Vo Van Dung gave the television cameras a thumbs-up as he walked through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
Along with more than 100 Vietnamese “boat people” who arrived in Canada between 2014 and 2017, he was landing in the country after seemingly living in the shadows of society for the previous 20 years.
Rather than live under Communist rule in Vietnam, many who fled their homeland after the Vietnam War sought refuge in neighbouring Thailand in the 1970s and ’80s.
But refuge came with a price. For decades, they were living “without status” or as “stateless” people. They could not work without the threat of being arrested or fined. They had no access to health care. Some relied on donations to make ends meet.
They had few to no options until Canada accepted them under a special program designed to resettle boat people who had been living under desperate circumstances.
But CBC News has learned that Vo was apparently living a more privileged life prior to coming to Canada.
The 57-year-old had been running a tour guide business. Headquartered in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Saigon Red Travel Company Limited offered tours between Vietnam and Thailand. And Vo wasn’t shy about his business and travel ventures, posing for photos with employees that were posted to social media.
A CBC investigation into the program has found at least five people, including Vo, ended up in Canada even though they do not appear to be those the government wanted to help, raising questions about the checks and balances meant to protect the country’s immigration system.
“Canada is known for being an international example for humanitarian endeavours, for people who are displaced, for people who are in trouble somehow,” said Guiddy Mamann, a refugee lawyer in Toronto.
“If people took the place of a more deserving candidate, then that would trouble me a lot.”
Vo did not respond to CBC’s requests for comment. But when CBC News asked an acquaintance of his about his business and lifestyle, he said Vo goes back and forth between Vietnam, Thailand and greater Vancouver and “thinks he’s doing very well.”
Who are the stateless?
A humanitarian crisis ensued following the fall of Saigon in 1975. Close to one million people fled from Vietnam — many by boat. Their journeys were perilous. The United Nations estimates up to 250,000 boat people died at sea.
Many of the boat people who did make it landed in neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Thailand.
Canada alone took in more than 100,000 refugees after the war.
In 1996, Vietnam repatriated tens of thousands of boat people from abroad. Those who did not want to go back because of fear of persecution back home escaped from refugee camps, living stateless in places like Thailand.
In 2006, the Vietnamese Canadian Federation (VCF), along with a U.S.-based group called the Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE), appealed to the Canadian government to bring over a number of stranded people from Thailand.
Current Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who was federal immigration minister at the time, met discreetly with Thai government officials to ensure they would be provided exit permits to leave the country.
A Canadian government official says Thai officials did not want to raise awareness about the program for fear that thousands of people would enter the country illegally and turn their country into an immigration hub.
“I actually went to Bangkok … and we had a lot of negotiations,” Kenney told a room full of recently arrived stranded people in Vancouver, according to a YouTube video of the 2014 session. “We promised to do this negotiation in a discreet way.”
According to a senior government official and another person consulted in developing the resettlement program, the conditions for the more than 100 people who were eventually let in were narrow and specific: those who were selected had to have remained in Thailand after leaving Vietnam between 1984 and 1991. This meant anyone who had been repatriated back to Vietnam or lived elsewhere would not qualify.
But Mamann, the Toronto immigration lawyer, said there were major shortcomings in program’s written policy, which was called a “Memorandum Of Understanding Relating To A Temporary Public Policy Concerning Certain Vietnamese Persons In Thailand.”
The MOU said that applicants had to have arrived from Vietnam between 1984 and 1991 and be residing in Thailand — but it never specifically said that they had to have lived continuously in Thailand the entire time.
“This is an obvious error…. The whole underpinning of this thing was we believe that you can’t go back to your country [and] that you’re stuck here. You’re like on an island in the middle of the ocean and we have to come and rescue you,” said Mamann. “The language was sloppy and not precise.”
The first wave of people arrived in Canada in 2014, with the last family arriving in 2017.
But towards the end of the program, the Vietnamese community in North America and overseas began criticizing some of those who were chosen for it.
‘Please help us’
Nguyen Tu, a former boat person who runs a cyber security company in Houston, began investigating the concerns in 2016 after receiving tips about the program from people stranded in Thailand.
He travelled to Vietnam and Thailand and heard allegations that a number of vulnerable people who believe they should have been accepted into the program had been overlooked.
“Several boat people from Thailand contacted me … [saying]: ‘Please help us, help us,’ ” said Nguyen.
The claims and the numbers of incidents prompted him to arrange meetings with officials from the Thailand Immigration Bureau, the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP in Thailand. He said he provided them with material he had uncovered.
Then in May 2019, Father Nguyen Thien, a U.S.-based priest, along with Dau Vu Bac, a former boat person living in the U.S., hosted a Facebook video live from Bangkok in a room of stateless Vietnamese making more allegations.
The video, viewed close 50,000 times, accused groups such as VOICE of selecting people such as Vo Van Dung, who had gone back to Vietnam, over them.
“It’s my understanding that some of those people didn’t deserve to go as boat people,” Dau said in Vietnamese. “So those people shouldn’t have gone, but were sponsored by VOICE anyway.”
CBC spoke to two people who had been living on the margins in Thailand and say they were left off the list.
Pham Ty said he arrived in Thailand in 1991 and lived at a number of refugee camps over a period of years. Almost 30 years later, he said he still lives in a town near the Thailand-Cambodian border.
