Saturday, May 9, 2015


Inside Book 1-Awake and Rise: The International Geneva Conference on Boat People
For readers interested in, yet not familiar with, refugee issues of the 1970s and '80s, links are provided for some of the information below. 

A Geneva Conference
on Indochina-photo
In the early times of World War II, President Roosevelt called for a meeting in Evian, France, to focus on refugee plight. However, the U. S. sent an unofficial representative, unlike other governments. Engagement or isolation remained two opposing principles of United States foreign policy.

Evacuations during Saigon, South Vietnam's chaos of 1975, as North Vietnam troops advanced toward Saigon and the U.S. embassy, were not the end as some hoped. A sea of refugee numbers swelled, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher proposed the Geneva Conference on Boat People for two days in July 1979.  

Unlike the Evian Conference in 1938, when Europe was already at war against Hitler, the Geneva conference related to aftershocks of the Vietnam War attracted big actors on the international scene, including the American vice president. A British Parliament afterward praised the meeting's success:

 "In concentrating international attention on the plight of the refugees and on the urgent need to help them and the countries in which they have sought refuge, the conference was humanitarian. But it was widely agreed that the problem could not be solved unless attention was also given to its root causes and that these have been the inhumane policies of Vietnam.
      "The conference resulted in a massive increase in offers of resettlement places, from 125,000 to 260,000, and in new pledges of additional financial support for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' activities amounting to 190 million United States dollars…." (emphasis added; 1979 dollars)

U.S. Vice-President Walter F. Mondale said that the Geneva conference was intended to "turn the heat up" on the crisis of refugee boat people. He led the American delegation and gave an emotional speech, paying attention to the fact that the Geneva conference marked the highest level government delegation ever to attend an international refugee meeting.  In Mondale's view, engagement was and should be the guiding principle of the immediate post-Vietnam War era and into the future. 

"I would have loved to be there," Jim Purcell said. He stayed in Washington, DC, under the rationale that the new U.S. refugee organization was shaky, in early stages, and he wanted to be in place, in case. An official congressional decision and State Department announcement of the new refugee program's 'home,' its capacities and roles, had only recently been made firm. As the conference met, the bureau's launch from Washington's State Department was made official. 

Historically, State had been either uninvolved in running programs or assessed as unsuccessful in their operation. The new bureau for refugees would be a test on many levels, and eyes were on it from the nation's capital, to towns where volunteer citizens lived, and across the international community. 

At home, the State Department and Capitol Hill would need to address urgent budgetary needs on behalf of refugees. The proverbial ball had finally started rolling, and Jim Purcell was to be the point person, watchman on the wall, and planner for the long haul, although he did not yet realize it. 

Well-known appointees would come and go as directors of the program, some seeming to have more commitment than others. As a deputy, manager, and acting director in an unavoidable see-saw fashion between appointees, Jim was made the official director by appointment of Secretary of State George P. Shultz in 1983, four years after the program's launch. 

In early days organizing State's refugee program, one of Jim Purcell's chief interests was the history of U.S. policy and action regarding refugees. The unsuccessful Evian-les-Bain conference seemed, to him, to be a missed opportunity for the U. S. to avoid repeating later. The Geneva Conference on Boat People formally marked a major shift in U. S. foreign and refugee policy.  As one reader has put it, "significant change in American involvement."

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