Lessons from the resettlement of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Vietnamese forced migrants in Germany

Hiếu (pseudonym) embodies the ‘good refugee’ story. In 1979, he fled Vietnam by boat and eventually resettled in the Federal Republic of (West) Germany, as did many others. He quickly learned German and adapted to his new life with the help of a sponsor family. Hiếu completed his PhD in a science field, began working for a German corporation, and raised a family of grateful German citizens.

Lesser-known than the ‘good refugee’ figure that Hiếu represents, ‘bad refugees’, like Trinh, also give us much insight into what matters for the resettlement of foreigners.

Like Hiếu, Trinh left Vietnam as a teenager. She received a labour contract to work in a Soviet-allied country in the 1980s as part of a solidarity exchange between socialist Vietnam and the Eastern Bloc. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Trinh hired a guide to help her cross the border into Germany to file for asylum. As with most of her fellow contract workers, however, Trinh found her asylum claims denied. The state had deemed her a bogus asylum-seeker and sent her deportation orders. Trinh eventually changed her legal status through a law that provided protection for parents of children born in Germany. Today, Trinh and her husband run a business in Berlin and are active in ethnic associations.

Despite their different starting points, both Hiếu and Trinh have flourished in Berlin. What, then, do their stories teach us about trajectories of resettlement?

Key factors for successful resettlement

Drawing on in-depth interviews, as well as statistical and media sources, historian Frank Bösch and I studied the integration outcomes of Vietnamese in Germany. Our work contributed to a UNU-WIDER project, Forced Migration and Inequality which compared the resettlement of Vietnamese and Afghan refugees in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany. Based on our findings as well as insights from our colleagues on the project, we offer two observations about factors shaping resettlement.

First, the context that receives immigrants and refugees powerfully shapes their resettlement outcomes, beyond any cultural traits or capital they bring with them. Specifically, the strength of the labour market into which migrants enter, their treatment by the government, and the presence of an ethnic community all impact their life chances. 

Though sharing similar backgrounds, the Vietnamese refugees and contract workers we studied had divergent integration outcomes. On average, both migration streams left Vietnam with low levels of education and wealth. West Germany provided refugees with language classes, job training or an education, and the tools to start a new life. East Germany and the Eastern Bloc, by comparison, took steps to prevent the integration of foreign contract workers, including withholding their passports and restricting their contact with the native population. Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, refugees fare on average far better than former contract workers in terms of linguistic fluency, occupation, and residential integration.  

Scholars of migration have affirmed the importance of contexts of reception through innovative research designs. One example comes from sociologist Irene Bloemraad’s comparison of the resettlement of Portuguese and Vietnamese immigrants and refugees in the United States and Canada. She argued that Canada’s greater state support for resettlement encouraged migrants to acquire citizenship and participate politically at higher rates than in the US.

As populists raise alarms about refugees threatening American/European/Western values, it bears repeating that the context that greets migrants matters far more than their individual traits. Furthermore, societal attitudes towards refugees change over time, as new immigration waves swell and ebb. Countries such as the US have a long history of hostility toward refugees, and yet as time passes, formerly unwelcomed foreigners acquire the status of ‘good’, while the newest groups of asylum-seekers inherit the label ‘bad’. For example, after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 only 37% of Americans surveyed in a Harris Poll supported admitting these refugees. Today, Vietnamese have been recast as the ‘good refugees’, while Syrians and others from the Middle East and North Africa have become the new ‘bad refugees’.

The support of ethnic communities may in time offset the impact of a negative context of reception. By providing in-language information and services, ethnic networks offer important resources for migrant arrivals.

While Vietnamese refugees and contract workers differed widely in their integration outcomes, the second-generation children of both migration streams have achieved notable academic success. They have been hailed as the ‘Vietnamese wonder’, outperforming even native Germans. Sociologists Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston III remarked on this educational success decades earlier. Based on their work in a New Orleans Vietnamese community, they developed a theory of ethnic social relations, arguing that an ethnic community can generate networks of relationships (social capital) that help the second generation overcome their parents’ limited human capital.

But often a positive context of reception and ethnic social capital coincide. This is where our comparison of refugees and contract workers proves particularly fruitful — while refugees benefitted from a positive context of reception, contract workers relied on ethnic social capital to navigate their lives in Germany. In the face of legal uncertainty, contract workers drew on their ethnic networks to litigate for better visas, organize for residency rights, find jobs and housing, and build their new lives in reunified Germany.

Ethnic networks can be critical for refugees who find themselves in adverse migration contexts. All of the studies of Vietnamese in the Forced Migration and Inequality project found that refugees eventually relocated to areas where people of their shared ethnicity lived, even in the face of official policies that dispersed them in an effort to avoid ghettoization. This ethnic capital can benefit governments in host countries as well — the German government, for example, funds migrant organizations, run for and by migrants, to serve as a bridge between them and the host society. This is not to say that ethnic networks are an undisputed good, but the German case indicates that migrants can and do draw on ethnic social capital to improve their lives. Host countries can do the same.

To summarize, we suggest that successful resettlement requires host governments and settlement agencies to offer holistic support for refugee integration. Moreover, existing social networks can provide an invaluable source of additional support to both refugees themselves and governments working toward their integration. 

In text reference

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Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) (2007). The Vietnamese Diaspora in Germany Structure and Potentials for Cooperation with a Focus on Berlin and Hesse. Report. Eschborn: GTZ. 

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The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.