115. Executive Summary of the Report of the Interagency Task Force on Indochinese Refugees1



When the President approved the Department of State’s proposal to parole an additional 15,000 refugees from Indochina, he also directed the Department of State to chair an interagency task force to develop a longer term program to deal with this problem.2

The task force3 has completed its work and makes recommendations for future United States policy in the following areas:

—continued acceptance of refugees from Indochina for resettlement in the U.S.;

—an intensified effort to achieve an international approach to assisting the large number of remaining refugees.


There are currently 80–90,000 refugees in Thailand and approximately 6,000 more scattered among ten different countries throughout East Asia. The former are primarily refugees who fled by land from Laos and Cambodia; the latter escaped from Vietnam by boat. Currently, the exodus of people from Laos and Cambodia into Thailand is continuing at a rate of about 1,800 a month; and the Vietnamese are continuing [Page 399] to flee by boat at a rate of about 400–500 a month. This is an annual rate of 26–28,000 new refugees from Indochina.


As a first step the task force requested an intelligence assessment of the future refugee problem. The assessment provided the following estimate:

—there will be as many as 53,000 to 68,000 new refugees from Indochina between July 1977 to the end of 1980 from Laos and Vietnam. Given a consistent historical pattern of underestimating the size of the refugee flow in the past, and the difficulty in making such estimates, the task force accepted the upper end of this range as the best estimate possible for planning purposes.

The task force then made its own estimate of the numbers that would either be boat cases or meet the U.S. criteria as follows:

—16,000 will be boat cases;

—13,000 of those escaping by land will meet current U.S. criteria for accepting refugees.


The task force concluded that the plight of the Indochinese refugees will continue to be a matter of concern to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds as well as the fact of the long U.S. involvement in Indochina. The task force makes the following recommendations:


The task force recommends that the U.S. continue active assistance to help alleviate the Indochinese refugee problem. The assistance should include both continued admittance to the U.S. of Indochinese refugees and a renewed effort to stimulate an international approach to the problem, including resettlement in Thailand of the refugees who will inevitably remain there.

Refugee Acceptance Policy

Assuming approval of the recommendation for continued acceptance of Indochinese refugees into the U.S., two policy questions remain: which refugees to admit; and under what authorities.

•With regard to which refugees to admit, the task force recommends that the U.S. continue to admit to the U.S. all boat case refugees not having resettlement opportunities elsewhere and all non-boat cases meeting the admittance criteria being applied to the 15,000 now being accepted. These criteria are the same as for the past programs with a tightening of the close relative criterion. Approval of this policy could result in the U.S. accepting as many as 25–30,000 refugees from Indo[Page 400]china between now and 1980, an average of 8,500 per year at a cost of $7.7 million per year.

•With regard to the authorities to be used in implementing this policy, the task force considered two approaches, each with two options, as follows:

(1) Continued use of the Attorney General’s parole authority either by:

—following the past patterns of the 1976 and 1977 parole action, i.e., wait for a backlog of eligible refugees to develop before seeking parole; or

—seek a long-range parole authority for the projected number of eligible refugees between now and 1980 with an annual review to adjust the numbers; or

(2) Seek special legislation either to:

—amend the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) to make more immigration numbers available to Indochina through a change in hemispheric allocations; or

—seek new legislation to provide special immigrant visas for the projected number of eligible Indochinese refugees between now and 1980.

The task force has concluded that any future approach to U.S. admittance of additional Indochinese refugees should recognize the situation as a continuing one and should demonstrate a desire to avoid the continued use of ad hoc parole. Any one of the legislative options or the long-term parole option would be satisfactory provided our estimates are not seriously low. The long-term parole option would provide for annual adjustments to the numbers. Otherwise, the choice between legislation and the long-term parole approach is largely a political one. Consultation with the Congress on parole involves essentially the leadership of two committees. Legislation would have to pass both Houses. The parole approach has come under severe criticism and could be seen as an attempt to legislate through the consultation process.4 If legislation were introduced and defeated the future use of parole would be difficult and the U.S. could be left with no way to respond to an urgent humanitarian need. Lastly, Congressman Eilberg, Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, has introduced his own bill that would, among other things, amend the [Page 401] INA to eliminate the parole authority and substitute a new immigration category for refugees.5 He would likely view any legislative approach as in conflict with his proposal. The Administration has testified in general support of Eilberg’s bill but with major reservations which he rejected during hearings.

