Why Doesn’t Singapore Accept Refugees? Singapore’s (No) Refugee Policy, Explained.

You wouldn’t think that someone who was forced to flee his home country would call himself lucky, but that was what Diep N Vuong thought he was.

In April 1975, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was captured by the communist People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong. The repression of individuals associated with the former government of South Vietnam, and the targeting of the ethnically Chinese Hoa people led to a mass exodus of refugees.

Vuong’s parents split their six children to maximise their chances of survival. This left 16 year old Vuong separated from the rest of his family. While escaping, he was picked up by an oil exploration boat and was subsequently sent to the Hawkins Road Camp in Singapore. Vuong was one of the fortunate ones – countless were no match for the treacherous seas.

They squeezed themselves onto small fishing and rowing boats, sailing across the often stormy South China Sea to seek asylum in neighbouring countries. Due to their distinct mode of transport, they later became known as the ‘boat people’.

Close to three decades later, the present crisis in Afghanistan has once again raised the issue of exile and refuge. While countries like the United Kingdom and Canada have since announced plans to accept Afghan refugees, Singapore has shown no interest in doing the same.

Why is this the case?

What is Operation Thunderstorm?

On 2 May 1975, the ship Truong Hai arrived in Singaporean waters. On the vessel were 300 asylum seekers – the very first batch of refugees that the country would meet. The arrivals didn’t cease until 11 May, with over 8,355 “boat people” arriving in Singapore in that short period.

An emergency operation was launched and was code-named Operation Thunderstorm. The goal of the operation was to contain, quarantine and prevent refugees from entering and staying in Singapore.

The Air Force was tasked to spot refugee boats heading for Singapore’s shores, while the Navy directed the vessels to the Eastern Anchorages. Once they were docked, naval technicians and engineers were called in to run checks on the condition of the ships and repair them if needed. 90 tons of rice, 75,000 tins of sardines, 20,000 tins of condensed milk and 293 tons of water were also doled out to refugees for sustenance.

The government has often portrayed the exercise as being humanitarian in nature. Since a “spokesman” for the refugees had told the government that Singapore was not their intended final destination, MINDEF’s operation was merely started “to look after the refugees”.

While it is true that the Singaporean Navy repaired refugee vessels and provided food and water, the very act of turning away the refugees could have led to deadly consequences. Many of these boats were either makeshift vessels or fishing boats, safe only for near-shore navigation. This was coupled with the fact that they were usually chronically overcrowded, thus making any journey into the open seas potentially highly dangerous.

There have also been stories of attacks by pirates who murdered people onboard, or sold them into slavery and prostitution. A 1982 New York Times article tells the story of a 31-year-old Vietnamese refugee, Nguyen Tien Hoa. The boat he travelled on was attacked by 13 other crafts. In one of the attacks, Thai pirates looted all valuables onboard, raped the women, before taking them away, along with the children.

In all, it is estimated that 50,000-250,000 refugees died at sea.

Most of them drowned.

Initial policy confusion

(Source)

From 1975-1978, Singapore appeared to have experienced confusion over the question of who should be accepted as a refugee. In the months following Operation Thunderstorm, the government temporarily housed 2,000 refugees offshore, on St. John’s Island. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew also commented that the country was willing to grant permanent residence to refugees who could “support themselves”. 108 Vietnamese refugees, who were mostly fishermen, were given this offer.

However, by 1977, the government became more averse to the idea of housing refugees. The ‘boat people’ were no longer just refugees – they were now regarded as illegal immigrants if they had no travel documents. This policy decision was thought to be odd since the people’s escapades were already discreet in nature, and approaching the Communist officials for documents didn’t seem to make sense.

The next year saw another policy reversal, with Singapore allowing a refugee transit camp to run on the mainland. This decision carried an element of regional cooperation. Singapore reportedly wanted to “relieve the burden” of other ASEAN states by “taking up some of the share themselves”.

The former British army barrack at Hawkins Road was therefore transformed into a Vietnamese refugee camp – the Hawkins Road Camp – by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Hawkins Road Camp

(Source)

By 1978, Singapore had finally formulated a concrete policy to determine who was to be allowed temporary stay. Prior to entering, refugees had to first meet several conditions:

  • No refugee vessels were allowed to enter Singaporean waters. For refugees to be allowed to stay in Singapore, they had to be onboard a vessel that picked them up at sea.
  • The country whose flag the rescue ship was flying needed to “assure prompt passage to and resettlement in its territory”.
  • Only a maximum of 1,000 refugees would be allowed on Singapore soil at any one time. Every refugee could only be in Singapore for 90-days, after which they had to be repatriated to another country.
  • Refugees’ local expenditure had to be underwritten by sources other than Singaporean ones.

