REMEMBER the Indochina "boat people," whose plight engaged world attention in 1979 but was subsequently obscured by time and a new refugee crisis in Cuba? The forlorn fact is that the exodus by boat and land from Vietnam and its satellites, Cambodia and Laos, goes on. Hanoi stanched the flow briefly while the international heat was on in mid-1979, but thousands of ethnic Vietnamese still flee monthly, taking to sea and often running a brutal pirates' gamut. The only real difference is that there are no conspicuous Hai Hongs carrying several thousands passengers; now the boats are small.From Indochina overall, the flow averages 12,000 a month -- this excludes some 150,000 Khmers in Thailand awaiting possible repatriation. None of the three countries has achieved either the internal stabilization that would keep people from wanting to flee or the normal external relations that would let emigration be regularized.
But what happens to the regugees when they leave is a genuine international success story. The basic deal devised in 1979, under which poorer countries near Indochina would offer first asylum and richer countries more distant would offer resettlement and financing, is working. More people are departing the regional holding centers than are arriving. The United States led the way by taking 168,000 Indochinese in the last year. Proportionately, Canada, Australia and France took more. Japan takes few refugees but pays half the United Nations' refugee bill.
The recent Cuban immigrants, accepted without the screening the new refugee law specifies, have given refugees something of a bad name, but it is a very different story with the Indochinese, who come only after having been screened. The boat people crisis of early 1979 almost quintupled the rate of refugee arrivals, and it wasn't easy to handle them. But now resettlement machinery is in place, including a full network of private and public agencies and a guarantee of federal funding for three years. In the last year, 14,000 Indochinese were settled each month, and the same number are expected this year. Orientation and language training are offered in Asian holding centers, and it is becoming possible to ask when income taxes paid by self-sufficient former refugees will top federal outlays in their behalf. There are special problems: some Laotian refugees have no written language; other refugees tend to cluster in particular communities. These things are being worked on. The way the United States is treating the Indochinese refugees is one thing it's doing right.