NEWS & EVENTS | October 1, 2019

Research Project Focuses on Indochinese Refugees

Phi-Vân Nguyen, professor and researcher at Université de Saint-Boniface.


A research project led by Phi-Vân Nguyen, professor at Université de Saint-Boniface since 2017, has been awarded a grant of close to $100,000 from the Insight Program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Professor Nguyen’s work will examine the Indochinese refugee crisis between 1975 and 1995.

At an international conference in Geneva in 1979, representatives from 60 countries agreed to guarantee automatic asylum to anyone fleeing the Indochinese peninsula. The research project will demonstrate how this conference was motivated as much by political interests as it was by humanitarian concerns.

Tensions between Vietnam on the one hand, and Cambodia and China on the other, came to a head in 1978 and 1979 during the Third Indochina War, resulting in an unprecedented refugee crisis. Remarkably, the solution initially put in place (the granting of refugee status, the provision of temporary housing and resettlement) was maintained up to the end of the Cold War in 1989.

“The fact that the UN abruptly ended this program shows that it was not implemented solely to protect people as per the 1951 Refugee Convention,” says Professor Nguyen. “Rather, it served to promote an ideology,” she proposes. “The 1979 conference established a system to protect vulnerable persons, but it also took a political position: Vietnam’s expansionism was deemed so dangerous that asylum was granted to anyone who was eligible for it.”

Professor Nguyen’s project will also examine how “refugees from communism” have been portrayed over the years. According to Nguyen, this representation reveals a gap between the way refugees are recognized under international law and the protection they actually receive within various political, economic or cultural contexts.

The project will also look at how humanitarian associations, charities and religious groups have responded to these refugees over the years.

Phi-Vân Nguyen has assembled a diverse team of researchers to work on the project. Two students, Hannah Klos (Education) and Sophie Sickert (Arts), will analyze media coverage of the refugee crisis in the Globe and Mail and The New York Times. A student at the École technique et professionnelle (ETP) will design the project’s visual elements, including the logo, computer graphics and website — no small task, as they all will be produced in three languages: French, English and Vietnamese.

This research project will lead to a number of publications and scientific papers with an international reach. The website will host various archival records from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Secretariat (UNS) in New York, in addition to primary sources, a timeline, maps, workshop proposals and computer graphics, to help researchers and students learn about the 1979 conference.

The research project will conclude in summer 2020.

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