Sunday, 24 May 2015

Sinking Feeling

When my family moved to live in Hong Kong in the late 1970’s the issue of the Vietnamese Boatpeople was global headline news. By way of a reminder: In September 1978 1,200 Vietnamese had been unloaded onto an uninhabited island belonging to Indonesia and a month later another ship tried to dump 2,500 refugees on Malaysia – Malaysia denied them entry and the boat sat offshore until third counties offered them homes. Over the following years many boats made the voyage away from Vietnam; a significant number of these were attacked by pirates or sank. People spent exorbitant sums of money to secure “safe” passage on inappropriate, overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels with no guarantee of a warm welcome on a foreign shore. Thousands of people died. Current events in the Far East and the Mediterranean feel like déjà vu.

This picture, taken on May 14 2015, shows Rohingya migrants 
on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea

“What have the Boatpeople’s plight got to do with the world of work?” you might ask. Although, clearly not so desperate – work is seldom a matter of life or death – the situations present an extreme example of how humans behave, particularly when under pressure. Unscrupulous people should be avoided in any environment. If an organisation is unpleasant to work in, or management are toxic in the way they interact with employees, or there is concern over the financial stability of the business, then good employees, who are able to do, will leave. It is possible to turn the tide on a flood of valued individuals leaving a business, provided that you are honest about the issues and take action to address the problems? I was working in Professional Services when the global economic crisis hit and the firm I was with was severely impacted - it had traditionally acted as a top advisor to leading banks and financial institutions and, although our areas of expertise fell outside the area of products and approaches that people now say triggered the collapse, our clients were under severe pressure. Many customers indefinitely delayed or even ceased paying our bills, usually without prior warning. (So much for mutual respect and collaboration.)

We had to reduce headcount and restructure. We could have simply made people redundant and focused our efforts on the remaining business, but we knew that not only was that morally wrong (and in addition would cast us in a poor light in front of our clients, competitors, the media and other third parties) but also that by doing so we would damage our reputation as an employer with the people we wanted to attract and retain in the future – employees (and prospective employees) were unnerved and they needed to know that we cared and wanted to support them. We went out of our way to find opportunities to redeploy skills: internally we encouraged people to cross into new practice areas; we flew representatives from Australian and New Zealand firms (both areas where the global economic crisis had minimal impact) to London to meet with our best Antipodean-originated employees. Many of our Australian and New Zealand colleagues had stated, on joining, that they intended to return to their homelands when commencing families or to care for aging parents when the time was right. We provided them with an opportunity to return home, with a good job and security, thereby reducing the pressure on those employees who wished to remain. We supported all leavers in finding new roles, sometimes in collaboration with other businesses. I myself was subsequently provided with a fascinating employment opportunity through a colleague whom I had helped to relocate to Egypt. As a firm, we did the right things and I am proud of it. My former employer has continued to flourish (it has just opened yet another influential office in Asia) and is respected as a leader in its field. True leaders lead by example.

But, back to the Boatpeople… The reasons for migration are complex and emotionally charged – usually there are economic, social or religious causes at their roots. Some reasons for the 2015 Boatpeople are economic - farmers are committing suicide in India and Bangladesh due to crop losses caused by persistent bad weather. (Indian cotton producers have tough times ahead – last year’s harvest was abundant resulting in a slump in prices, this year’s yield will be poor, so farmers will only have a small amount to sell with deflated prices.) The thought of watching your family starve is enough to drive people to desperate acts. Oppressive governments force people to flee – all of the 900 Boatpeople who died trying to reach Europe last month were Eritrean - Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive regimes. In Asia, the Rohingya Boatpeople from Myanmar are Moslems who face persecution and potential annihilation in their villages and hence choose to risk losing their lives in order to escape.  

Myanmar migrants crammed into the hull of a fishing boat,
as seen by Myanmar police on 23 May 2015
Photo - Myanmar Information Ministry
Governments are beginning to respond to this humanitarian crisis. About 7,000 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh have spent weeks at sea, but finally Malaysia and Indonesia have offered to provide temporary shelter (to those who manage to land on their soil) and Myanmar rescued two boats of migrants on Friday. However, I remain concerned, the root causes and some of the worst evils are being ignored. European leaders’ proposed solution to the problem in the Mediterranean is to capture and destroy the traffickers’ vessels – by sending warships into Libya’s territorial waters. To me this feels like a reaction rather than a solution – people flee countries to seek a better life elsewhere. The reason for the Boatpeople is not the availability of boats, it is the conditions they have to endure in their home countries that compel them to leave. Surely a better solution would be to tackle the root causes and hence remove the need to flee? Morally it seems wrong to trap would-be migrants in what we know are appalling conditions of persecution or hardship with no safe alternative routes to escape. If we can help these people to enjoy positive, productive existences and feel safe in their home countries, by resolving the problems there, than the need to trust their lives to unprincipled extortionists and con men and embark in unsafe boats will cease.

