Asexpected, the subject of refugees was on the agenda when Secretary of State James A. Baker recently met with Southeast Asian foreign ministers. Great Britain, on behalf of its colony, Hong Kong, repeated its call for the United States to agree to mandatory repatriation of Vietnamese boat people from Hong Kong to Vietnam. Should the United States continue its resistance to that policy and practice, these and other governments will press America to establish a holding center somewhere in the Pacific (and preferably on U.S. territory) where those people denied refugee status by screening may be accommodated until they are able and willing to return to Vietnam.
Neither solution is acceptable.
The United States should continue to resist mandatory repatriation. First of all, a disproportionate number of boat people are being "screened out," that is, denied refugee status. In Hong Kong's initial stages of screening, 90 percent of those interviewed were screened out -- a striking coincidence when one recalls that the Hong Kong government had already previously estimated a figure of only 10 percent being refugees. Though in recent months the number "screened in" has risen slightly, it is still very unlikely that screening process is equitable. Some rejected boat people have taken the case of the validity of the screening process to the Hong Kong Supreme Court. Therefore, it would seem right that no Vietnamese be forcibly repatriated until that suit is settled. Moreover, a group of lawyers representing New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States has concluded, following a study of 40 cases, that the screening process is "fatally flawed." On the release of its report, the Hong Kong Bar Association called for a suspension of deportations and a review of the screening process. The evidence of such events indicates that asylum-seekers are being unfairly evaluated and that there is too much danger that bona fide refugees will be repatriated against their will. Thus, the United States should continue to resist forced repatriation.
Nor should the United States back a "holding center" -- another refugee camp. Enough of these already exist in the world. If anything, their number should be decreased. While perhaps a necessary evil in some situations, refugee camps are basically inhuman. The worst offense is that the detainees become psychologically dependent on their providers. Camps engender intranational strife and the formation of gangs that prey on weaker members of the community. The rape of women, especially of teenage girls, becomes commonplace. Heads of families, frustrated by their daily indolence, frequently vent their rage by beating their wives and children. These are the more obvious evils of any camp. So the United States should not be party to opening another one. It would haunt us 40 years from now.
The position Secretary Baker (and the Bush administration) should adopt in Southeast Asia is the one other nations have been pressing on him. It is what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of Hong Kong and the U.S. Catholic Conference (the official agency of all U.S. Catholic Bishops), among other organizations, have been promoting for some time. The United States should abandon its policy of isolating Vietnam. First, the embargo should be lifted; then the United States should move toward the normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Vietnam will have to make its own concessions. Prime among these will be the improvement of basic human rights among its people and an end to its political persecution of those who do not belong to "approved" families.
The United States should take steps toward this change of policy soon. Otherwise it will become the isolated one, because friendly nations have already become exasperated with the U.S. position and are moving to make bilateral economic agreements with Vietnam.
Only when the United States and Vietnam have begun to cooperate on the political and economic level will the flow of boat people out of Vietnam cease. Only when this cooperation has begun to improve the political and economic situation in Vietnam will those now in camps in Southeast Asia become prepared to repatriate willingly. This should be the goal of U.S. refugee policy in Southeast Asia. Neither an obstinate stand against forced repatriation nor the establishment of a holding center will achieve it. Resumed relations with give and take on the part of both the United States and Vietnam will achieve it. One hopes this will be Secretary Baker's objective in future meetings with ASEAN ministers.
Father Moan, director of Refugee Voices, has recently returned from a two-week visit to the refugee centers in Hong Kong.