The task force recommends that, in view of these considerations, the Administration not take a firm position on any of these options but, instead, that it use them as a basis for consultations with Congress in an effort to find a joint solution.

Domestic Programs

Approval of the recommendation for continued acceptance by the U.S. of Indochinese refugees will raise the question of domestic benefits programs to assist their resettlement. Under the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975,6 federal reimbursement has been provided to states on a 100% basis for refugee maintenance (cash) assistance, medical assistance, social services, and related state/local administrative costs.

The Administration has legislation before Congress now that proposes a three-year extension and phasedown of this program as it applies to Indochinese refugees already paroled into the U.S. and an eighteen-month period of full federal funding for assistance to the 15,000 additional refugees followed by a three-year phasedown identical to that proposed for the earlier refugee group.7

The task force requested an assessment of the impact on employment in the U.S. of a program of continued admittance of Indochinese refugees. The Department of Labor estimates that admittance of 8,500 refugees per year, assuming all 8,500 would be seeking jobs, would have an impact of less than two-tenths of one percent on annual job openings in the U.S. The Department of Labor assessment pointed out that if a large portion of the 8,500 went into a single labor market with a high rate of unemployment, or if a majority of the refugees sought jobs in one occupation, there could be some impact. However, all of the 8,500 would not in fact be seeking jobs; only about 1,700 of the 8,500 would be heads of households.


The task force recommends that, if continued acceptance of Indochinese refugees is approved, the matter of domestic assistance to those [Page 402] arriving after the 15,000 be re-examined after the Congress acts on the current proposed program to determine whether recommendations for changes are necessary or desirable. If the current Administration proposals for domestic benefits passed the Congress and were applied to future refugees, the cost to the U.S. from FY–1979 to FY–1985 would be $39 million.

International Approach to the Indochinese Refugee Problem

•A long-term U.S. commitment to continue accepting Indochinese refugees into the U.S. will not solve the Indochinese refugee problem. However, such a policy, along with a U.S. commitment to contribute to resettlement in Thailand as proposed further on, would provide a fresh opportunity for a renewed approach to the international community in concert with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

•There are four key objectives which need to be addressed if progress is to be made toward ameliorating the overall situation:

—Continue to provide international resettlement opportunities;

While the international record (with the exception of France) is poor, the task force recommends a renewed effort.

—Improve responsiveness of international maritime traffic to refugee vessels in distress and rationalize temporary safehaven procedures for boat refugees;

The task force recommends continued approaches to countries of first asylum, appeals to shipowner associations to honor international covenants concerning assistance to those in distress at sea, and explorations with the UNHCR of the possibility of establishing a transit camp (or camps) in East Asia for boat refugees.

—As an interim measure, ensure continuing adequate relief support through the UNHCR to refugees in camps;

The task force recommends that U.S. contributions to UNHCR, now about 60% of the total cost, continue at that level and that the U.S. should support the UNHCR in its appeals to other donors. The annual cost to the U.S. would be approximately $5 million.

—And provide international encouragement and support to the government of Thailand for the resettlement in Thailand of the Indochinese refugees who will remain there;

The task force found this aspect the most intractable of the Indochinese refugee problem. Even with a continued U.S. and international effort to resettle refugees outside of Southeast Asia, Thailand will be faced with a substantial residual refugee population. We have already indicated to the Royal Thai Government (RTG) our view that most of the refugees will have to be resettled in Thailand and that we will [Page 403] consider sympathetically any request for assistance. The RTG has vacillated from an apparent willingness to consider resettlement to serious thoughts of repatriation as the solution. The task force recommends that the U.S. continue to work with the UNHCR to encourage the Thais in the direction of resettlement, but believes that, to make any further progress in our discussions on resettlement with the RTG and the UNHCR, a more specific commitment of possible U.S. financial support for resettlement will be required. The actual provision of such assistance would be made contingent upon positive movement on the part of the RTG and the UN and international funding for the balance. The task force believes that, to be effective, the U.S. contribution probably would have to be 40–60% of the total cost, resulting in a possible cost to the U.S. of as much as $12–18 million a year for three years.

