INDOCHINESE REFUGEES in South east Asia are no longer of fashionable concern in the West. But in some ways their plight is worse than ever, for now they have less hope of ever starting a secure life in a new homeland.
Communist and non-communist governments alike share in the blame for this situation. The refugees' predicament has come about as a direct result of the policies of a number of countries, including Vietnam, the United States and Thailand. Sadly, their situation also has demonstrated the limited ability of international organizations to offer protection to vulnerable, displaced people in the absence of strong commitments from governments.
In Hong Kong, Vietnamese boat people are being incarcerated in what are euphemistically known as "closed camps," but which are, in fact, prisons.
In the Thai camp of Panat Nikon, two Vietnamese who had been denied resettlement set themselves on fire in front of officials from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency that decides which refugees get resettled in the United States. The INS men have shown such extreme insensitivity in their methods that State Department officials have bitterly complained to Washington.
At the end of May, on orders of the Thai government, approximately 20,000 Cambodians were bused from a place of relative security a few miles inside Thailand back to the heavily mined Cambodian border area, where civilians are caught in the fighting. Despite a petition for help from 2,000 of these displaced Cambodians, neither the the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) nor the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was able to prevent their forced transfer.
The hazards facing people being sent back to the border area were all too clear to me when I visited ICRC hospitals in the area in April. I saw people whose limbs had been blown off by the land mines that have been placed in that no man's land. Many of the victims were children.
In 1979, Indochinese refugees were the center of international attention. Thousands of boat people fled from Vietnam and up to half a million came to the Thai border to escape the chaos brought about by the Vietnamese occupation that ended Pol Pot's brutal revolution. The West responded generously, by resettling many of these people. But now it seems that concern has been largely exhausted. Relief workers call it "compassion fatigue."
Western societies cannot, of course, be expected to absorb endless numbers of peasants fleeing Third World dictatorships, particularly in a time of recession. Groups interested in resettling refugees from other places, such as Latin America, already claim that Indochinese refugees have been given too much precedence.
Even some in the refugee business argue that the Indochinese relief effort itself has been part of the problem. The large-scale resettlement programs, they say, have encouraged the emigration of Indochinese people who otherwise would have endured conditions at home.
Even if one accepts that argument, however, the suffering and desperation of thousands of refugees today is a reality that must be of concern to the international community. Refugees are still coming, particularly from Vietnam and Cambodia. Until the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, the United States accepted these Indochinese en masse. Since then, however, they have had to prove individually that they have a genuine fear of persecution back home. In many cases this has been difficult to establish.
Belatedly, the Reagan administration appears to have recognized the need for a policy more responsive to the special Indochinese situation.
In May, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 93 which for the first time suggests that almost everyone who has fled Cambodia should be considered as a political refugee, with a right to enter the United States. Such people, according to a copy of the memorandum that I obtained, "will not have to present independent evidence regarding persecution." This directive is set to be implemented with new regulations next week, a development that could end some of the tragedies that have engulfed the refugees as a result of their uncertain status.
At the height of the resettlement program, 700 people a day (principally Vietnamese and Laotians) were leaving Thailand for the West. Since then the numbers have gradually fallen, reaching about 100 a day in January this year. But there are still over 162,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians in refugee camps in Southeast Asia. The arrivals are nothing like the flood of 1979, but are still high.
In the first six months of this year 16,865 boat people arrived in other countries of the region. The summer monsoon (which blows boats in the direction of Hong Kong) began in May, so now the numbers arriving there are increasing.
Most of those coming to Hong Kong are peasants from northern Vietnam who do not meet the requirements that most governments have set down for resettlement. They have no family in Western countries and lack any other connections.
There are close to 13,000 boat people there now. To discourage more arrivals, the Hong Kong government has started to lock them up in prison camps. Some 3,500 boat people are in these so-called "closed camps." Conditions are wretched. Some dormitories hold up to 250 people crowded into small metal cages stacked on top of each other. Families can end up divided, with some relatives in the new prisons and others in the old "open camps."
Hong Kong officials say that, unlike most Southeast Asian countries, the Crown Colony has never denied asylum to any refugee. But they say that the rate of resettlement out of Hong Kong is now so low that they must discourage new arrivals. Yet this has not stopped more from coming.
Resettlement itself has not been an entirely happy experience. For those boat people who head for Thailand or Malaysia, the hazards of piracy are still dreadful. Multiple rapes of women, murders and abductions are common. Every day the sea washes up on Thai beaches bodies that have been mutilated by the attacks of both humans and sharks. Yet since 1979 only 27 Thai pirates have been arrested, tried and convicted. The antipiracy program -- patrol boats, decoy boats and spotter planes -- has helped, but not enough.
Cambodian refugees are, if anything, in an even more desperate situation. There are presently about 75,000 of them in UNHCR camps in Thailand, most of them in Kao I Dang. In 1980, when there were 130,000 Cambodians in Thailand, this was the largest city of Cambodians in the world. Then it bustled with activity and there was some sort of hope. Now it is dispirited. Refugees are not allowed to receive money from relatives abroad and there is not even a market in the camp. The Thai government wants to make the place unattractive, so people will return to the border.
In 1979, when widespread famine was thought to be sweeping Cambodia, about half a million Cambodians, encouraged by Voice of America broadcasts, fled for food and sanctuary to the border. Some went on to Kao I Dang, others went home. Those who have not wished to return to live under Vietnamese control have been forced instead to become part of the anti-Vietnamese resistance which has been built up in the temporary camps along the border by all those countries opposing Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, notably China and Thailand, but also with Western support.
