THE TURBULENCE created by a generation of war in Indochina continues to spin off refugees: Cambodians fleeing to Vietnam and Thailand, Laotians to Thailand, ethnic-Chinese Vietnamese to China and to the open sea. These last "boat people" have numbered in the tens of thousands since 1975, in an overall total of more than half a million. Their travails - dying at sea in sinking boats, abandonment by passing ships, denial of entry by some Asian countries - have been heartbreaking. Currently one particular cargo of Vietnamese is lying off Malaysia. This involves something quite new: Most boat people have fled surreptitiously in small boats, but the 2,500 passengers on the Hai Hong, a chartered ocean-going vessel, are ethnic Chinese who evidently bought their way out with the connivance of Hanoi - and to its profit. A number of vessels similar to the Hai Hong are said to be loading off Vietnam right now.
As it is, the concern generated for the Hai Hong has broken a logjam in Washington. Even before this incident, the Indochina flow was outrunning the 25,000 refugee places the United States had allotted this year - on top of the 175,000 refugees admitted since 1975. With a smoother system, American officials could have adjusted to this year's unexpected circumstances. But they didn't. They are adjusting now: Malaysia is being assured that, if it adds the Hai Hong 2,500 to the 35,000 other boat people it already has ashore, it will not have to keep them, and places are being made for additional refugees in the United States.
The need remains for Congress, in particular Rep. Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.), chairman of the key subcommittee, to improve the system by granting the executive branch more refugee discretion, within agreed limits. Refugees should not be left suspended in misery at one point or another around the world while Americans fumble with the paperwork.
The international community can do more to even out the burdens of caring for Indochina refugees. Part of that effort should be to try to stanch the flow. No doubt it is difficult for any nation to wrestle with the aftermath of prolonged war, but that is no excuse for the way the three Indochina regimes have made life literally intolerable for hundreds of thousands of their citizens. A refugee flow of this sort should be recognized and condemned internationally as a mark of gross political failure.
At the same time, we see a certain risk in the Carter administration's new public criticism of the method - in effect, selling exit permits - by which Hanoi is dumping the latest boat people. The method is cynical, and perhaps the criticism of it will help end it. But in Vietnam, as elsewhere, it has given hope to some desperate people. Vietnam should be faulted for destroying the lives of its people, not for one particular way in which a few of them are gaining at least the chance of a new life.