Q&A: Mike Molloy, the man who delivered the ’boat people’

He was tasked with bringing 60,000 refugees to Canada after the Vietnam War. Now, Michael Molloy says it’s time to do the right thing again.
Mike Molloy at his home in Ottawa September 10, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)
Mike Molloy at his home in Ottawa September 10, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)
Mike Molloy at his home in Ottawa September 10, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

In the summer of 1979, Joe Clark’s minority Conservative government made a now-historic announcement: horrified by daily images of desperate Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing for their lives, Canada promised to welcome 50,000 of those refugees over the next 18 months. (That target was later increased to 60,000.) Michael Molloy was the civil servant chosen to lead the monumental resettlement effort, culminating in 181 charter flights full of new Canadians. More than half of those refugees (33,000) were sponsored by private citizens. Molloy, who went on to open the Canadian embassy in Syria and serve as ambassador to Jordan, spoke to Maclean’s about his team’s success—and how, with the right mix of political will and bureaucratic sweat, history could repeat itself.

Q: When you first saw the photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi face down on that beach, what went through your mind?

A: This is a bit odd. It reminded me of the first photographs the Americans released of their war dead in the Second World War. There were two or three bodies in the same position as young Alan, half-buried in the sand, half-buried in the water. I remember how sick I felt as a young boy when I saw those photos. The same emotion flooded through me when I saw him. We’ve all had three-year-olds in our lives, and to see that poor little fellow, it made me really sick. You never get used to this. One of my colleagues who served in southeast Asia way back in 1975 had to help carry a dead child off one of the refugee boats, and it’s affected him to this day. You never get hardened to that sort of thing.

Q: So many have drawn parallels between the current Syrian refugee crisis and the plight of the boat people from Indochina. Is it a fair comparison?

A: There are definitely some geographical similarities. In Indochina, we were dealing with people from nine jurisdictions all around the South China Sea. Here we’re dealing with refugees from lord knows how many places, and the common thing is this body of water that becomes both the road and the death trap. Even at its worst, the Vietnamese crisis didn’t hit the number we’re now seeing with Syrians. But at that time, it was pretty well the worst we’d seen.

Q: The overwhelming reaction of Canadians—and the Clark government of the day—is now a celebrated part of our country’s history: welcoming 60,000 refugees. How did you pull off such a bold promise?

A: It has everything to do with leadership and direction. There was real leadership at the top and a real recognition that this was a historic challenge and we’d better rise to it. As a mid-level civil servant brought into the middle of it, the thing we never doubted was where the leadership wanted us to go. The clarity of the direction from the top, and the commitment of the people at the top, was amazingly empowering. It allowed us to innovate. It allowed us to figure out new ways of doing things. It allowed us never to break the law, but to stretch it as far as it could be reasonably stretched to deal with what we actually saw as opposed to what the policy-makers might have imagined we’d see.

That is missing here. Over the last four or five days, we have the same profound concern bubbling up from our society—perhaps in an even bigger way than back then—but we’re like a ship without a rudder this time. The engines are ready to go full speed, but in what direction?

Related: Our primer on Syrian refugees, one of the election’s big issues

Q: It may seem like an obvious question, but what triggered such staunch political will? What was the turning point?

A: The case for intervention was clear. Vietnam was the first real TV war. This was the first real TV refugee crisis. In 1979, we saw so many times a boat absolutely packed with people—with kids—and we would watch it going down before our eyes. We would watch people coming out of the surf, dragging kids behind them, maybe alive, maybe dead. These were immediate images coming into the homes of Canadians that caused this enormous springing up of concern. At that stage, the refugee sponsorship program had never been tried; it had just been invented. And yet Canadians grabbed it and ran with it. We didn’t have to thump the drum at all. We didn’t have to promote it. Canadians just grabbed it and ran, and I think there is a similar spirit today.

Related: The government must bring refugees to Canada. So must we.

Q: When you look back at what you and your colleagues achieved, what memories stick out the most?

A: The thing that was so impressive was how difficult the environment was. In Hong Kong, the visa officers would travel by bus or taxi to get to the camps. But if you were in Bangkok, typically the nearest camps would be 12 or 14 hours away by train or car. They would work until they could no longer keep their eyes open.

