1989

Boat People SOS Committee – Vu Thanh Thuy

…on the South China Sea, the lives and stories of more than 25,000 men, women, and children are forever being erased by the waves. Nonetheless, the ruthless mistreatment of these refugees is given voice through the efforts of the Boat People SOS Committee… Vu Thanh Thuy, in her own young life, fell prey to the pirates in the Gulf of Siam, and rose to represent those who have survived and triumphed over incredible odds. 


 Vu Thanh Thuy

Vu Thanh Thuy

Boat people: a generic term widely used for refugees fleeing their country in crowded boats, often roughly constructed and unsafe, looking for a safe haven in another country that will accept them. In the 1970s and 80s, after the Vietnam War, when Vietnam was controlled by a Communist government, thousands of Vietnamese people were forced to become “boat people,” braving not only the hardships of life at sea—storms, sickness, lack of food and water—but attacks from pirates and abuse in refugee camps as well. 

Vu Thanh Thuy, a journalist from South Vietnam, knew firsthand about life as one of the “boat people.” Under communism, Thuy and her husband and fellow journalist Duong Phuc essentially became political prisoners. They took their young children, and after several attempts, managed to get onto a boat, hoping to find safety. The family endured the dangers of being exposed on the ocean, and were even attacked by pirates before they were eventually rescued. Knowing that people needed to learn about the plight of the refugees, Vu Thanh Thuy wrote an open letter about the situation. This was read at a UN News Conference in Thailand in 1980, prompting action. 

An organization called the Boat People SOS Committee was formed in 1980 in California and Thailand to start a large-scale rescue of the “boat people.” With its mission to “empower, organize, and equip Vietnamese individuals and communities in their pursuit of liberty and dignity,” the BPSOS Committee rescued an estimated 3,000 people from the water during the 1980s. It also engaged the Thai Royal Navy to fight the pirates who were attacking and abducting the refugees. 

As the decades progressed, however, thousands of refugees became less welcome in, and were often rejected by, the countries where they sought asylum. To address this, the Committee worked with lawyers, advocating for improvement in the conditions and policies governing the places where the former “boat people” were now living. 

Having worked with the BPSOS Committee (now called simply BPSOS) in its rescue effort, Thuy and her husband started a radio station in Houston, Texas in 1999 to reach out to the Vietnamese community. They also created a Vietnamese Yellow Pages and started circulation of a newspaper. They wanted to provide a place for their community to air any concerns they had and to connect with other Vietnamese people. Since 1999, Thuy and Phuc have opened another radio station as well as a TV station. 

In addition, BPSOS provides disaster relief in emergencies and support services to victims of domestic violence, and is continually fighting against human trafficking in both America and Asia. In 2011 a research institute was started to specifically address the needs of the Vietnamese-American community. 

Together, Vu Thanh Thuy and the Boat People SOS are committed to working with the Vietnamese community, giving them a voice to be heard, while keeping them informed and in dialogue with one another. 

 Vu Thanh Thuy, center, with Ellen Joseph, right, 1989.

Vu Thanh Thuy, center, with Ellen Joseph, right, 1989.