Nguyen on Lipman, 'In Camps: Vietnamese Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Repatriates'

Jana K. Lipman
Phi-Vân Nguyen

Jana K. Lipman. In Camps: Vietnamese Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Repatriates. Critical Refugee Studies Series. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. Illustrations. 319 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-34366-5.

Reviewed by Phi-Vân Nguyen (Université de Saint-Boniface) Published on H-Asia (November, 2020) Commissioned by Bradley C. Davis (Eastern Connecticut State University)

Printable Version:

Jana K. Lipman is a history professor specializing in the social history of US foreign policy. Her most recent book, In Camps: Vietnamese Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Repatriates, is the first publication of the Critical Refugee Studies series published by the University of California Press. The book analyzes the politics of refugee protection during the Southeast Asian refugee crisis between 1975 and 2005. It seeks to answer “questions that remain all too relevant today: Who is a refugee? Who determines this status? And how do the experiences of refugees resonate at the highest political levels and in local communities that are often imagined to be in the most peripheral places?” (p. 4).

While much attention has been given to the context of departure and the policies of countries of destination, this book claims that one must not overlook what happens between these two points, in countries of temporary asylum and processing centers. The book challenges the idea that camps are irrelevant to the politics of refugee protection and that refugees are apolitical and passive victims. In fact, a close analysis of camps, their organization, and forms of protests in camps, as well as the relationships between the host country and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), or its former colonial power or current ally, such as the United Kingdom or the United States, reveals that time, place, and context strongly influence whether a person qualifies as a refugee. This approach shows both the contingent and dynamic nature of refugee status determination, and its underlying politics.

The book uses various UNHCR archives; governmental documents from the United Kingdom, the United States, Hong Kong, and a few from Malaysia; and newspaper articles from the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Guam. In Camps is not an exhaustive study of all camps in Southeast Asia. It focuses on Guam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Each chapter analyzes a different camp at different times between 1975 and 2005. The first chapter studies the embarrassment of the US government and Guam authorities when two thousand refugees debarked there and demanded to return to Vietnam in 1975. The next chapter argues that Malaysia’s refusal to host refugees in 1978 led the UNHCR and the United States to find a solution to the refugee crisis by organizing a conference in July 1979, allowing persons arriving in special processing centers to qualify as de facto refugees. The third chapter studies how the opening of a camp in the Philippines responded to international efforts to establish a temporary refugee center all the while satisfying the Filipino government’s desire to develop the Bataan economy where the camp was located. Chapter 4 examines how frustrations expressed in Hong Kong pushed the United Nations to end the recognition of refugee status to persons arriving in these camps. Chapter 5 studies the transnational mobilization of public opinion against the forced repatriation of rejected asylum seekers back to Vietnam from 1989 to 1997. The last chapter examines how many refugees resettled in Palawan between 1996 to 2005, thanks to the efforts of local Catholic communities. The book ends with an epilogue reflecting on the US Department of Homeland and Security’s decision to deport any Vietnamese who had been convicted of a deportable offense in 2017.

The book’s strongest parts focus on what happened in these temporary places of transition. Previous scholarship on the Southeast Asian refugee crisis has mostly studied the lived experience of displacement, such as the escape from Vietnam, life in camps, or the challenges of integrating into resettlement countries.[1] A few have analyzed the politics of refugee protection from a legal, regional, or national perspective.[2] Lipman’s book contributes to this second trend of the literature. First, it shows that politics are definitely involved in refugee protection. Second, the book demonstrates that a close study of the politics of refugee protection requires an analysis looking across local, regional, and international dimensions. It takes a global look at these camps and uses the analytical framework of empire studies to understand this refugee crisis. These new insights, applied to the study of international relations during the Cold War, have shown that superpowers were not the only ones influencing their allies’ policies. Smaller countries also played an outsized role because they were the ones who mediated and enabled the superpower’s influence across the globe.[3] In Camps shows that small countries of temporary asylum are neither interchangeable nor negligible, and that they are key actors in the politics of refugee protection. The book’s focal point on the regional level and on activism in camps is therefore a significant contribution to the understanding of refugee protection.

However, the book suffers from several shortcomings. The biggest problem lies in the interpretive choice of using case studies to make larger claims on the Southeast Asian refugee crisis. In Camps warns the reader that it focuses on the departure by sea and therefore leaves aside the Orderly Departure Program, which allowed the UNHCR to screen potential applicants for resettlement overseas from within Vietnam, and refugees in camps in China, Vietnam, or Thailand. However, the author does not explain how this choice has significant implications on the analysis. By focusing on Vietnamese refugees leaving by boat, In Camps gives the impression that their fate was not related to those escaping overland. And by ignoring the humanitarian crisis on mainland Southeast Asia, it also cannot take into account the impact of the Third Indochina War (briefly mentioned on page 57) and the ten-year-long Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia on the global protection of refugees.

