Compassionate Politics: The History of Indochinese Refugee Migration and the Transnational Politics of Care, 1975-1994


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the migration of “Indochinese refugees” from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos fomented an “international crisis” and, more importantly, generated a vibrant transnational network of care. Government officials, labor unions, voluntary organizations, and evangelical groups, amongst others, drew on competing notions of compassion to legitimize local and international relief efforts. This ubiquitous and contested language revealed explosive political and ideological contradictions that resonated with a broader discursive shift from anti-communism to humanitarianism. This study traces the history of what I call “compassionate politics,” a volatile terrain of power and public sentiments fought over questions of civil, economic, and human rights. In so doing, it shows how compassion for refugees brought together various communities through common struggles for political recognition, while also reinforcing some deep-seated social inequalities. At the heart of these struggles loomed larger ethical questions: Who was entitled to compassion? Which lives were worth caring for? Whose suffering merited social recognition and public action?