The Humanitarian Operation (HO) Program began in 1989 with an official agreement between the United States and Vietnam in regard to Vietnam’s political prisoners. After 1975, the newly instated regime sent one million Vietnamese military officials from former South Vietnam to re-education camps, in actuality forced labor locations. In 1983, the United States began negotiations for release of these political prisoners. The Vietnamese government agreed to their release if the United States government allowed them to immigrate to the United States. The in-country processing program started in 1989 and former political prisoners began to arrive in 1991.
Vietnamese refugees in the United States. (Link to page 90 of The State of the World’s Refugees, 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action by Mark Cutts, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, published in 2000)
“Orderly Departure Programme, established in 1979, made it possible for Vietnamese to migrate directly from Viet Nam to the United States. Initially intended to benefit relatives of Vietnamese refugees already in the United States and South Vietnamese who had ties to the US government, the US government later extended the Orderly Departure Programme to Amerasians (Vietnamese children of US servicemen), and former political prisoners and re-education camp detainees. Between 1979 and 1999, more than 500,000 Vietnamese entered the United States under this program.”
The Humanitarian Operation (HO) (Link to archival site of Families of Vietnamese Political Prisoners Association)
“On April 30, 1975 Saigon fell to the Army of North Vietnam. That spring, 125,000 Vietnamese fled the country. From 1978 to the mid-1980s, approximately two million Vietnamese fled the country by boat, which was highly dangerous and illegal. Refugees faced dangers from overcrowded boats, pirates, and the perils of Mother Nature. Alarmed by the high death toll, in 1979 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) proposed the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) which received the support and cooperation of the U.S. State Department and other diplomatic offices around the world. The next year the United Nations established an Orderly Departure Program office in Bangkok, Thailand to facilitate safe departures from Vietnam. In 1989, Robert Lloyd Funseth, Senior Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Acting Director of the Bureau for Refugee Programs, negotiated with the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to allow emigration of former reeducation camp prisoners to the United States. For 15 years, the Orderly Departure Program helped over 500,000 Vietnamese refugees immigrate to the U.S. before its closure in 1994. The ODP office in Bangkok closed in 1999, and the remaining open cases were given to the Refugee Resettlement section at the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. From 1981-2000, 531,310 Vietnamese political refugees entered the U.S. In November 2005, the United States and Vietnam signed an agreement allowing the emigration of those unable to leave before the closure of the ODP office in 1994.
After her life was tragically affected by the war in Vietnam, Khuc Minh Tho dedicated herself to those hoping to start a new life, as she did, in the United States. Born in 1939 in the former Sa Dec province (now Dong Thap province) near Saigon, Communist forces kidnapped Khuc’s father in 1968 and he was never seen again. In 1972 her step-mother was also killed by communist forces. When she was 23 years old and five months pregnant with her third child, Khuc’s husband was killed by the Viet Cong as well. From 1961 to 1972, Khuc worked for the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Vietnam. From 1972 to 1975, she served as Administrative Officer at the Vietnamese Embassy in Manila, Philippines. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, her second husband, Nguyen Van Be, a colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was sent to a reeducation camp, where he would spend the next 13 years. In 1975, with her husband still incarcerated, Khuc immigrated to the U.S. She worked in a variety of social service positions in the suburban Washington, D.C. area, including the Foundation Senior Citizen Association, and the government of Arlington County, Virginia. She was the first Vietnamese American to work in the Arlington County Department of Human Services, Division of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services.
In 1977, to win the release of her husband and other Vietnamese political prisoners, Khuc co-founded the Families of Vietnamese Political Prisoners Association (FVPPA) in Arlington, Virginia, along with Trinh Ngoc Dung and other spouses, children, relatives, and friends of Vietnamese political prisoners. Khuc not only co-founded but also served as president of the FVPPA. Up to 20 volunteers met at Khuc’s house each night after putting a full day’s work at their day jobs and worked for the release of Vietnamese political prisoners and for their immigration to the U.S. through the ODP. They petitioned Congress and lobbied the State Department on behalf of Vietnamese political prisoners. In 1984 the FVPPA was officially incorporated by the Commonwealth of Virginia State Corporation Commission.
The FVPPA’s stated purpose was to “promote the reunion of political prisoners with their families in the United States and elsewhere in the free world.” The group also called for public awareness to the plight of political prisoners. The FVPPA worked with the American government, international humanitarian organizations, and other volunteer agencies to achieve its goals of family reunification and humane treatment of prisoners.
In its work on behalf of political prisoners and refugees, the FVPPA undertook a variety of activities. Their public awareness program sought to collect and disseminate pertinent information on the needs of Vietnamese political prisoners and their families. An outreach program sought to establish a case file for every prisoner and his or her immediate family to assist eligible persons with their immigration from Vietnam to the United States or other countries. The FVPPA also acted as an information center for recent immigrants, and provided resettlement information and assistance as well as aiding in family reunification. They maintained correspondence and held meetings with several politicians, government agencies and officials, and human rights organizations.
