Orderly Departure Program Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Orderly Departure Program was instituted by the communist government of Vietnam in cooperation with the United Nations to ease the plight of refugees attempting to leave Southeast Asia on small boats. Through the program, about 500,000 Vietnamese immigrated to North America.

After the communist victory ended the Vietnam War in early 1975, tens of thousands of Vietnamese people wanted to escape from the newly reunited country’s Communism;Vietnamcommunist regime. In 1978, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam turned against the ethnic Vietnamese immigrants;ethnic Chinese (Hoa)Chinese minority in Vietnam known as Hoa. Repressive measures drove many of these people to leave the country on small boats. The great perils that these boat people faced on the high seas aroused international attention. In the face of growing international concern, leaders of the Vietnamese government began meeting with representatives of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) and the U.S. government to find a mutually satisfactory settlement.Vietnamese immigrants;Orderly Departure ProgramOrderly Departure ProgramUnited Nations;Orderly Departure ProgramVietnam War;postwar refugeesThailandVietnamese boatpeopleVietnamese immigrants;Orderly Departure ProgramOrderly Departure ProgramUnited Nations;Orderly Departure ProgramVietnam War;postwar refugeesThailandVietnamese boat people[cat]INTERNATIONAL AGREEMENTS;Orderly Departure Program[03990][cat]REFUGEES AND DISPLACED PERSONS;Orderly Departure Program[03990][cat]SOUTHEAST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Orderly Departure Program[03990]

The Program in Operation

After intense negotiations, Vietnam and the UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding on May 30, 1979. The agreement established the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) for Vietnamese citizens requesting to emigrate from Vietnam to Western countries. The United States agreed to accept a majority of the emigrants.

Young Vietnamese refugees, who were relocated to the Philippines after the closure of refugee camps in Thailand, staging a demonstration at the U.S. embassy in Manila in September, 1996, urging the U.S. government to resettle them in the United States, as they believed it had promised to do.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The program got off to a slow start. In January 1980, the ODP opened its offices in Bangkok, Thailand. From there, ODP missions went to Ho Chi Minh City–as Saigon had been renamed by the Vietnamese government–to interview potential immigrants and process their departures. However, immediately after U.S. president Reagan, Ronald[p]Reagan, Ronald;and Vietnam[Vietnam]Ronald Reagan took office on January 20, 1981, Vietnam suspended the program. In October, 1981, Vietnam resumed the program after resolving differences with the new U.S. administration. It was not until 1983 that the ODP was running smoothly. By then, the majority of Vietnamese refugees who went to the United States were leaving through the program’s provisions rather than risking perilous ocean voyages on their own.

After U.S.-Vietnamese relations improved with the lifting of a U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam in early 1994, the two countries decided to close registration for the ODP on September 14, 1994. In 1999, the ODP office in Bangkok shut its doors and the remaining work was handled by the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Section at the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. On November 15, 2005, the United States and Vietnam agreed to allow the last Vietnamese who had been eligible to emigrate to the United States under the program but had missed the 1994 deadline for registration to do so.

In all, about 500,000 Vietnamese immigrated to the United States under the ODP. Most of these people either had worked with Americans during the Vietnam War or were family members of people who had. Others were relatives of Vietnamese already living in the United States. While eventually reducing the numbers of desperate boat people, the ODP contributed substantially to Vietnamese immigration to America.

In American popular culture, the ODP was immortalized in the musical Miss Saigon (musical)Miss Saigon (pr., pb. 1989) and the autobiography of Nguyen, KienKien Nguyen, The Unwanted (2001), depicting the plight of the Vietnamese affected by its operation.Vietnamese immigrants;Orderly Departure ProgramOrderly Departure ProgramUnited Nations;Orderly Departure ProgramVietnam War;postwar refugeesThailandVietnamese boat people

Further Reading
  • Kumin, Julie. “Orderly Departure from Vietnam: Cold War Anomaly or Humanitarian Innovation?” Refugee Survey Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2008): 104-117.
  • Nguyen, Kien. The Unwanted. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2001.
  • U.S. General Accounting Office. Refugee Program: The Orderly Departure Program from Vietnam. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1990.

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