Managing the “Boat People” Crisis: The Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees

A thirty-five-foot fishing boat approaches a US navy ship 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after eight days at sea, May 15, 1984. US Department of the Navy.

Spanning a period of twenty-one years, the Vietnamese “boat people” exodus was the last major refugee crisis of the Cold War. The international response agreed on in Geneva in 1979 was in line with Western Cold War values, but by 1988 it had begun to unravel. The new international response took the form of the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA), which was in place from 1989 to 1996.

This paper offers a detailed look at the process of negotiating the CPA, its contents, how it was received, and its implementation. At the time it was agreed, the CPA was revolutionary in two ways: first, it was comprehensive, and second, it was predicated on the right of Vietnamese boat people to land and to be processed for refugee status. As a result, the CPA both saved lives and marked the transition from blanket recognition of refugee status to individual status determination—all in a region whose countries had not ratified the Refugee Convention.

While all refugee situations are different, the CPA provides lessons and conclusions that could inform responses to other refugee crises:

  • Initial discussions leading to the CPA depended on individual-led, field-driven initiative.
  • In breaking from previous approaches to refugee crises, the CPA faced significant opposition.
  • Involving the country of origin—Vietnam—was essential to implementing the response.
  • The CPA benefited from a single agency—UNHCR—taking the lead.
  • Despite the CPA, most countries in the region continued to reject the Refugee Convention.
  • The mass information campaign conducted in Vietnam was crucial to the CPA’s success.
  • One of the main achievements of the CPA was to address the population movement in general, including both refugees and migrants.