The best story of that kind of hardship was when a group of officers went out to the Anambas Islands off the coast of Malaysia. They had to go by helicopter and they were practically sitting on each other. They get to this island and the pilot says: “Well, the helicopter is broken, so I don’t know how you’re going to get back.” I think there were four of them: three visa officers and a security guy. They knew they needed to bring back enough applications to fill 1,200 seats on airplanes. It was a Friday. They checked Friday afternoon and they still had a long way to go. They checked at 6:00 and it was still a long way to go. They checked at 9:00 and it was still a long way to go. Finally, around 1 o’clock in the morning, they did the count and they realized they had enough cases. As they start to pack things up, they realize that everyone in the camp is sitting on the ground around where the interviews were done—7,000 people. And as the Canadians start to pack up, the camp population stands up and gives them a standing ovation. The guys lived on the energy from that for the next six months.

Q: How, in hindsight, were you able to pull off such a monumental movement of people in such a short time?

A: We had the ability to focus on a group of people that just needed to be moved and resettled. We also had the power to cut the crap—to cut through the red tape. If nothing went wrong, the delay between our officers interviewing someone in a camp in Thailand or Malaysia or Indonesia, and them getting off a plane in Canada, could be as little as eight weeks. The procedures were new, and we realized that if we don’t keep them simple, if we don’t keep the paperwork to a minimum—both for the sponsors and particularly for the officers out there doing the work—we’re going to drown and they’re going to drown.

My impression today is the procedures have gotten more and more complex. If you want to go online and read about how to sponsor a refugee, there are 64 pages of text. We could write the history of Canada in 64 pages. We could plan an invasion in 64 pages.

A May 7, 1969 file photo showing South Vietnamese peasant women and children waiting in the hot midday sun after they were gathered up by U.S. Marines for relocation to a nearby refugee centre. (AP Photo/Hugh Van Es, File)
A May 7, 1969 file photo showing South Vietnamese peasant women and children waiting in the hot midday sun after they were gathered up by U.S. Marines for relocation to a nearby refugee centre. (AP Photo/Hugh Van Es, File)

Q: Clearly, the issue of security checks is a higher priority this time. How do you balance the desire to help the neediest with concerns about ensuring potential threats are not welcomed?

A: There is a lot of security anxiety, and I think there is a great deal of checking and double-checking and checking again because of the post-9/11 mentality, not to mention the couple of horrible things that have happened in our country the last year or so. That is real. But if we go after families with relatives in this country, and if we go after families with kids in tow, I don’t think we should have to worry too much. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do what we can to do security checks, but moms and dads who have three or four little kids to raise are going to have lots of things to do without worrying about: ‘Let’s go die for a cause.’

People who have suffered the kind of violence and oppression that is coming from the government of Syria and the other wild men operating in that area are going to be people who want to have nothing ever to do with that. They are getting out of there to get away from that. I would not minimize the need to do careful security checks, but if it’s taking 14 months to do it, that is unacceptable. There has to be another way.

Q: A lot of numbers have been tossed around during the election campaign. The Prime Minister pledged in January to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees, then promised on the campaign trail to welcome another 10,000 Syrians and Iraqis. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair wants to resettle 46,000 over five years, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has promised to bring in an immediate 25,000. Considering your expertise, how do you view those promises?

A: I think it’s a very good start. I’m not so worried about the numbers, because the people of Canada can drive the numbers. What I worry about is whether the government can put machinery in place fast enough that people aren’t told: “Well, sponsor them today and we’ll send you somebody in 18 months.” We found that people would wait happily for two months. After three months they got edgy, and after six months you’d better not answer the phone.

So the real challenge is: Will the government define a policy we can all rally around? And will they refine the current machinery, which seems to me to be overly elaborate, though allow us to have people arriving here in a reasonable period of time?

Q: Why does it appear that the processing system has become so cumbersome?

A: In public administration, you can always find more ways to do more things if you have too much time on your hands. I don’t think our immigration system has really been challenged the way it was then. And I think for the last eight or nine years we’ve been taking a lot of different refugees from a lot of different places, but typically they’ve been people who’ve been sitting in camps in Burma or the Himalayas or the Philippines or other places where they’ve not been comfortable but they’ve been safe. They may have sat in a camp in Nepal for 20 years, not comfortable, not happy, but not in danger. Since that’s what was out there, the system was adapted to deal with that, and they did a very good job.

