On Sept. 17, the secretary general of Thailand's national security council, Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri, presented a grave address to representatives of foreign embassies in Thailand, including those of the United States, seJapan, West Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia as well as representatives of international organizations.
The gist of it was to register Thailand's concern about the world's diminished interest in Thailand's refugee problem. He said Thailand had accepted refugees fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos on the understanding that the free world would eventually relieve it of the burden by accepting the refugees for resettlement. Thailand sees this commitment waning, he said, and if this continues, it will take "drastic action" to settle the problem in its own way.
These warnings were reiterated at a recent meeting of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. Prasong repeated his government's alarm at the drop in the number of Indochinese refugees being resettled. In particular, he criticized the application of restrictive immigration regulations by countries that had originally urged Thailand to open its borders to refugees.
"The lesson we learned is that being too merciful could lead us to bear an endless burden, and it cannot be forecast how much longer the Thai people will want to live with this problem," Prasong said.
What we are facing is the gravest threat yet to the principle of first asylum for Indochinese refugees. If a "drastic" new policy is implemented, the 175,000 refugees now in Thailand risk being forced back to the border, and, we fear, across the border into the hands of the regimes from which they fled.
And while these developments are most ominous in Thailand, the crisis is not limited to that country. Even Hong Kong has recently begun to put all newly arriving boat people into so-called "closed" camps, a euphemism for prison camps, and has passed an ordinance permitting the involuntary repatriation of Vietnamese refugees.
The reason for these hardened attitudes is clear. The Bangkok Post summarized it in an editorial on Sept. 16 that concluded: 2 "Without continuing help from the world community, we cannot adequately care for the Indochinese refugees. There are disturbing, continuing signs that help is diminishing and will continue to do so. Resettlement rates are down in all countries, most especially the United States. Aid money is given more and more niggardly. Foreigners speak openly of what they say is an exhaustion of the compassion once felt by their citizens for refugees. We in Thailand are grateful for the help we have received in dealing with the refugee problem. But if it is true that this help is going to continue to drop, then Thailand will have to seek other ways to solve its refugee problems."
These are chilling words. It would be as irresponsible not to take them seriously as it would be unfair to deny the validity of Thailand's complaints.
It is true, for example, that as Thai spokesmen have pointed out the United States last spring offered to consider for admission 23,000 Cambodian refugees, but to date, less than one-third have been interviewed and only about one-half of these have been approved. Those rejected have been turned down primarily on the grounds of not being bona fide refugees as defined in the Refugee Act of 1980 -- a person outside his country and "unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution."
In view of what is now known of the terrible persecution non-communist Cambodians suffered at the hands of Pol Pot's government and what is known about conditions in Vietnamese-controlled Cambodia today, one must conclude that most of these rejections border on the capricious. Moreover, those who are rejected are left in greater danger than they were before. If we strip them of their claim to refugee status, on what basis could we take issue with the Thai authorities if they were to forcibly repatriate them?
If every second Cambodian refugee pleading for admission to this country is found not to be a refugee because he allegedly neither suffered persecution nor had a well-founded fear of persecution if he returned to Cambodia, do not our official pronouncements about the genocidal activities of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge and all our denunciations of the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia acquire a hollow ring?
By the same token, many Vietnamese boat people in countries of first asylum are also being turned down as allegedly not being bona fide refugees. Some have close relatives previously admitted to this country as refugees themselves. These include a mother being kept from her minor children, a husband being kept from his wife and an aging widow being kept from her son.
The State Department report on human rights practices in Vietnam, issued in February, states: "Hanoi and province-level radio stations broadcast news of executions of boat leaders involved in abortive escapes as well as word of punishment dealt to others implicated. These broadcasts, confirmed by numerous refugee reports, indicate that current sentences for escape participants range from three to 15 years of im prisonment at hard labor."
If the most authoritative publi cation of the U.S. government on
human rights in Vietnam reports
that would-be escapees have been
executed or sentenced to prison for
from three to 15 years at hard
labor, is it not odd that officials of
the same government can conclude
that actual escapees have no "well-
founded fear of persecution" if re turned to Vietnam?
If we wish to limit the number of
refugees coming to the United
States, do we have to do it by pre tending they are not refugees?
President Reagan, in consulta tion with Congress, recently au thorized the admission of up to
64,000 Indochinese refugees this
fiscal year. In order to preserve first
asylum in Southeast Asia and to
encourage our free world partners
to continue taking refugees, a
determined effort is required to
reach this ceiling.
Those responsible for approving refugees must be made to recognize that as a rule people who have fled totalitarian regimes such as those in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have well-founded fears of persecution if they were to be returned. Also, the principle of family reunification -- which has been so basic to our humanitarian tradition for years -- must be fully recognized. Families split by war and the aftermath of war should be reunited and given the chance to rebuild their shattered lives.
The Citizens Commission on Indochinese Refugees is deeply distressed at the trend we see developing today--a sense of decreasing responsibility and concern on the part of the countries of the free world and a sense of increasing self- protection on the part of countries of first asylum. Caught in these crosscurrents, the refugees fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos look to us for some recognition of their desperate plight.