A Rusting Freighter Spurred World Attention to a Refugee Crisis

The Hai Hong. Each refugee is believed to have paid 16 pieces of gold or US $3,200 for a place aboard the squalid Hai Hong. (Photo courtesy of Ian Hamilton)

When Saigon was overrun by Communist forces on April 30, 1975, thousands of Vietnamese began a rush for freedom. One of them was Luu Dat Phuoc, a successful businessman whose assets had been confiscated by the Communist government.

Luu’s businesses were in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City after Vietnam fell to Communist forces, and included an import-export business and an insurance company. He was also a commercial representative for several companies such as Alcan and Allied Chemical. “The Communists confiscated all banks and insurance companies, and big companies like importers and exporters,” he said. “They took everything.”

Because of his business dealings with foreigners, Luu was visited by police several times and taken to the police station for questioning. When the police mounted pressure in 1978, the Luu family decided it was time to leave the country, joining thousands of other Vietnamese who were streaming toward the treacherous seas in what was often a vain and tragic search for freedom. At the time, the exodus in Southeast Asia included Laotians and Cambodians who, like the Vietnamese, were fleeing repression and ethnic cleansing in the wake of Communist victories in once pro-Western countries.

The numbers were staggering. The outflow of people began as a trickle following the fall of Saigon, but by the fall of 1978 it had climbed to an unprecedented level of between 12,000 and 15,000 a month. The Vietnamese refugees were running from Communism and the fear of the unknown life they would face if sent to the New Economic Zones – basically jungle, where people lived without any housing and scraped to make a living. Young people feared military conscription, while those of Chinese ethnic origin were perturbed by a government decree denouncing them as traitors.

The escapees were generally known as “boat people,” a misnomer in some cases because some refugees, especially those from Laos and Cambodia, braved minefields and hostile patrols while fleeing by land to an uncertain welcome in Thailand. However, the nautical label predominated in the face of stunning reports about the number of refugees setting out in unseaworthy vessels, only to lose their lives to the angry seas or the pirates who lurked there. While there are no reliable figures, estimates are that one out of four escapees did not survive.

The survivors, like Luu, miraculously arrived on foreign shores, only to be greeted by hostile countries already buckling under the physical and financial burdens imposed by overcrowded refugee camps. It was not uncommon for unreceptive countries to push the refugees and their boats back to sea.


In spite of the incredible human suffering, the world did not seem to comprehend the scope of the unfolding tragedy. It took a rusty cargo vessel, the 1,568-ton Hai Hong, constructed in 1948, to shock the world to attention.

The Hai Hong was a Panamanian-registered freighter that was purchased for scrap and then turned into a refugee ship by its owners who charged the Vietnamese for passage. The vessel appeared off Port Klang, Malaysia on November 9, 1978 as that country struggled to maintain its overcrowded refugee camps. The Malaysian government declared that since the passengers, mainly Vietnamese of Chinese ethnic origin, had paid to leave Vietnam, they were not legitimate refugees.

The Malaysians feared that if they accommodated the Hai Hong passengers, other shiploads of refugees would soon appear on their doorstep. So, Malaysia threatened to tow the ship and its 2,500 passengers back to sea.

The threat came as a jolt to Canadian Immigration Minister at the time, Bud Cullen. “I felt Malaysia was calling our bluff and heaven knows they had every right to, having accepted something in excess of 35,000 refugees,” he said. For several tense days the passengers – men, women and children – languished aboard the squalid ship in suffocating heat while the international community dithered over a solution, concerned that the passengers had paid to leave their country with the connivance of Vietnamese authorities.

Cullen did not share the concern. “Many Jewish people in the Second World War had paid to get out of Europe,” he said, “but most assuredly they were refugees warranting and needing help.” Canada said it would wait on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to decide how to handle the problem, but “I was becoming very impatient and knew that we were not going to wait too long,” Cullen added. “We all knew that we were going to do something to take the leadership.”

Cullen continued, “Fortunately, the media were pushing both me and the department in the very direction that we wanted to go by constantly asking what we intended to do.” Members of Parliament were also asking questions in the House of Commons and telegrams and letters from the public were flowing into his department.

The tipping point came when Quebec Immigration Minister Jacques Couture announced that his province would be willing to accept at least 200 Hai Hong refugees or 30 per cent of the number Canada accepted, if that number exceeded 200. Cullen called it “the first real break” for Canada’s imminent involvement in helping to end the suffering aboard the Hai Hong. A few days after Couture’s offer, Cullen called a news conference in Toronto to announce that Canada would take 600 of the refugees for resettlement.

Overnight, a team of Canadians led by Immigration Officer Ian Hamilton was sent to Malaysia. The Canadians chose 604 Hai Hong passengers, and then whisked them off to Montreal aboard four Canadian military flights.

The Malaysians did not permit the Canadian team to board the Hai Hong, claiming there was a danger they would be taken hostage. So, the immigration interviews were conducted under an anti-aircraft gun on the cramped bow of the Malaysian minesweeper Brinchang, anchored in rough water mid-way between shore and the Hai Hong. The refugees were ferried by police launches to the minesweeper for the immigration interviews and afterward back to the ship. The only time the Canada-bound refugees were allowed to set foot on Malaysian soil was when they were taken to Kuala Lumpur to board the flights to Montreal.