•The task force recommends that the Department of State be authorized to indicate to the RTG and the UNHCR, U.S. willingness to make, subject to congressional approval, a substantial contribution to the total cost of an internationally supported but Thai-conceived and managed resettlement program. The Department would make it clear that the U.S. views this as an international problem in which the UNHCR should take lead and that provision of this support would be contingent upon positive action by the UN, the Government of Thailand, and other donors.


If the recommendations of this report were approved and the assumptions underlying the projections and estimates proved correct, the total cost to the U.S. would be as follows:

3½ Years Cost
For resettlement in the U.S. 27.0
For relief support8 17.5
For resettlement in Thailand 36.0–54.0
For domestic programs 39.4
Total 119.9–137.9

The actual cost to the U.S. would depend upon the numbers of refugees ultimately admitted to the U.S., congressional action on current legislation providing domestic benefits (and, over time, on the outcome of welfare reform in general), and on the nature and extent of any resettlement program in Thailand. The estimate on resettlement [Page 404] in Thailand used in the report represents an order of magnitude only and would require extensive refinement.


International Conference

•Congressman Eilberg has proposed in a letter9 to the President the convening of an international conference to discuss the Indochinese refugee problem. While the task force has reservations about the desirability of such a conference, it recommends the idea be discussed with the UNHCR.10

Coordination with the UNHCR

•Working level discussions with the UNHCR are already underway within the framework of existing U.S. policy on all of the above agenda. Approval of the recommendations in this report would make those discussions more fruitful. The forthcoming UN General Assembly and the meeting of the UNHCR’s Executive Committee in early October of this year offer opportunities to pursue these discussions with the High Commissioner himself. Further, the task force recommends that the High Commissioner be invited to Washington for a high-level discussion.

Approach to the Secretary General of the UN

•The task force believes that, in addition to the discussions with the UNHCR, it would be useful to involve the Secretary General of the UN in addressing the refugee situation in Indochina.

•The task force recommends that, following or in coordination with the meetings with the UNHCR, the Secretary of State discuss the problem of Indochinese refugees with the Secretary General of the UN for the purpose of enlisting his personal support of the effort.11

Implementation and Follow-up

If the recommendations in the report are approved, close coordination among all the interested agencies will be required for their successful implementation. Given this fact, and the many large uncertainties concerning the size and nature of the future Indochinese refugee problem, the task force recommends that it be directed to reconvene quarterly for the purpose of assessing the situation as it unfolds and to make further recommendations for U.S. policy, as appropriate.

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Department of State

Agency for International Development

Department of Justice12

Immigration and Naturalization Service

Health, Education and Welfare

Department of Labor

Domestic Policy Staff

National Security Council

Office of Management and Budget

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Subject File, Box 51, Refugees, 1–12/78. Confidential.
  2. See Document 113.
  3. Membership of the Task Force is at page 10. [Footnote in the original.]
  4. Congressman Eilberg has repeatedly called for the Executive Branch to issue guidelines institutionalizing the process of consultation with the Congress on parole. The task force recommends that the Department of Justice and the Department of State collaborate on the issuance of such guidelines in the immediate future. [Footnote in the original.]
  5. Reference is to H.R. 7175 (95th Congress), introduced by Eilberg on May 13, which sought to change the procedures by which refugees were admitted to the United States by amending the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (P.L. 89–236).
  6. P.L. 94–23.
  7. P.L. 95–145, Title II, approved on October 28.
  8. Relief costs would, in fact, be less if resettlement in Thailand went forward. [Footnote in the original.]
  9. Not found.
  10. A UN Conference on Indochinese refugees was eventually held in July 1979. See Document 138.
  11. No record of such a discussion has been found.
  12. Department of Justice participation in the Report and its Recommendations does not by implication or otherwise suggest a predetermination on the part of the Attorney General on future requests for the exercise of his discretionary parole authority. [Footnote in the original.]