Explore More »

New Crisis, Old Approaches: Lessons for Today’s Syrian Refugee Reception Crisis from the United States’ Effort to Resettle Vietnamese Refugees

David Truong wrote “New Crisis, Old Approaches: Lessons for Today’s Syrian Refugee Reception Crisis from the United States’ Effort to Resettle Vietnamese Refugees” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.

Six years have passed since the Syrian Civil War started in 2011, displacing millions of Syrians. The estimated count of internally displaced Syrians stands at over six million, while almost five million are registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and living in neighboring countries such as Turkey or Lebanon. (1) Various European countries within the European Union (EU) have also received a large influx of Syrian refugees, with those seeking asylum at a cumulative count of over a million. The dilemma of an outward flow of Syrians does not seem to be subsiding either; instead, it will likely continue to increase. As of July 2016, more people have arrived in Europe than in the previous year (249,854 versus 220,054) and more are seeking asylum than in the previous year (305,700 versus 217,600). (2)

The hundreds of thousands of people seeking entry and refuge in Europe signal that the situation is still dire and the crisis is far from reaching any solution. While many European countries have devoted significant efforts towards alleviating this issue, the problem persists and the populaces, both within and outside of Europe, have become divided in their attitude towards the influx of refugees. In this time of turmoil and divided sentiment, which has led to violent backlash from both ends of the political spectrum, a potential learning point may be to look towards the past at an analogous crisis and how many countries, in particular the United States (US), stepped up to solve a, then-pressing, global crisis: Vietnamese fleeing after the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. The economic outcomes of these former refugees provide insight on how to potentially respond to the current refugee reception crisis. In particular, it shines a light on how the positive economic contributions from these resettled refugees and their families largely outweigh the “costs” of resettling them. This economic lens can be utilized towards alleviating the fears of those opposed to a humanitarian intervention to the present crisis. It also sets itself up to encourage an increased role by the US toward helping to address this refugee crisis.

The widely used definition of a refugee originates from the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee as “a person … owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” (3) These parameters are in contrast to economic immigrants, who have left their countries in pursuit of economic opportunities that they could not obtain at home and who are considered able to return to their home countries and who had originally left their countries in pursuit of economic opportunities that they could not obtain at home. In order to clear up any misperceptions about how the US government has recently approached refugees, for the last three years leading up to 2015, the US has taken around 70,000 refugees annually (4) and in 2016 the 10,000th Syrian refugee arrived in the US. (5)

Many of the first Vietnamese refugees who came to the US after the Fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, were quite poor and experienced many economic hardships, some for a whole generation. Subsequent generations, however, have become rather successful, both benefiting from and giving back to American society. The ultimate, positive outcomes from accepting refugees require patience, and where there is patience, there can also be an economic positive that derives from welcoming refugees. These benefits may not be seen immediately.

The Fall of Saigon

On April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese Army captured Saigon, presently Ho Chi Minh City. This marked the end of the Vietnam War and started the first of two major waves of mass migration out of Vietnam. The first wave occurred right after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The US evacuated about 130,000 high skilled, well-educated Vietnamese. (6) This group of refugees, often, had established close ties to the US, had provided the US with assistance during the war, and consisted of skilled professionals, who many Americans wanted to sponsor for services they could provide. Following that first wave, there was little to no immigration in 1976 and 1977 due to the US denying admission for Vietnamese refugees, with the exception of family reunification resettlements. The second wave of resettlement started in 1978 with an initial mass exodus, followed by many years of subsequent migration to the US. These refugees usually fled on small fishing boats for a variety of reasons, including oppressive government policies, fear of persecution by the government, and economic hardships. The journey was extremely dangerous and many perished at sea or were ambushed by pirates. Uneducated Vietnamese from more disadvantaged backgrounds comprised most of this second wave, with many of them coming from more rural areas. As the outflows from Vietnam progressed, boatloads of people landed on various Southeast Asian nations, but the influx was so great that receiving Southeast Asian nations even pushed boats back to sea. Many thousands of Vietnamese are estimated to have died at sea. Eventually, in 1979, the UNHCR created the Orderly Departure Program, which created a mechanism to resettle the Vietnamese who fled Vietnam, with other Southeast Asian nations serving as temporary transition points for refugees before other countries resettled them. It is estimated that more than 500,000 refugees went to the US through this program. (7) Altogether, the conflict in Vietnam created over 1.6 million refugees from Vietnam alone, and many more from the Indochina region broadly. (8) Most of them eventually resettled in the US, Canada, Australia, and countries of Western Europe.

