Saturday marks the 39th anniversary of a remarkable speech delivered by Vice President Walter Mondale in 1979 to some 60 governments at a special Geneva Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in Southeast Asia.
In light of today’s pitched and partisan political debate about refugees and immigrants in the U.S., it is useful to reflect on Mondale’s speech at that important event, and on the actions it inspired.
The 1979 Geneva meeting took place at a moment of crisis. In the months leading up to it, an exodus of boat people fleeing the south of Vietnam had escalated dramatically, driven in large measure by nationalization of private enterprises in the south of Vietnam, mistreatment and crackdowns on religious communities, continued repression, and official encouragement of departure as well as expulsion of ethnic Chinese.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees were in camps in the region, and Asian governments were threatening to refuse — and in many cases were preventing — more boats carrying refugees from landing on their shores. Unknown numbers were perishing at sea, and, with continued outflows from Vietnam, there loomed the prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe.
The goal of the Geneva meeting was a solution, but the prospects were uncertain. Without significant resettlement commitments from Western leaders, there was little hope that Asian governments would permit temporary refuge for those fleeing Vietnam.
Mondale’s statement was a call to action of historic proportion. He invoked the memory of the 1938 Evian Conference on the plight of Jewish refugees, where governments of the world had failed to come to an agreement on the resettlement of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. He declared that the stakes at Evian involved “human lives — and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world” — and that the governments of the world “had failed the test of civilization.”
Mondale pleaded with his counterparts in Geneva not to re-enact the error of the Evian delegates and said, “Let us not be the heirs to their shame.” He knew well that unless the U.S. was prepared to do more, no effort to encourage responsibility sharing for resettlement of Vietnamese refugees would stand any chance of success. After noting that America had already resettled more than 200,000 Indochinese refugees, he made clear that the U.S. was prepared to resettle another 168,000 in the year that was to come. As a result of this commitment and Mondale’s diplomacy, other governments did indeed come forward, and total commitments of 260,000 resettlement placements were made in Geneva, in addition to substantial additional financial support for humanitarian aid. These were critical in bringing the crisis to an end.
These steps also helped set the stage for adoption in 1980 of the U.S. Refugee Act — landmark legislation enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support that sought to regularize U.S. refugee resettlement. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program established by the act has resettled some 2 million refugees over the past four decades. And although the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. each year is modest when compared with overall legal immigration to the U.S., the Refugee Admissions Program has demonstrated a key commitment by the U.S. both to international responsibility sharing and to helping those in great need.
The program has also helped to revitalize and enrich communities in Minnesota and around the country.
The experience with the Geneva conference and its aftermath — in particular, U.S. leadership and U.S. willingness to share responsibility on humanitarian issues — stands in stark contrast to practices of the current administration. Rather than assume the mantle of humanitarian leadership, President Donald Trump and his administration have sought to vilify refugees, shrink the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and dramatically reduce U.S. support for international refugee aid.
Remembering Mondale’s speech in Geneva reminds us of an alternative vision of U.S. humanitarian leadership in the world. It is a vision that honors both U.S. interests and American values, and it offers a brighter future for hundreds of millions around the globe.
Eric Schwartz is president of Refugees International and professor (on leave) at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where he served as dean from 2011 to 2017.