One of the first refugees to reach the Brinchang laughed off the suggestion that the Canadians would be held hostage if they boarded the Hai Hong. Hamilton soon learned he was speaking to Luu Dat Phuoc whose family had disappeared two months earlier after boarding another refugee ship, the Southern Cross. After hearing Luu’s narrative of his lost family, Hamilton recalled that he had met such a family fitting the description.

“There was a noticeable wetness in Luu’s eyes and he trembled with joy when I told him that I knew the whereabouts of his family,” Hamilton recalled. The family was safe, living in an Indonesian refugee camp where three of Luu’s daughters had acted as Hamilton’s interpreters. Luu would never forget the day that Hamilton told him: “Your family has already been accepted to come to Canada.”

The first Hai Hong refugee to set foot on Malaysian soil was a two-and-a-half-year-old child, carried down a gangplank by Immigration Officer Ian Hamilton. (Photo courtesy of Ian Hamilton)

Hamilton, meanwhile vowed to “move heaven and earth” to fly Mrs. Luu and her six children from the refugee camp in Tajenpanang, Indonesia to Ottawa by Christmas. He succeeded and the Luu family was reunited on December 13, 1978 at the Ottawa International Airport.

As a result of Canada’s decision to take the first step in finding homes for the Hai Hong refugees, it encouraged other countries to join in accepting some of the stranded migrants. Eventually, every refugee aboard the ship found a new home.

By the end of 1978, Canada had accepted 9,040 Indochinese refugees for resettlement. Thousands of others, languishing in refugee camps, desperately needed new homes. It prompted the UNHCR to call an international conference in Geneva in July 1979 in an attempt to resolve the humanitarian crisis through greater resettlement efforts. By then, the number of those escaping Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had reached 60,000 a month.

Canada went to the Geneva conference ready to do its share. But public opinion polls in early 1979 showed that most Canadians were cool to the idea of increasing the number of Indochinese refugees coming to Canada.

In wake of the Hai Hong incident, however, the public was flooded with news stories about the conditions faced by refugees in overcrowded camps abroad. The stories had also ignited a rash of newspaper editorials and criticisms by refugee interest groups about the speed and adequacy of Canada’s response to a growing crisis in Southeast Asia.

It was in that contradictory environment that External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald and Immigration Minister Ron Atkey (the Progressive Conservatives defeated the Liberals in the May 1979 election) announced that Canada would accept 50,000 Indochinese refugees in 1979 and 1980. The intake was later increased by 10,000.

In all, 72 countries responded to the UNHCR’s appeal for a greater resettlement effort by pledging to take 260,000 refugees during the next 12 months, double the original target.

To cope with the movement of 60,000 refugees to Canada, some 3,000 a month, the government created the Indochinese Refugee Task Force and established two reception centres: one at Longue Pointe military base in Montreal, the other at Greisbach Barrack in Edmonton. The reception facilities provided incoming refugees with accommodation, medical care, food, clothing and employment counselling before moving to their final destinations across the country.

“The 1979-1980 movement was characterized by an unprecedented degree of citizen participation,” said Michael Molloy, former director of refugee policy at Immigration Canada and now president of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society. He was referring to the impact the Hai Hong incident had in raising public interest in a provision under the 1976 Immigration Act allowing for the private sponsorships of refugees. Some 34,000 of the 60,000 Indochinese refugees selected during 1979-1980 were privately-sponsored by church groups, service organizations and individual citizens.

“It was an extraordinary outpouring of concern and volunteerism across the country,” Molloy reflected. “People from all walks of life put their beliefs and values to the test in a spirit of helpfulness and purposeful cooperation by providing financial support and by helping refugees to integrate into their new communities.”

Canada did not always offer a warm welcome to immigrants of Asian origin. Back in 1885 the government imposed a head tax on Chinese migrants as a way of deterring them from coming to Canada. And by the early 1900s Canada was guarding its borders with some disingenuous rules to keep Asians out of the country. Take the case of the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru, which arrived in British Columbia on May 23, 1914 with 376 passengers from India. Only 20 returning residents were allowed to enter Canada. The others were refused permission to land because, in part, they had not made a continuous journey from India to Canada – a strict regulation at a time when passages from India required stopovers because of the distance.

In time, Canada’s values changed. After the end of the Second World War, Canadian attitudes toward Asian immigration evolved from rigid exclusion to the liberalization of immigration policy. With it came shifts in patterns of immigration. Prior to the 1970s, most immigrants came from European nations, but in recent years the largest group has come from Asia. Respondents in a 2011 Statistics Canada survey reported some 200 ethnic origins among them, making Canada today a nation with an ethnocultural mosaic.

The resettlement of Indochinese refugees 1975-1994 added more than 120,000 newcomers to Canada’s diversity: a society of mixed languages, cultures and religions. As for the Hai Hong, it not only succeeded in capturing public attention to a worsening refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, it also became the marshalling point that set Canada on the road to the largest resettlement movement in its history.

The rusty freighter that brought the human tragedy in Southeast Asia to the centre stage was put up for auction on April 1, 1981 by Malaysian authorities. But less than two months later, the Hai Hong sprung a leak. It now rests on its side, waterlogged and unwanted, off the shore near Port Klang, Malaysia.

Rene Pappone is author of the The Hai Hong: Profit, Tears and Joy, first published in 1982, and updated and revised in 2015.


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