Similar to public opinion of Syrian refugees now, public opinion of the Vietnamese was not very high then, in these early stages of migration. At the beginning of the first wave of migration in 1975, polls found 37% of respondents supporting the Vietnamese and 49% of respondents holding negative views against the Vietnamese. (9) Public opinion dropped in 1979, after US President Carter announced he would double the number of refugees accepted, with 62% of Americans disapproving of this action. (10) This would make the percentage of those with a positive view of the Vietnamese then even lower than those holding positive views towards Syrian refugees today. (11)

Vietnamese Refugees in the US

But are refugee immigrants significantly different to economic immigrants? A 2004 study by Kalena Cortes provides some clarity on any differences between economic immigrants and refugee immigrants. (12) She examines refugee and non-refugee groups who entered the US between 1975 and 1980, including those from Vietnam. Cortes found that refugee immigrants had, on average, lower annual earnings upon arrival than economic immigrants. Over time, however, their earnings grew rapidly compared to economic immigrants. Specifically, refugee immigrants in 1980 earned 6% less and worked 14% fewer hours than economic immigrants. By 1990, the circumstances of both groups had improved, but refugees had made larger gains. They had earned 20% more and worked 4% more hours than economic immigrants, along with improving their English skills over economic migrants by 11% more. An explanation for this includes the possibility that refugees tended to have higher country-specific human capital investment, such as learning English, when they first came to the US. (13) In addition, social science research suggests that migrants do not displace native-born workers, but might even raise the wages of these native-born workers. (14) For the Vietnamese specifically, the nail salon industry presents this positive effect, wherein most salons are owned and/or operated by the Vietnamese. (15) A recent study found that the Vietnamese did not take jobs away from native-born workers in this industry, but instead created their own jobs. (16)

From a daily life perspective, many of the “boat people,” the term given to those who fled on small fishing boats, struggled upon their arrival to the US. Over time, however, their circumstances changed. A study conducted on the second-generation of Vietnamese Americans, or the children of Vietnamese immigrants, particularly those educated in the US, indicated that this generation has done quite well for themselves. Using 2000 census data, Sakamoto et al. found that second-generation Vietnamese especially stand out relative to many other immigrant groups, showing high values on education, wages, and managerial/professional employment relative to, for example, African Americans and whites. (17) Presently, the median income of Vietnamese immigrants actually tops that of the median income of both immigrants broadly and native-born households. When polled, 83% of Vietnamese in the US believe that hard work can help people get ahead. (18) A separate poll, conducted around the same time, found that generally, only about 58% of people hold this view. (19) This optimism serves as a positive sign and creates a strong case that Syrian refugees could follow such a path.

Throughout the US’ short history as a nation, refugees have arrived from all over the world. My father himself was a refugee, fleeing in 1978 Vietnam after the war ended and landing in a refugee camp in Malaysia. It was because my father endured the voyage across the Pacific Ocean that I have the privilege of now serving as an American diplomat. It was also because this country granted opportunities to refugees like my father. Our family’s experiences in the US did not follow a straight, easy, or narrow path, however. My father struggled most of his life to provide for my family. Eventually, while my parents remained uneducated, my three siblings and I all ended up with college degrees and are on the path toward successful careers. Not only does this demonstrate the values that embody the US, but it also showcases how the acceptance of refugees can ultimately benefit the US as well, especially as my own story shares a common trajectory to many other immigrant groups and refugees. This is why it is important to consider the past, specifically the economic history of refugees, when examining the refugee situation now.

Applying Lessons to Today’s Syrian Crisis

Islam and anti-Muslim sentiments drive much of the negative attitude toward Syrians presently, a phenomenon that makes the current crisis different than the one toward the Vietnamese. A Pew survey showed that on average, Americans tend to view Islam quite coldly. Almost half of Americans polled viewed “some” Muslims as anti-American. (20) Yet, the negative sentiment toward race with the Vietnamese can act as analogous to the present anti-religious sentiment. In the case of the Vietnamese, with the right opportunities and resources to integrate, they ultimately thrived in the US, a scenario that potentially could occur with Syrians.