How many civilians are trapped in the borders areas is unknown. But in the face of Vietnam's refusal to reach a negotiated settlement that would end its unilateral occupation, the Thai government has sought to increase the human buffer along the border. Since 1980, almost 32,000 people have been persuaded, or forced, by the Thais to leave the relative security of the Kao I Dang camp for the far more dangerous boa right rder area.
Despite competent feeding by an ad hoc body called the U.N. Border Relief Organization (UNBRO), and medical programs run by such groups as the American Refugee Committee, health and sanitary conditions are miserable.
Nowhere on the border is safe today and almost everywhere has been mined by one or other group of combatants over the years. In the first four dry-season months of this year, Vietnamese attacks on the border camps killed hundreds of people, wounded thousands and uprooted 90,000. To begin with, the Thai army refused to allow people to move out of the line of fire into Thailand, but then at the urging of UNBRO and the ICRC, allowed some of them to come in a few miles.
In April, I visited a place called Red Hill, barely three miles from the border. Some 20,000 people had been brought there from Phnom Chat, a Khmer Rouge camp, when it was attacked by Vietnamese troops. After complicated negotiations with ICRC, Thailand permitted this temporary sanctuary -- but only on the strict condition that all the people return to the border when the immediate fighting ended.
When I was there, Khmer Rouge communist soldiers were wandering around in bright green clothing that China has recently supplied. One refugee told me he had been tricked into leaving Kao I Dang in the belief that his wife was at the border. Now he was desperate to get away. "I don't want to go back (to the border). I am afraid to die," he said. "Two of my children are dead. Many of the civilians here do not want to go back. But the Khmer Rouge soldiers will make them. The Khmer Rouge have not changed."
Soon after my visit, some 2,000 people delivered petitions to ICRC imploring protection. One group of petitioners begged not to be sent back to live under "the Khmer Rouge headmasters." Others asked for resettlement in the West.
ICRC passed on the petitions to the UNHCR, but continued to negotiate with the Thai authorities. Astonishingly, considering that ICRC and the UNHCR had been working on refugee problems for years, they were unable to agree on a common approach to the Thai government in this crisis. The best that could be negotiated was a deal whereby some who hated the Khmer Rouge were able to go to a section of the border not under communist control. On May 24 and 25, buses turned up at Red Hill. People were told to choose at once where they wished to go. Khmer Rouge soliders attempted to pressure everyone to go with them, but 2,700 were able to get away from the "headmasters."
Only after the return of the people at Red Hill to the border did UNHCR ask the Thai government "to consider favorably granting asylum to those (Cambodians) who had reason to seek asylum in Thailand."
On the whole ICRC has been more courageous in protecting refugees than UNHCR. ICRC has been diligent about protecting the hundreds of "Vietnamese land refugees" who have crossed Cambodia to the Thai border. The Thais have been very reluctant to allow them through Thailand and the UNHCR has refused to do anything for them, for reasons that have the ring of "Catch 22." Its explanation is that these Vietnamese refugees' real country of first asylum is Cambodia, not Thailand, since that was the first country they entered. Under that interpretation, the Vietnamese refugees do not fall under UNHCR's mandate when they reach Thailand.
Such casuistry seems oddly inappropriate from an organization that won the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize, and even some UNHCR are bothered by it. By contrast, ICRC delegates have lived on the border with the Vietnamese land people to protect them from attack, and have successfully negotiated the resettlement of hundreds of them.
The American role in all this has been changing. In 1979 and 1980, the U.S. embassy, under Ambassador Morton Abramowitz, was active to the point of controversy. He angered relief officials, but with the help of a few energetic staffers he almost single-handedly kept the cause of the refugees alive.
His successor, John Gunther Dean (amb right assador to Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge victory of 1975), made it clear that he would not be "ambassador to the refugees." But even Dean has been outraged by the performance of the INS, which, since 1981, has been evaluating refugee applications for resettlement in the United States. Abramowitz had lobbied hard to get an agreement whereby Indochinese refugees would not be subject to rigorous case-by-case examination as required by the 1980 Refugee Act. When that deal expired in 1982, Dean did not fight to have it renewed.
INS officials with limited experience in Indochina put the Cambodians in Thailand through brief, painful and frequently irrelevant interrogations, often ending in the applicant being classified as an "economic migrant" rather than a political refugee. Those so classified were denied resettlement even if they had relatives in the United States.
Last year, INS rejected 7,000 people who had already been preselected by the State Department for resettlement. One relief worker complained publicly that "what the United States is now doing, through the INS, is really no different from the purges of Pol Pot."
After protests by the embassy, many of them are now being reinterviewed. Moreover, the Reagan directive, issued in May after intense lobbying from the State Department and voluntary relief agencies, provides the refugees with their first ray of hope in some time. It instructed the attorney general to review categories of persons who could be identified as "targets of persecution" in a particular country, including refugees who fled Cambodia because of occurrences during the Pol Pot regime, former members of the military, those with close relatives in the United States and persons who refuse to work with the new regime in Cambodia. The directive also called for other categories to be reviewed, such as unaccompanied minors, deserters and evaders of military service with the Vietnam army.
This directive, due to be formalized with regulations next week, represents a vast improvement on previous policy. Indochina is still a special case. The principal actor there today is Vietnam. It is Vietnam's policies at home and in Cambodia which are the primary causes of the boat peoples' flight and the dreadful stalemate along the Thai-Cambodian border. But the continued misery and warfare in Indochina is nonetheless a legacy of the entire war in Indochina, in which the United States played such a major role.
Today there are still thousands of people who left their countries in search of what they understood to be a promise of some sort of refuge, or freedom, in the West. It ill befits the Western democracies that these people should instead be imprisoned in Hong Kong or pushed back to the bloody no-man's-land between Cambodia and Thailand, a place which is redolent of the area's enduring agony.