Tensions in MCC Canada’s resettlement of Vietnamese refugees

[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Late in 1978, Canadian Mennonites saw the crisis of the “boat people” unfold on their television screens. Images of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their country in overcrowded and decrepit boats, risking the dangers of the open seas and the threat of pirate raids, moved Mennonites to action. They began to phone MCC offices across the country, asking how to help. MCC Canada’s response to the Vietnam refugee crisis involved struggles that endure within MCC to this day—namely, a tension between compassionately resettling refugees and proactively addressing the realities that create refugees in the first place.

Following the end of the war in Vietnam, a new Canadian immigration law allowed approved groups of individuals to sponsor a refugee if the groups assumed full responsibility and financial liability for one year. In response to a directive from MCC Canada’s annual meeting in January 1979, staff began negotiations with the federal government, hoping to expedite the process of approval and settle the liability issue. These negotiations proceeded quickly and on March 9, 1979, MCC Canada signed a Master Agreement on Private Refugee Sponsorship with the government. This agreement allowed MCC to approve constituent sponsoring groups—mostly church congregations, but also groups of at least five individuals. Other national churches and church organizations subsequently signed similar agreements.

Mennonite and Brethren in Christ congregations responded enthusiastically to the invitation to privately sponsor Vietnamese refugees. Within the first two years, they had sponsored 3,769 refugees; by 1985, the number had risen to 4,651. More than half of MCC’s constituent congregations across the country became involved in refugee sponsorship; some congregations sponsored one family after another.

The reasons for their eager involvement in refugee sponsorship were many. Some Canadian Mennonites remembered their own refugee stories and could relate to the plight of the Vietnamese. (In the 1920s, 21,000 Mennonites had fled Russia for Canada, with the assistance of MCC; in the late 1940s and 50s, another 8,700 arrived via Europe or Latin America.) Some sponsors were especially eager to assist those fleeing a Communist
regime as they had. Others who had actively protested the Vietnam War saw refugee sponsorship as a peace response. Still others simply wished to extend welcome and compassion to suffering people.

MCC Canada’s refugee assistance program was not without controversy. One factor was MCC Canada’s role in the larger MCC international program. At that time, MCC Canada did not have direct supervision over international work, which was the responsibility of an entity informally known as “MCC Binational,” based in Akron, Pennsylvania. When a senior MCC Canada staff person inserted himself into the program work and pushed hard for refugee resettlement, he seriously offended MCC workers in Thailand (where MCC’s Vietnam-related work was based in the post-war years), as well as some MCC colleagues in Akron.

At a deeper level, the controversy reflected a debate over whether MCC should prioritize refugee resettlement in Canada or economic development in the post-war region. Should MCC invest significant time and financial resources in helping refugees find new homes in Canada? Or should it devote itself to supporting socio-economic development in Vietnam (and also press for the U.S. to lift its embargo on Vietnam), thereby preventing
people from experiencing a need to flee their homes in the first place?

MCC workers in Southeast Asia clearly favored the latter. They saw that many of the refugees fleeing Vietnam were among the people the country needed most—those with education and financial resources—and felt that refugee resettlement was a “brain drain.” They observed how massive refugee camps in Thailand caused resentment among the Thai people, and they wanted MCC to prioritize long-term justice and socioeconomic development work.

These tensions received a public airing in some Canadian Mennonite periodicals. The Mennonite Brethren Herald, for example, published several hard-hitting critiques by constituents regarding MCC administrators and MCC service workers in Thailand. Eventually three workers in Thailand resigned, hurt and frustrated by the lack of trust in them personally, the lack of understanding of the complexities of the context and what they perceived as the Canadian constituency’s eagerness for a “quick-fix” response rather than sustained attention to longer-term solutions. MCC sent a board member with pastoral gifts on a three-month assignment to try to re-build morale among the remaining team members.

MCC continues to face challenging decisions about how to respond to complex refugee situations. So, for example, in the face of mass displacement within and from Syria, Syrian church leaders call on MCC to support displaced Syrians in staying within the region. At the same time, however, Canadian Mennonites have eagerly mobilized to welcome Syrian refugees. To be sure, refugee resettlement should not be the only MCC
response to mass displacement. At the same time, however, Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program—birthed in the years after the Vietnam War, with significant MCC Canada involvement—remains an important way that MCC responds to refugee crises. The private refugee sponsorship program has proven to be a highly successful way of integrating newcomers into Canada, with Canadian Mennonites, supported by MCC, continuing to play a significant role in private sponsorship of refugees from around the
world.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office Public Engagement Coordinator.

Learn more

MCC Canada Refugee Resettlement website: https://mcccanada.ca/stories/refugeeresettlement

Kumin, Judith. “Orderly Departure from Vietnam: Cold War Anomaly or Humanitarian Innovation?” Refugee Survey Quarterly 27/1 (2008): 104-117.

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