Though it may change as the current crisis progresses, the majority of immigrants from Syria presently arrive in the US through family reunification. They tend to be educated and work in high-skilled positions, with labor participation overall lower than other migrant groups, because of a lack of female participation in the labor force. However, these immigrants tend to receive a larger average income than native-born workers. (21)

Based on this profile, two main points arise. First, these immigrants are similar to that of the first wave of Vietnamese refugees – educated and high-skilled, possibly indicating an easier transition into the formal economy in the US, given the US’s status as an advanced economy. In addition, the economic context then and now varies quite drastically, which is always the case with any comparison of different time frames. These are important caveats to consider when using this comparison to inform policy decisions.

With the Vietnamese, the US had a responsibility toward thousands of people. The conflict initiated there led to regional instability and mass movements of people, along with broad disapproval of the conflict. The resettlement of individuals displaced by this conflict signaled to the world that the US was a humanitarian country after engaging in such a brutal war. The current Syrian refugee crisis presents another unstable region, with mass movements of people occurring. In this case, the resettlement of people can assist in not only America’s image as continually humanitarian, but also assuage some of the concerns about terrorism resulting from extreme anti-American sentiment stemming from American intervention in the region.


Ultimately, the US accepted over 800,000 refugees from Vietnam and resettled over one million immigrants displaced from the region as a whole. From these immigrants, the second-generation has done reasonably well for themselves in finding greater success. The Syrian refugee situation exhibits many parallels with other refugee situations of the past, so perhaps there will also be parallels in what is to come. While these refugee populations experienced significant hardships in their new host countries upon arrival, the economic benefits eventually helped both the new arrivals and the countries that welcomed these refugees into their land. However, it is important to remember that each situation has its own context, which can complicate the actual implementation of refugee acceptance and resettlement policy.

A policy recommendation encouraging opening the borders to all refugees is not what should be done. It is not suggested here nor would it be wise, both economically and logistically (or arguably, even morally). While this article does suggest that the US can do more, the main purpose is to demonstrate that we as a country have experienced a crisis similar to this before. The prevalence of a fear of the “Other” existed then as well, but over time the Vietnamese overcame adversity and “Othering” to become successfully integrated into the socio-political and economic landscape of the US. This parallel casts doubt on the premise of the current fears that many have toward Syrians.

Yet, the possibility of any substantive action has begun to slip away. Under the Obama Administration, the White House announced that they would accept 110,00 refugees in 2017. (22) The unexpected result of the 2016 US Presidential election, however, has led to the opposite outcome. Instead of accepting more refugees, the new administration ordered a temporary ban on individuals from Syria, along with five other Muslim-majority countries. (23) This ban does not align with American values, nor does it showcase the generosity and compassion this country has exhibited many times before in its short history, especially to the Vietnamese. While, realistically and logistically, any possibility of resettling all individuals displaced from the civil war in Syria does not exist, this current trend signals that the easiest to help will not get any assistance. This is extremely troubling as the US should fulfill its responsibilities as a rich nation to intervene when crises such as these occur. Acknowledging that large groups of refugees have been gradually resettled in the past, the US can do more to accommodate the growing supply of Syrians seeking refuge, much like they have done in the past. It is my personal hope that the new administration considers this course of action, especially before it finds itself on the wrong side of history.


The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and in no way constitute an endorsement, expressed or implied, by the United States Department of State.

•     •     • 

About the Author 

David Truong is a Foreign Service Officer with the United States Department of State. Originally from Dallas, Texas, he is headed off to Bangladesh to serve his first tour as a diplomat. His interests include social justice, particularly racial and socioeconomic inequality, along with all things Texas. He studied Political Science at Yale University and received a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.



The author and editor thank Carly Goodmann for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


1. "Quick Facts: What You Need to Know about the Syria Crisis," Mercy Corps, Jun. 16, 2016, accessed Sept. 18, 2016, https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/iraq-jordan-lebanon-syria-turkey/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-syria-crisis; “Syria Regional Refugee Response Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal,” UNHCR, accessed Nov 13, 2016, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php#.

2. “Migrant, Refugee Deaths at Sea Pass 3,000 as Arrivals Near 250,000,” Jul. 26, 2016, accessed Nov. 13, 2016, http://www.iom.int/news/migrant-refugee-deaths-sea-pass-3000-arrivals-near-250000; “Asylum Quarterly Report,” Eurostat, Sept. 21, 2016, accessed Nov. 13, 2016, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Asylum_quarterly_report. These numbers refer to first-time asylum seeking applicants from all countries, not just Syria, though Syrians added most to the increase from 2015 to 2016.

