VIETNAMESE IN PALAWAN BUILD LIVES ON FRAGILE HOPE


2004-01-23
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Remaining boat people are still stateless, dream of a decent life

On a Philippine national highway, just north of Palawan, is a sign to �Vietville��a struggling community of several hundred Vietnamese boat people who arrived in the Philippines seeking a better life during the 1970s and 80s.

One of the first buildings that appears on the route into the village is the Vietville Restaurant, a traditional building of bamboo and wood where tourists come to try Vietnamese food and look around the village. It aptly symbolizes the provisional existence of Vietville�s residents.

�We have to endure so much hardship,� Nguyen Van Huyen, a community leader, told RFA�s Vietnamese service. �For 14 years, especially the last seven, when the [U.N.] High Commissioner for Refugees had stopped subsidizing, when all the help had been exhausted, when everybody had abandoned us, we had to survive with our empty hands.�

Nguyen Van Huyen, vice chairman of the executive committee of the Vietnamese community in the Philippines, said his community had struggled to make a life of sorts, �through good health or bad health, trying to survive in a society foreign to us from language to customs to religion.�

Vietnam Village was created in 1996, when all the refugee camps in the Philippines for the Vietnamese who had escaped from their country were closed�and the government, like those in other Asian countries, started a forced repatriation program. The repatriation program in the Philippines was abandoned following intervention by the Catholic Church after only one flight had left for Vietnam.

Many of its inhabitants failed to pass a screening process aimed at identifying genuine refugees eligible for resettlement in a third country. With the help of the Church and other non-governmental organizations, the village set out to keep its pledge that the Vietnamese in the Philippines wouldn�t drain Philippine resources.

While 580 boat people were accepted recently by Australia for resettlement�the result of a lengthy campaign by Vietnamese Australian lawyer Trinh Hoi�the rest were left to scrape by as best they could.

Meanwhile, two campaigns continue on their behalf: one by Trinh Hoi in the United States for resettlement in that country, and another by Catholic nun Le Tri Thiu, who wants Manila to grant full and permanent residency rights to the remaining Vietnamese in the country.

�The mayor of this town is very sympathetic to the Vietnamese people here,� Le Tri Thiu told RFA. �Besides, we�ve had a long history with this locality... They claim they have no rights because of their status, but actually they do have the right to do business. They have the right to rent, to pay taxes etc., like any citizens here.�

While many people in Vietvillage still dream of a reunion with loved ones in the United States, they face more immediate problems related to their stateless status.

�My son studies very hard, a valedictorian from the maritime institute,� said Minh Hau, who runs a cottage industry making traditional Vietnamese fish sauce. �If you were from a well-known school, Japanese ships would come every year to offer you internships. When my son was asked but had no passport, they withdrew their internship offer.�

�I very much wish to become a permanent resident,� she said. �That would allow my son to continue his studies, and I could have my fish sauce on display for sale in supermarkets. I wish to be allowed to live here because the Filipino people are very peaceful and kind. It�s just that, without legal documents, I feel unsettled.�

Catholic priest Nguyen Kim Phuc, who fled Vietnam by boat in 1989, was granted resettlement in the United States after a three-year stay in Vietvillage, partly because he is a priest and partly because he served seven years in jail under Vietnam�s Communist leadership.

He told RFA his chief hope for the remaining boat people in the Philippines was simple. �I wish all the refugees could find true freedom, and then live a respected life� in the eyes of the church and of human society.� #####

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