The problems associated with the rescue of refugees and asylum seekers at sea reached a crisis point in the late 1970s, when tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees took to the South China Sea in boats that were in many cases unseaworthy and in all cases risked becoming the prey of brutal pirates who attacked, looted, and disabled boats, often killing or abducting passengers. Many merchant vessels plying those waters encountered foundering boats and followed the normal practice of rescuing the passengers and trying to disembark them in the next port of call. Nearby coastal states such as Malaysia and Thailand, however, feeling overwhelmed as the number of sea-borne refugees continued to climb, refused to allow disembarkation.
In 1978, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) brokered an agreement under which the coastal states would allow these "boat people" to come ashore if other (mainly Western) states agreed to resettle all such people within 90 days of their disembarkation. However, the arrangement did not work as smoothly as hoped. Ships found themselves subject to lengthy and costly delays as coastal states demanded that specific resettlement provisions be put in place prior to disembarkation. Ship owners who respected the traditions and laws governing rescue at sea bore all the direct costs of making a rescue. Refugee boats arrived with dead and dying passengers throughout the early 1980s, and survivors reported that 80-90 percent of the ships they had hailed refused to respond to distress calls. Ominously, the ratio of rescues to arrivals continued to shrink.
In 1984-1985, UNHCR put in place a number of emergency measures: they appealed successfully for more resettlement places to be offered and streamlined the procedures for matching up arrival and resettlement places. They established a scheme to reimburse owners for the direct costs of rescue, issued guidelines for ship owners and masters on the operational aspects of rescue, and sent out maritime radio messages explaining rescue procedures and appealing for ships to respond to boats in distress. They also began issuing public commendations to vessels that rescued refugees. By 1985, rescue was again on the rise. The crisis was slowly defused as the new measures took hold and the number of boat departures from Vietnam gradually declined.
The 1990s again saw an upsurge in the number of people taking to the sea in attempts to reach places of safety and/or opportunity. Tighter controls at borders and ports-of-entry had the unintended consequence of increasing the role of professional smugglers; the high profits in the trade attracted organized crime to people-smuggling and thereby increased the dangers.