The doors to the Hawkins Road camp were therefore only opened to those who fulfilled the conditions. The camp occupied a humble area of 5.5 hectares that was made up of 10 old houses, where refugees slept on mats on the floor. With the help of organizations like Catholic Welfare Service, Singapore Red Cross, and the Intergovernmental Committee on Migration, the Hawkins Road camp was regarded as one of the more humane refugee camps in the region.

The Singapore government did not meddle much in the internal running of the camp. Instead, it played mainly an “enforcer role” to ensure the compliance of policies. The UNHCR was to report the arrival and settlement country of each refugee to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), and when it came to it, the MHA ran checks to verify that no one overstayed their welcome.

Camp-stayers appeared to have enjoyed their brief stay in Singapore, with many attributing it to welcoming locals and volunteers. Cristal Lim (who was then a 12 year old) had only fond memories of her time at Hawkins Camp. “It was like entering heaven,” reminisced Lim. She recalls that volunteers came bearing gifts, with some even going out of their way to bring her to places like church and Sentosa.

The same could be said for Lee Tran, who expressed her gratitude at the hospitality of Singaporeans. “I felt Singaporeans were very compassionate and had a great heart for people less fortunate than them,” professed Tran in a separate interview.

Reasons for past policy

Many reasons were brought up to justify the stricter policy. The tangible limitations of the countries were a key reason, with the country’s lack of space highlighted as early as 1975. To prevent over-population in Singapore, the government had monetary disincentives in place to discourage big families. An article that same year posed a question to the public:would it be fair to the local citizens for the government to open its door to indiscriminately and welcome all refugees from abroad?

In the early years after gaining independence, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was careful not to project Singapore as a “Third China”. The overwhelming Chinese composition of the refugees was, therefore, an issue. “If I make an error of believing that I’m Chinese and that these (the refugees) are Chinese, there will be no Singapore,” said Lee in a BBC television program interview aired in 1979, when he was asked about Singapore’s “rather hard attitude” towards the refugees.

Accepting a large influx of ethnically Chinese refugees would cause “uneasiness among the non-Chinese population (of Singapore) and raise suspicion in neighboring states”.

“I’m entrusted with the responsibility of looking after 2.25 million Singaporeans – whether they are Chinese, Indians, Eskimos or what-have-you,”.

The end of an era

In 1989, a conference was held in Geneva to properly address the perennial crisis. The outcome was the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA), designed to manage the continuing influx of ‘boat people’. One of the solutions was a new screening system to identify who among them were entitled to refugee status. Those recognized as refugees were resettled, while those that were “quietly set aside for repatriation”.

As the exodus waned, the UNHCR’s focus had similarly started to dwindle on the region. By 1995, momentum was lost and repatriation had come to a halt. The Vietnamese government was also said to be “clearing the names very slowly”, resulting in a bottle-necked situation. Despite the initial 90-day agreement with UNHCR, Singapore was reported to be ‘burdened’ with the responsibility of hosting the rejected asylum-seekers. Many refused to leave Singapore, willing to do whatever it took to stay.

Two men overdosed on anti-stress pills, while another chugged kerosene like water. 72 refugees even broke out of camp, parked themselves outside of the office of UNHCR and protested for a right to stay. By then, some had already been in camp for more than 2 years. The impasse left the government with no choice but to let them extend their stay in Singapore.

On 29 June 1996, the last 99 ‘boat people’ said their goodbyes at Changi Airport,

departing for Vietnam when UNHCR decided to close down all its camps in the region.

“Not every country honoured its guarantee and we were saddled with the Vietnamese refugees for a long time,” said Wong Kan Seng, the ex-Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore. “We have learnt our lesson and will no longer accept any refugees even if third countries promise to resettle them”.

What is Singapore’s current stance?

Nothing much has changed since then. As of today, Singapore has neither asylum nor refugee procedures in Singapore. Effectively, the country has imposed a blanket ban that no one should be granted asylum, either temporary or permanent. Any asylum-seekers found in Singapore would be dealt with under the 1959 Immigration Act – which states that they would be subjected to penalties such as caning, imprisonment and deportation if found guilty. Otherwise, refugees would be in detention and be directed to the UNHCR who were responsible for finding a proper solution for them.

