Lessons for Today as Refugees International Marks an Important Anniversary

Today, July 19, is an important anniversary for those of us at Refugees International, whose founding is tied to the Indochinese boat crisis of 1979.

While the decision to establish Refugees International (RI)  was made in late June of that year, it was on July 19, thirty-nine years ago, that RI initiated its first large-scale public advocacy action on behalf of refugees. On that date, then-executive director Diane Lawson, along with one of RI’s founders, Michael Morrissey, published a full-page ad in the Washington Post. Addressed to U.S. senators and representatives, the advocacy letter called for increased support for Indochinese refugees, outlining recommendations for life-saving action.

On July 19, 1979, Refugees International published a full-page ad in the Washington Post, calling on U.S. senators and representatives to increase support for Indochinese refugees.

Later that evening, crowds of people huddled in front of the Lincoln Memorial at a concert featuring Joan Baez and rallied support for resettling Indochinese refugees. In attendance were some 10,000 people including Sue Morton and Michael Morrissey, founders of RI, and Diane Lawson, the first executive director of RI in Washington, D.C. Many other friends of the new organization were among the hundreds who joined a candle-lit march to the north side of the White House, urging the then president Jimmy Carter to assist the refugees fleeing Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

The humanitarian situation in Southeast Asia was indeed dire following the victory of communist forces in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Outflows of refugees from Vietnam in particular escalated dramatically in the months leading to July 1979 due to nationalization of the private sector in the south, abuses against religious communities, and practices designed to drive out ethnic Chinese. So called “boat people” were dying at sea in very large numbers, and the human tragedy unfolding required swift action.

As the leaders of RI and the other protesters approached the White House singing “Amazing Grace,” they were surprised to see a door open and President Carter walk out to greet demonstrators from the south lawn. He told Baez and the crowd that he had ordered the U.S. 7th Fleet to rescue the boat people and bring them to safety. “We can’t let your people die,” he promised to a group of marchers who were of Vietnamese descent.  

President Carter talks with singer Joan Baez in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington in 1979. Baez just returned from a fact-finding trip in Southeast Asia. (UPI Photo/Frank Cancellare/Files)

Sending the 7th Fleet was one of the recommendations RI leaders had lain out for U.S. policymakers in their advocacy letter in the Washington Post. They called on Congress to provide ships and planes for an urgent rescue mission to remove 100,000 refugees trapped at sea; to allow the immediate entry of 100,000 refugees, in addition to the then-monthly quota of 14,000 admissions, raised the previous month from 7,000; and to reopen housing and processing facilities used in 1975 to support large-scale of refugee arrivals.

In the days following RI’s advocacy march on Washington, President Carter sent Vice President Walter Mondale to head the U.S. Delegation at a special Geneva Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in Southeast Asia on July 20 and 21. Mondale mobilized the international community with an impassioned speech that urged states to fashion a world solution to the Indochinese refugee crisis, a challenge he framed starkly in moral terms.  

Vietnamese refugees in South China Sea are rescued by Medecins du Monde (Doctors of The World) on board the Goelo boat (Photo by Michel Setboum/Getty Images)

The conference produced a package of support and resettlement offers for Indochinese refugees from first asylum countries in Southeast Asia. The immediate crisis was averted, refugee protection was reaffirmed, and lives were saved.

U.S. leadership in Geneva helped the international community come to an agreement, and, informed by the administration’s action, Members of Congress subsequently took additional measures to demonstrate U.S. support for refugees and humanitarianism. Led by Senator Kennedy and Rep. Peter Rodino, each house of Congress enacted (and President Carter signed) the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act. In the Senate, the vote was unanimous, and in the House, it passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 207 to 192. The U.S. Refugee Act created clear procedures for admission and resettlement of refugees in the United States and brought U.S. legislation into greater conformity with U.S. obligations under the Refugee Convention and Protocol.

At a moment in U.S. history when political leaders have vilified refugees and sought to impose policies informed by fear and ignorance about the contributions of new Americans, the events around the founding of Refugees International offer a different lesson. It is a critical lesson about humanitarian leadership based on U.S. values and U.S. interests in an increasingly diverse world.