Migrant boat in distress in the Mediterranean
Photo: TORM A/S
People trafficking is a trade that has gone on via Thailand for years. But now, it isn’t just buying and selling bonded labour, it is a ransom trade with huge sums of money being made by evil people. Entire Thai communities are now getting involved – bought off by traffickers to prevent the hostages escaping. Holding camps exist in the bush for trafficked migrants  - originally exploited Rohindras from Myanmar were the victims, but it is now expanding with people being held from Bangladesh.  Impoverished families back in home countries are extorted into paying large sums (thousands of pounds) to release relatives. It requires political will to make this practice cease.

Rescue workers in southern Thailand inspecting a mass grave.
There are many deaths in trafficker camps in the Thai jungle.
Another aspect of the current situation that worries me is the on going issue of resettlement. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have stipulated that they will help Boatpeople, on condition that there is resettlement of these migrants into other countries within one year. This feels reminiscent of the situation I experienced in Hong Kong over two decades ago.

Between 1975 and 1995, despite the tiny size of the territory, it is only 426 square miles, Hong Kong took in more than 200,000 Vietnamese Boatpeople and the government established 40 refugee camps at different times to deal with the crisis. The last camp, Pillar Point, was closed in 2000.  The fall of Saigon (and hence the shift from capitalism to communism) was the trigger that commenced the exodus from Vietnam. In mid-1975 circa 50,000 Vietnamese (mainly former US employees and ex-government officials) left by air or sea. From late 1975 to 1977 a monthly average of 1,500 people fled, mainly in small fishing boats, these numbers rose significantly in 1978 – when syndicates from Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, with links in southern Vietnam, accepted money from people wishing to escape (would be refugees paid on average ten taels of gold for each adult and five taels for each child, to be transported in abandoned freighters. A tael is 50g of gold (circa £1,251 in today’s money) and would have been significantly more than the average annual salary of a Vietnamese citizen at the time.

Vietnamese refugees scramble from a sinking boat which they beached at Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia December 1978, file photo  

From January 1979 Malaysia and Thailand stopped accepting Boatpeople, this example was swiftly followed by Indonesia and the Philippines. The situation was declared an international crisis and a conference was held in Geneva, in July 1979, to determine what to do. Unlike other locations, during this time Hong Kong did not turn people away. In the late 1970’s, when I lived in Hong Kong, my mother and I assisted as volunteers in a camp established for Boatpeople. The migrants in Hong Kong were referred to as “I.I.s” – short for ”Illegal immigrants” and were a cause of local as well as international concern. The discrepancy between local poverty and those in the camps provided with food, shelter and comfort was a problem in itself. International aid was offered – I remember a consignment of highchairs, with sturdy wooden seats and legs, being delivered. I also remember these going missing and then seeing odd-shaped chopping boards suddenly appearing in the local market (with four distinctive holes, where chair legs had once been, and other indentations for struts and backrest). Local people begrudged the money and support being given to the I.I.s when they themselves were living close to the breadline.

My comments are not intended as a criticism of Hong Kong and its people, despite the financial and social pressure, every migrant was granted temporary first asylum. No boat was ever refused. However, part of the agreement made in Geneva was that resettlement host countries were allowed to select whom they would take – this caused significant issues as many found it hard to gain opportunities overseas and those that did were usually offered menial jobs, such as civic cleaning despite their qualifications and experience. 

Demonstration against boat people in UK, 1979
Their plight was harsh, but so too was that of the many left waiting in camps in unhappy and unfulfilling existences. This latter issue is one that many of us have ignored. I was very struck by the comments in a book, The Invisible Citizens of Hong Kong by Sophia Law Suk-mun, published late last year. It is a compilation of memories of Vietnamese Boatpeople who migrated to Hong Kong and includes art and poetry. I was moved by the words of Le Huynh, an inmate in Hong Kong, who described their refugee camp as 
“This bestial prison … a thousand miles long, With its head in Vietnam and its tail in Hong Kong.” 
Vietnamese refugees in Kai Tak East camp, Hong Kong
 And I would like to leave you with words from a poem: 
Freedom… Freedom!
Those simple sweet words
For us, poor people escaping the homeland
Sailing across oceans
Trying to find happiness
That’s all we need 
People of the world, we looking to you
Please help us to be free
Please let the children
No longer cry
For their forgotten fates
Please, the free world
Open your arms
To rescue us
Poor people without a country.

Please Do Not Abandon Us, by Kieu Mong Thu, a former Vietnamese Boat Person who was in a camp in Hong Kong (published in Aug 1991). 

We need to break what seems to be becoming a shameful repetitive cycle.

Cartoon from Melbourne Herald, 1979

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