Khuc Minh Tho described her role and the goals of the organization by stating: “As president of the association, my principal role is to represent the rights of the political prisoners and their families and appeal to the executive and legislative branches of the United States government, and to all governments of other free countries, to intervene with Vietnamese authorities with respect to their rights. I also advocate for the prompt release of political prisoners from the reeducation camps in Vietnam and assist them in reuniting with their families and loved ones in the United States or in other countries.” Through her dedication and leadership, the FVPPA achieved many of these stated goals and had a lasting impact on the Vietnamese American community in the United States.
In July 1989, the United States and Vietnam signed an agreement allowing former reeducation camp prisoners and their families to resettle in the U.S. Funded by a grant from Amnesty International, the organization developed a list of the 100 longest-held Vietnamese political prisoners and worked for their release. Their lobbying efforts also led to the passage of the McCain Amendment (Section 595 H.R. 3540) in 1996, which allowed former prisoners’ children over the age of 21 to immigrate to the U.S. Their efforts also led to the elimination of the requirement that former Vietnamese political prisoners have six months trade and English training in Philippines before entering the U.S.
Robert Funseth credited Khuc Minh Tho with being “…the guiding light behind the movement to free Vietnamese who were held in communist reeducation camps…” Funseth felt so strongly about Khuc’s efforts that he presented her with the ballpoint pen he used in Hanoi to sign the agreement between the United States and Vietnam. In 2005 Khuc was a National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies (NAVASA) Honoree. Today she still works on behalf of Vietnamese immigrants as an active member of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation.
The contributions of the FVPPA were of great significance to the Vietnamese American community and United States history. By writing and petitioning U.S. government officials and agencies along with those of other nations, fundraising, and raising public awareness of the plight of Vietnamese political prisoners, the FVPPA gave voice to thousands of Vietnamese political prisoners, former U.S. allies and employees, and their families who might otherwise have been forgotten. By helping these Vietnamese refugees immigrate and resettle in the U.S., the Families of Vietnamese Political Prisoners Association became a vital key to the understanding of the Vietnamese American immigration experience.”
Vietnamese American: The Best Outcome of Vietnam War by Nguyen Y Duc, M.D., The Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation, The 5th Triennial Vietnam Symposium at the Viet Nam Center, Texas Tech University – March 17-20, 2005)
“One still can remember when Ms. Khuc Minh Tho, the chairwoman of The Family Vietnamese Political Prisoners Association (FVPPA) and other Vietnamese American organizations asked the Vietnamese Communist Government to free all political prisoners and let them settle in US, the Vietnamese Communist Government loudly denied this request and announced: “there were no political prisoners in Vietnam”. Through the contacts of family members of these prisoners, FVPPA enlisted a number of prisons through out Vietnam documenting political prisoners that were held in these camps.
The International Red Cross visited these camps later and confirmed that there are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Vietnam. The Vietnamese Communist Government since then has sit down to officially negotiation the issue of political prisoners in Vietnam. This discussion resulted in the Humanitarian Program introduced by Resolution 205 to President Reagan by Senator Edward Kennedy (Democrat), and Senator Robert Dole (Republican) on January 5, 1987. There were more than 30 Congressmen and Congresswomen of both parties, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Robert Fun Seth that worked as the principal negotiators to introduce Resolution 212 on September 1987. The agreement was signed on July 30, 1989, by both the US and Vietnamese Communist Government. Solution 212 became the fundamental legal document to free Vietnamese political prisoners and settle them and their families to the US.”
Many of the 180,000 HO refugees who came to the United States are survivors of torture and face different adjustment difficulties than the previous groups. The agency, Boat People S.O.S., in Arlington, Virginia, offers mental health screening, recreational programs for child torture survivors, educational information and legal services to the 10,000 people from the HO Program in the DC area.
On average, the education level of HO arrivals is higher than the previous wave because they had to complete high school to become officers in the South Vietnamese military. However, the worsening U.S. economic situation mixed with the process of overcoming the past has made it difficult for HO people to immerse themselves in mainstream society. Many have settled in subsidized housing in Mount Pleasant, Washington, DC, Hyattsville, Maryland and Falls Church, Virginia.
Download 7 pages of Vietnamese AMERICANS by Hien Duc Do,published in 1999. (Link to The African American experience site –
Multiculturalism in the United States – A Comparative Guide to Acculturation and Ethnicity by John D. Buenker and Lorman A. Ratner)
“There are also many others who arrived under the Humanitarian Operation Program. The majority of these individuals are older refugees who spent their adulthood as soldiers or civil servants in the South Vietnamese army and government. They would qualify under the Humanitarian Operation Program if they were imprisoned in Socialist Republic of Vietnam reeducation or labor camps for a number of years and can demonstrate this fact. All of these labor camps were located in remote and undeveloped areas. As a result of spending many years doing physical labor with limited nourishment in unbearable conditions, many of the people who came under this program were physically, psychologically, and emotionally spent when they arrived in the United States. They are a group within the Vietnamese American community that has faced many problems in adjusting to life in the United States.”