Instead, the Singapore government has shown willingness to help through humanitarian aid. In October 2016, Singapore sent humanitarian supplies such as tents, blankets, foods and medical items worth approximately $270,000 to Myanmar in light of the Rohingya crisis. In 2018, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan also met with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

“Singapore and ASEAN will continue to support the efforts of Myanmar and Bangladesh to address this very difficult situation,” emphasized Dr Balakrishnan in the meeting.

(Source)

The position of the Singapore government remains unchanged in the present crisis happening in Afghanistan. On 23 August, Singapore was last reported to have offered to help the United States evacuate refugees using the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) A330 multi-role tanker transport plan. However, there has been zilch talk about Singapore opening up its borders to Afghan refugees.

Explaining the no-refugee stance

Back in 2015, MHA reaffirmed the government’s stance in dealing with refugees in response to the Rohingya migrant crisis.

“As a small country with limited land, Singapore is not in a position to accept any persons seeking political asylum or refugee status, regardless of their ethnicity or place or origin,” said a spokesperson from MHA.

The argument, however, has its flaws. Many have called out the argument of limited land size by pulling up the Population White Paper published in 2013. The paper predicted a 6.5m-6.9m population size by 2030, stating that Singapore would be “able to support the larger population while preserving a high quality living environment for all Singaporeans” with ongoing investments into infrastructure facilities and land capacity. Considering that claims were made that Singapore could host a much larger population, people were sceptical about the validity of the argument.

The reason for the hard-line policy on refugees, hence has to be a bit more nuanced. While the government is relatively accepting of immigrants, it does so in a highly targeted and calibrated way. In 2020, for example, Minister of State for the Ministry of Home Affairs affirmed that the “pace and profile of (Singapore’s) immigration intake have been, and will continue to be, calibrated to preserve (the current) racial balance”. To the government, the preservation of racial balance is important in preserving social stability and harmony. Sociologist Teo You Yen also points out “only (migrants) who fill niches that are inadequately filled by Singaporeans,” are granted access to Singapore.

Increased protection for refugees might also concede some of the authorities’ abilities to micromanage immigration. To a government that views racial and religious issues to as an existential threat, this would be a major problem.

The recent rise in xenophobic incidents, which were sparked in part by a perceived shift in racial demographics, might seem to back this line of logic. This is in addition to the swift backlash that the 2013 Population White Paper received.

Other options

Nonetheless, Singapore’s strict stance has not gone without any flak.

Singapore’s unpleasant historical experience with UNHCR as a reason was also demurred. The experience was thought to be  a “not substantial enough” justification for a completely closed border. “How long should Singapore remain hung up on the past?” questioned one commentary. It should adopt “safeguards to avoid a similar outcome rather than simply close off” altogether. As refugees are in extremely precarious life-and-death situations, a bad experience might not be a good enough reason to reject asylum-seekers.

Others have also suggested that Singapore’s hands aren’t tied because of its demographic and geographic limitations. Instead of rejecting every single refugee that seeks asylum, Singapore could at least help meet the needs of some refugees. In an article published on the Singapore Policy Journal, Theophilus Kwek points out the government could:

  • Provide asylum to unaccompanied refugee children, thereby allowing them to grow up in Singapore and counter the country’s declining birth-rates.
  • Expand existing frameworks, like the work pass, in order to allow refugees to work in Singapore. This especially makes sense considering country’s high dependence on foreign labour. Refugees would also be able to provide for their families, thereby achieving some level of stability.

At the heart of it all also stands a greater moral debate about basic humanity. Many have voiced that compassion should subsume any other political concerns; leaving refugees to fend for themselves was likened to a flagrant sin. “Soften stance on boat people”, read a headline in a 2015 Straits Times article, where the writer grimly stated that “common humanity should prevent us from turning refugees away, especially if we know that some will not survive their uncertain onward journeys”.

Looking ahead

“You’ve got to grow calluses on your heart or you just bleed to death,” said Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1978.

To Lee, there was no room for leniency if it meant threatening the stability of the nation. The same sentiment has traversed through the decades, and despite offering help in the form of humanitarian aid, Singapore’s stance still seems to be in the same vein.

For now, it seems like the wrestle between head and heart is here to stay.


Author

Gracia Koh

Contributor

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