Using specific case studies spanning from 1975 to 2005 also raises an important question: can individual case studies explain what happened elsewhere in the region? Lipman invites the reader to “move” or “travel” from one camp to another, without justifying the choice of each case study (pp. 19–20). Without knowing if each of these camps are key actors, representative of other camps, or an exception rather than the rule, the reader cannot appreciate the analytical value of these case studies. 

Some chapters seem to overstretch the importance of certain events relevant to that camp only, at the expense of other developments occurring in the region. Chapter 2 claiming that Malaysia’s reluctance to host refugees led to the creation of an international system of refugee resettlement in 1979 is a case in point. According to Lipman, Malaysia’s position reflected its determination to defend its sovereignty and popular anxieties toward ethnic Chinese arriving by boats, and pushed the UNHCR and the United States to find a solution for the refugee crisis so that they would not have to carry the burden alone. But the chapter fails to put what happened in Malaysia into perspective. The chapter opens with Mohamed Mahathir’s explosive declaration on June 5, 1979, that he will pass a bill allowing coast guards to shoot newcomers at sight. The hope was that this would shock public opinion and push both the United States and the UNHCR to change their policy. In reality, the call to change the international policy was made a week earlier, on May 31, when the newly elected British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, urged the secretary general to convene an international conference.

It is just as hard to accept the claim that “the Malaysian government forged its own path.... It would allow thousands of Vietnamese to stay..., but it would do so on its own terms” (p. 54). In fact, most of its decisions mimicked the policies of other Southeast Asian countries. For example, chapter 2 says that Malaysia’s refusal to let the Hai Hong, a cargo ship loaded with 2,500 people, land on its coast proved a turning point for Malaysia’s policy and the management of the refugee crisis in the region. But the chapter does not explain that the Indonesian coast guards had already pushed the same boat back to international waters, and that Singapore and Australia had flat out announced that they would not let it disembark its passengers just days before.[4] Finally, it is disappointing to see that In Camps only mentions that “Thailand and Hong Kong were tipping points” in the crisis, while giving the impression that Malaysia alone inspired a change of policy from the UNHCR and the United States (p. 79). Things were much more complicated.

These examples all point to the same conclusion. It is difficult, if not impossible, to focus on one case study to explain the making of an international solution. It seems even more complicated to do so when the solution itself had to be solved multilaterally precisely because it involved refusals and lack of commitment from so many actors. It was because the refugee crisis was no one’s problem that it had to become everybody’s problem. Like so many other international events, monocausal approaches cannot explain the refugee crisis and its settlement. Certain historical events are international in nature and require a global analysis of their causes, even when zooming into smaller local or national case studies. The Southeast Asian refugee crisis is one of them.

Any beginner wishing a broad overview of the Southeast Asian refugee crisis should stick with more general narratives, such as general accounts of UNHCR history (The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action [2000]) or Courtland Robinson’s previous study (Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and International Response [1998]). But Lipman’s book underscores the politics of refugee protection, the dynamics involved, its contested nature, the fluid process of refugee protection, and the role of refugees and intermediary states in this process. For all these reasons, In Camps is a welcome contribution to the understanding of the Southeast Asian refugee crisis.


[1]. The UNHCR produced a succinct analysis in UNHCR, The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action (Geneva: UNHCR, 2000). A more comprehensive account can be found in Courtland Robinson, Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and International Response (New York: Zed Books, 1998). The literature on the escape and experience in camps is vast. For a recent contribution, see Quan Tue Tran, “Remembering the Boat People Exodus: A Tale of Two Memorials,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 7, no. 3 (2012): 80–121. For recent scholarship on resettlement countries, see Yen Le Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Phuong Tran Nguyen, Becoming Refugee American: The Politics of Rescue in Little Saigon (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017); and Karine Meslin, Les Réfugiés du Mékong, Cambodgiens, Laotiens et Vietnamiens en France (Bourdeaux: Détours, 2020).

[2]. For an analysis of the legal perspective, see Sarah Davies, Legitimising Rejection: International Refugee Law in Southeast Asia (Leiden: Brill, 2007). For an analysis of the national and regional interests of Southeast Asian states related to refugee protection, see Astri Suhrke, Indochinese Refugees: The Impact of First Asylum Countries and Implications for American Policy, A Study Prepared for the Use of the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1980); Frank Frost, “Vietnam, ASEAN and the Indochinese Refugee Crisis,” Southeast Asian Affairs 7 (1980): 347–67; Supang Chantavanich and E. Bruce Reynolds, eds., Indochinese Refugees: Asylum and Resettlement (Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, 1988); and Valerie O’Connor Sutter, The Indochinese Refugee Dilemma (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990).

[3]. See Matthew Connelly, “Taking Off the Cold War Lens: Visions of North-South Conflict during the Algerian War for Independence,” American Historical Review 105, no. 3 (2000): 739–69; and Matthew Connelly, A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[4]. Barry Wain, The Refused: The Agony of the Indochina Refugees (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981).


Citation: Phi-Vân Nguyen. Review of Lipman, Jana K., In Camps: Vietnamese Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Repatriates. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL:

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