3. “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Dec. 2010, accessed Jan. 8, 2017, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/protection/basic/3b66c2aa10/convention-protocol-relating-status-refugees.html.

4. "Cumulative Summary of Refugee Admissions," U.S. Department of State, Dec. 31, 2015, accessed Sept. 18, 2016, http://www.state.gov/j/prm/releases/statistics/251288.htm.

5. "Statement by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice on Syrian Refugee Admissions," The White House, Aug. 29, 2016, accessed Sept. 18, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/08/29/statement-national-security-advisor-susan-e-rice-syrian-refugee.

6. Alicia Campi, "From Refugees To Americans: Thirty Years Of Vietnamese Immigration To The United States," Immigration Policy Center, Jun. 2005, accessed Mar. 9, 2017. https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/sites/default/files/research/RefugeestoAmericans.pdf

7. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Flight from Indochina,” In The State of the World’s Refugees Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action, 90, Jan. 1, 2000, accessed Nov. 13, 2016, http://www.unhcr.org/3ebf9bad0.pdf.

8. Karl Miller, “From Humanitarian to Economic: The Changing Face of Vietnamese Migration,” Migration Policy Institute, Apr. 29, 2015, accessed Sept. 18, 2016, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/humanitarian-economic-changing-face-vietnamese-migration. The official numbers by country were: US accepted 823,000 refugees, Australia and Canada accepted 137,000 each, France accepted 96,000, Germany accepted 40,000, and the United Kingdom accepted 19,000.

9. Drew DeSilver, “U.S. Public Seldom has Welcomed Refugees into Country,” Pew Research Center, Nov. 19, 2015, accessed Sept. 18, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/19/u-s-public-seldom-has-welcomed-refugees-into-country/.

10. Ibid, 9.

11. Ibid, 7.

12. Kalena Cortes, “Are Refugees Different from Economic Immigrants? Some Empirical Evidence on the Heterogeneity of Immigrant Groups in the US,” IZA Discussion Paper No. 1063 (2004).

13. Ibid.

14. “Value Added: Immigrants Create Jobs and Businesses, Boost Wages of Native-Born Workers,” American Immigration Council, Jan. 1, 2012, Accessed Jan. 8, 2017, https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/value-added-immigrants-create-jobs-and-businesses-boost-wages-native-born-workers.

15. Anh Do, “In Vietnamese Salons, Nails, Polish and Unvarnished Opinions,” Los Angeles Times, Jul. 13, 2013, accessed Nov. 13, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-ff-nail-chat-20130718-dto-htmlstory.html.

16. Maya N. Federman, David E. Harrington, and Kathy J. Krynski, "Vietnamese Manicurists: Are Immigrants Displacing Natives or Finding New Nails to Polish?," (Industrial and Labor Relations, Review 59, no. 2, 2006), 302-18.

17. Arthur Sakamoto and Hyeyoung Woo, “The Socioeconomic Attainments of Second-Generation Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans,” (Sociological Inquiry 77, 2007), 44–75.

18. “Vietnamese Americans are Upbeat and Optimistic,” Pew Research Center, Jun. 18, 2012, accessed Sept. 18, 2016, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/asianamericans-graphics/vietnamese/st_12-06-17_aa_vietnamese_attitudes-2/.

19. “For the Public, It’s Not about Class Warfare, But Fairness,” Pew Research Center, Mar. 2, 2012, accessed Sept. 18, 2016, http://www.people-press.org/2012/03/02/for-the-public-its-not-about-class-warfare-but-fairness/3-2-12-4/.

20. “Republicans Prefer Blunt Talk About Islamic Extremism, Democrats Favor Caution,” Pew Research Center, Feb. 3, 2016, accessed Mar. 9, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2016/02/03/republicans-prefer-blunt-talk-about-islamic-extremism-democrats-favor-caution/. Islam was scored 40 on a scale from 0 to 100 where 0 was the coldest; this is about what atheism scored (41).

21. Jie Zong, “Profile of Syrian Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, Nov. 2015, accessed Nov. 13, 2016, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/profile-syrian-immigrants-united-states.

22. Melanie Garuany, “Refugees Welcome: Celebrating the Communities That Shape and Strengthen America,” The White House, Sept. 15, 2016, accessed Sept. 18, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/09/15/refugees-welcome-celebrating-the-communities-that-shape-and-strengthen-america.

23. “Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” The White House, Mar. 6, 2017, accessed Mar. 13, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/03/06/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states.

Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article


Browse all content