But it’s been a long time since we’ve had the kind of in-your-face thing where people are not sitting in camps. They’re bobbing up and down in boats and drowning all around you. There hasn’t been this kind of immediate demand, this obvious need to protect people from death. And there hasn’t been a situation where the whole Canadian public has all of a sudden woken up and said: “Let’s go. What’s the problem? Let’s get moving.” There’s going to have to be some rapid shifting of gears, and we went through that in August 1979.

But I’m here to tell you that at the end of the month, all the gears had been shifted. We had the reception centres, we stripped down the overseas paperwork to one sheet, we had the airlift set, and we had a brutally effective system for taking the manifest of a 747 with 440 people on it, and on 10 days’ notice finding a sponsor for every single one of those people before the plane arrived in Canada. And we were using telexes and interoffice memos! There were no cellphones and no laptops. We had one funky computer to keep track of the sponsorship.

Q: Is today’s immigration bureaucracy capable of mounting such a massive response if the political will demanded it?

A: They’re very capable of doing it, and there’s never been a moment when they haven’t risen to the challenge. But the government has to be clear, and they have to be given the tools appropriate to the job. Whether that’s using the “country of exile” class, or whether it’s a special program, or whether it’s a ministerial directive, there are all kinds of ways to do it. That is for them to decide. You never know when you’ve reached a tipping point until it’s in the rear-view mirror, but this sure feels like one.

Syrian refugees carry their children as they jump off a dinghy overcrowded with Syrian refugees upon arriving on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey, August 9, 2015. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)
Syrian refugees carry their children as they jump off a dinghy overcrowded with Syrian refugees upon arriving on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey, August 9, 2015. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Q: If we weren’t in the middle of an election campaign, might the government’s response be different?

A: The issue gets politicized in a way that wouldn’t be politicized if we weren’t having an election. If the government in power had said a year ago: “This is a big problem and we’re going to do something about it, ladies and gentlemen,” the other parties would have rallied around it. We always do. And the Canadian public would have. But when you get into the middle of the election, you can’t help but have it become a bit of a political football being kicked back and forth on the backs of the refugees. The parties have to test the public willingness, and it’s very tricky business for all three.

If the election was next week, I’d be less concerned than I am now. A lot of things can happen in 40 days. People can lose interest, and then we’d miss our time. Or people can get really mad and go to the polls with a very bad attitude toward the government. Somewhere in between those two things we’ve got to get the ball rolling with the understanding that a new government, no matter who it is, is going to have to confront this in a different way. And 30 years from now some other guy is going to be talking about how great the government was and how great the Canadian people responded.

Q: If you were in Prime Minister Harper’s inner circle, what advice would you be giving him on this issue?

A: What I would be saying to him is, “This tired rhetoric about bombing ISIL and solving the problem that way is not washing.” He is profoundly right: there is a root cause, but nobody has been able to figure out how to deal with the Assad regime and nobody has been able to figure out how to deal with ISIL. If I was talking to the Prime Minister, I’d say: “What you’ve been saying is no longer really believed by the Canadian public. Yes, we have a big problem in Syria, and yes we’ve got to solve it. But if it could have been solved easily, we wouldn’t be talking about it today. It is horribly intractable, it’s horribly convoluted, and it’s your choice whether we throw bombs at it.

“But that doesn’t help us with the fact that there are four million people outside their country and they’re so desperate they’re swimming across the bloody Mediterranean and swamping the facilities of our friends and allies in Europe. Lord knows we aren’t going to be able to help all four million of them, but that’s no reason not to bring a respectable number in. Provide solutions for some people.”

Related: Scott Gilmore’s six-point plan to bring 200,000 refugees to Canada in 12 months

Q: What, in your mind, is a realistic target? Could Canada repeat the pledge of 1979: 50,000 refugees in 18 months?

A: I think they could. The Germans have just pledged 800,000, and they’ll settle a million refugees this year. Countries like Britain have been talking about 20,000. The Australians have been talking about 20,000. I think if the government said to the Canadian people: “We’re going to bring in 50,000 people in the next calendar year,” we could do it. It might take a few months to get geared up, and you’ve got to do these things carefully, but I think we could do it in a year. And halfway through the year I think we could look and say: “Okay, is that it or can we do some more?”

Q: Will we look back on this moment, years from now, and lament that we didn’t do enough?

A: Why don’t you ask me in two months? We are in danger of not doing enough.

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