He said he applied for the Canadian resettlement program but wasn’t selected and wasn’t given an explanation why.
“I believe in fairness. I believe that God and Buddha and the heavens will see everything. There’s no point in blaming other people,” he said when asked whether he was upset others got into Canada instead of him. “If I’m allowed [into Canada] I would be grateful.”
The other cases
Through sources, business records, social media accounts, emails and archival footage on Vietnamese television, CBC found at least five questionable candidates for the program.
One of those people is Truong Lan Anh, who according to her social media account, lives in Ottawa. She arrived in 2016 but business records for a travel company based in Vietnam, showed Truong Thi Lan Anh as the owner since 2012.
Facebook photos showed her taking photos at the business in 2013. An employee at the travel agency, according to a video obtained by CBC, confirmed Truong was her employer.
Truong did not respond to CBC’s requests for comment.
Another case involved Sabay Kieng. In 2014, he was welcomed to a gallery of media and supporters as he arrived in Toronto. Kieng said he had been struggling for years trying to support his family.
“I [wanted] to find a job. It’s not easy so I sell some fruit on the street [in Thailand] … to feed my son and my wife,” he told CBC in a telephone interview.
He’s said he’s working in automotive manufacturing in the Greater Toronto Area.
But CBC obtained records, photos and videos that showed he had been running a jewelry and crafts business in Cambodia called Craftworks Cambodia since at least 2008. He travelled at one point to Manilla to give a talk about his business experience at a conference.
Kieng confirmed to CBC that he had businesses in Cambodia but said he did not live there, only near the border.
But according to a former business associate, he lived in a house in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, before coming to Canada.
“I think compared to a lot of people in Cambodia, he was living quite well,” the business associate told CBC. “He went straight to Canada. I mean, he had to go immediately when he got the approval.”
CBC tried reaching Kieng on the phone again but he said he was “busy” before hanging up.
CBC made further attempts to get a comment about these inconsistencies but did not get a response.
‘A very ominous cloud’
Nguyen Dinh Thang, chief executive officer for Boat People S.O.S, an American non-profit organization that provides legal assistance for Vietnamese refugees abroad, had serious questions about the program as well after CBC showed him examples it had found, including the case involving Vo.
“They cannot even work legally in Thailand let alone [run] a business in Thailand or in other countries,” said Nguyen, who was in discussions with the Vietnamese Canadian Foundation during the negotiations on the agreement. “If they are truly stranded, they may not.”
While the MOU is vague and never specifically said that applicants had to be residing in Thailand the entire time, after reviewing CBC’s examples, Nguyen does not think these are the types of people the Canadian government intended on helping based on the intent of the policy.
“None of those cases would be eligible, under this temporary special program,” he said.
The process of selecting people went like this: the VCF was responsible for identifying potential candidates, but looked to VOICE to help stranded people in Thailand complete and submit applications to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (now Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada).
Once the list of potential applicants was passed on to Canadian immigration officials, the federal government would be responsible for interviewing people and to ultimately ensure their eligibility for entry into Canada.
Nguyen, who provides legal assistance for Vietnamese refugees in Thailand, said he is “perplexed by the lack of internal control” by the Canadian government because if there is any suspicious activity, that would “clearly cast a very ominous cloud” on all refugee programs.
“It is the responsibility of immigration to screen and serve as the first line of defence to protect the integrity of the country’s immigration program,” said Nguyen.
The VCF said it was not aware of any questionable candidates coming into Canada and that the final decision to let anyone into Canada rested with Canadian immigration.
A senior government official involved in helping create the program told CBC the government would not have agreed to this program if it was aware of people coming from Vietnam to Thailand after repatriation or elsewhere.
He said that it would “undermine the claim they had no alternative option available to them.”
CBC showed VOICE co-founder Trinh Hoi examples of people who critics say did not deserve to come, including Vo.
“Just because someone got resettled here doesn’t mean that the person cannot go back to Vietnam and visit his homeland,” said Trinh.
“You cannot use one story of someone who has been able to do well or relatively well … to illustrate and say that the refugees were not stateless and were not desperate — it’s unfair,” he said.
“When one person took advantage, and I’m not even saying [Vo] took advantage of the system, if he’s eligible under the law … he should be considered if he meets [the] criteria,” he said.
Trinh said the names submitted to the Canadian government were “eligible to the best of my knowledge” and that his job was to “refer those cases for consideration” with the federal government.
He denied he or his group did anything untoward, refuting the assertions in the video.
‘We take those concerns very seriously’
A government source confirmed to CBC that the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is investigating potential violations under the Immigration, Refugee Protection Act but would not indicate who, if any, specific individuals are being investigated.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Minister Ahmed Hussen would not comment on any of these allegations but did say that confidence in Canada’s immigration system is of utmost importance.
“I think it’s important for us to continue to maintain the integrity of our system. We take any allegation of fraud or anything that threatens the integrity of our refugee system very very seriously,” said Hussen.
Hussen said he couldn’t comment on the considerations that were made at the time the program was established because it was set up by the previous government.
Kenney’s office declined to comment on the matter and told CBC “it’s been a long time since he was immigration minister and he is fully focused on Alberta now.”