a 1979 memorandum of understanding between the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the government of Vietnam, it was intended to “provide a safe and legal means for people to leave Vietnam rather than clandestinely by boat.” Experts with long memories have already suggested using the Orderly Departure Program as a model for the current challenge, and so it may be useful to examine the program in some detail. Under this program, countries prepared to accept refugees provided lists of those individuals to the government of Vietnam. The government of Vietnam in turn provided lists of citizens eligible to emigrate. Names on one list but not the other were the subject of bilateral negotiations.

The United States accepted applications in three categories: family members of persons in the United States not currently eligible for immigrant visas; former employees of the U.S. government; and other persons closely associated or identified with the U.S. presence in Vietnam, a category that included Amerasian children left behind by U.S. servicemembers and their families.

Even before the United States and Vietnam reestablished formal diplomatic relations in 1995, consular officers from the State Department and representatives from the Immigration and Nationalities Service traveled to Vietnam to interview applicants, with the Orderly Departure Program eventually establishing a permanent office in Ho Chi Minh City. From 1979 until the program closed at the end of 1999, the program processed over 500,000 Vietnamese for admission to the United States as refugees and immigrants. Almost half were resettled to join family members in the United States. The number also included over 4000 former U.S. government employees. In 1989, the United States created a special program under the Orderly Departure Program that helped some 165,000 former re-education camp detainees and their families resettle in the United States. In total, between 1975 and 2000, the United States resettled about 900,000 Vietnamese, including many resettled from the refugee camps in the region.

There were of course many shortcomings in the Orderly Departure Program process, including allegations the would-be emigrants had to pay bribes to obtain their exit documents.  Moreover, not all of those who wanted to escape from the hardships of life in Vietnam qualified for inclusion. From the perspective of 2021, however, it is fair to judge the Orderly Departure Program a success. It reduced the flow of “boat people,” saving the lives of many would-be refugees and mitigating the impact on Vietnam’s neighbors, which included U.S. allies and partners. It showed the United States, however belatedly, taking responsibility for “its own” Vietnamese. Other countries also participated, taking over 100,000 refugees, with Canada and Australia the largest participants.

Lessons for Today

What lessons can we learn from this history? Three are particularly important.  First, despite decades of war and enmity, the government of Vietnam was willing to cooperate with the international community in this project. This did not require great altruism. Hanoi managed to cultivate a more positive relationship with the international community through its cooperation and rid itself of a difficult minority at the same time. Second, the United States and other countries missed the opportunity to take effective action starting in 1975 to address the legitimate fears of the many thousands of Vietnamese who had opposed the communist takeover. The tidal wave of Vietnamese fleeing as repression and hunger spread had a destabilizing effect throughout the region, as neighboring countries struggled to cope with the endless flow of refugees. The international community should not have waited to act until untold thousands had died at sea, or swamped refugee camps from Thailand to Hong Kong. Third, the international institutions fulfilled their role, with the U.N. high commissioner for refugees providing a serviceable umbrella under which the United States and others could support orderly emigration.

Would the new government in Afghanistan agree to a program similar to the Orderly Departure Program? The obvious answer is we won’t know until we try. The international community has reasonable leverage at this point, given the dependence of Afghanistan on international support. The kinds of Afghans most likely to be helped by an Orderly Departure Program — non-governmental organization workers, former employees of foreign governments, Kabul bureaucrats — are unlikely to be seen as a big loss to the Taliban, already coping with protests from citizens unwilling to give up the rights that they have enjoyed in recent years.

How large would such a program be? Afghanistan has a population of 38 million, compared to 49 million in Vietnam in 1975. The nature of America’s involvement in Afghanistan was far more limited than in Vietnam. Most importantly, if the international community acts quickly to provide a safe and legal pathway out for cases of humanitarian concern — and acts to help prevent a complete collapse of the Afghan economy to mitigate economic migration — it can hopefully avoid the kind of tragic mass exodus that Vietnam experienced. If endangered Afghans know there is ultimately a safety net for them to resettle if necessary, they may be less likely to flee as refugees.

Political Resistance

Using the model of the Orderly Departure Program provides one possible answer to the question of how to help Afghans at risk of persecution. Now the only thing necessary is the political will.

It is easy to forget that the resettlement of Vietnamese and other refugees from the Vietnam War was very unpopular in the United States at the time. In 1975, a Time poll showed that only 36 percent of Americans favored admitting Vietnamese refugees. Governor Jerry Brown vociferously opposed initial efforts to resettle evacuees in California. After the initial influx from the 1975 evacuation, opposition stayed fairly steady: A CBS/New York Times poll from 1979 asking whether the United States should double admission of refugees from Indochina to 14,000 per month found that 62 percent opposed the change.

Although the Ford and Carter administrations and Congress provided bipartisan support for resettlement efforts, many voters felt differently. The first wave of refugees in 1975 had, on average, some education and were more likely to speak English. The later wave of “boat people,” by contrast, were less likely to have language skills or education to assist their resettlement — they competed for entry-level employment with Americans already facing economic problems in the recession that began in 1980. Along the Gulf Coast, extreme tensions over fishing practices erupted into violence, led by the Ku Klux Klan. Many Americans harbored highly emotional resentment of all Vietnamese due to the trauma of the war.

At the same time, American organizations and individuals stepped up to help these newcomers, and the resettled Vietnamese showed impressive qualities of resilience.  While we need to avoid the mistake of grouping all Asian-Americans into the category of “model minority,” most Americans today would see Vietnamese refugees as a success story, particularly as the generation of Vietnamese-Americans who came as children or who were born in the United States take their place as members of Congress, award-winning authors, entrepreneurs, and scientists. The United States made the right decision in 1979 to establish the Orderly Departure Program, and can apply the lessons learned from that experience to live up to its responsibilities in Afghanistan today.



Susan Sutton was a member of the Senior Foreign Service. In addition to other postings in Washington, Asia, and Eastern Europe, she served as deputy chief of mission in Vietnam and in Laos, and has worked on refugee issues in both Asia and Europe. The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.

Image: State Department (Photo by Ron Przysucha)