Yesterday's article on Indochina regugees was incorrectly attributed to Ted Jacqueney, who had submitted the article, instead of Stephen B. Young, who actually wrote it. Mr. Young toured Indochinese refugee camps in Southeast Asia as an interpreter with the Citizens' Commission on Indochinese Refugees. We regret the error.
I returned from Southeast Asia profoundly moved by the plight of the refugees with whom I helped members of the Citizen's Commission on Indochinese Refugees (CCIR) communicate. As Americans, and as human beings, we must take positive actions to reflect our common humanity with the Vietnamese "boat people," Cambodians and Laotians and help mitigate their suffering. Members of the CCIR have concluded that U.S. policy opening America's doors to the refugees must reflect the urgency of the problem. I heartily concur.
More than 100,000 people may be scattered in camps all over Southeast Asia. Those who flee to Thailand face the real possibility of being forced back to their native country (there to face certain death) or of being forced back to sea. Still, an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 Vietnamese escape by boat every month.
Governments throughout Southeast Asia perceive that the United States is not committed to a long-term solution to a problem that the war in Indochina created. They perceive that they cannot afford large-scale intrusion on Indochinese aliens, that they cannot afford to care for them financially, and that they cannot affort to strain relations with the new communist powers in Indochina by overly hospitable treatment of refugees. Thailand, to which most refugees have come, has adopted particularly harsh measures in response to its perception of lack of U.S. interest. We were told, for example, of instances in which Thai officials sent back to Cambodia Cambodians who were promptly shot in view of the Thais. Other refugees have been forced back to Laos.
The new government of Thailand, led by Gen. Driangsak Chamanan, indicated to the commission that he would take a more generous attitude toward refugees. But at the local level of border policemen and provincial governors, who make the decisions that affect the lives of refugees, nothing has changed.
Many Thai officials fear that the new refugees may be pro-communist security risks, a counterpart of the Vietnamese who left their country in 1954 to form in Thailand a community that in many instances has provided a base for antigovernment insurgents. Paradoxically, having lived under communist rule, the Vietnamese refugees with whom I spoke may be the least pro-communist people in the world. For example, in three camps of Vietnamese I heard from teenage boys that under no condition would they go to France. They knew that the Communist Party there had a chance of coming to power, and they wanted nothing to do with a country that might go communist.
Thai officials now ignore their society's Buddhist values of compassion and are reduced to publicly dismissing Cambodia's barbarity even as it shocks, disgusts and frightens them privately. The Thai government feels abandoned by the United States on this issue. The U.S. embassy in Bangkok had not been directed to implement a long-term refugee policy. Our officials there have made no effort to take advantage refugees, such as those exhibited by the Thai Red Cross, to influence a more humane policy by the Thai Government.
The lack of an American policy has also shaped the attitude of Singapore toward the Vietnamese "boat people." Singapore will not accept refugees without guarantees they will be resettled elsewhere within 90 days. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew's policy is to offer the Americans a carrot and a stick to prod us into adopting the kind of generous approach we are urging on him and te Thais. The carrot is the offer of a small island to serve as a transit camp for all boat people coming to Singapore or picked up at sea. The stick is a refusal to let boat people ashore, coupled with a demand that ships arriving with boat people picked up at sea post a bond if they want to transact business in Singapore.
Another reason for urgency is that ships transiting the South China Sea now commonly ignore boat people, and some lines have recrouted their ships to avoid areas where the boat people are likely to be found drifting. That occurs because ships find it difficult to obtain permission to disembark the refugees and must assume financial responsibility for them.
The solution to this problem lies more within the provision of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees than with American initiatives. Transit camps - one near Singapore within easy reach of southbound ships, and one near Macao or Hong Kong along the line of passage of northbound vessels - need to be established. If ships masters know that the boat people they rescue will have nearby havens, they will be more willing to obey the law of the sea with respect to the succor of people in distress.
The number of Indochinese refugees that the United States accepted each that the United States each year as part of a long-term international project would be modest - less than the 20-30,000 immigrants per country we already receive annually from East and Southeast Asia.
Upon its return from Southeast Asia the CCIR called on presidential assistant Zbigniew Brzezinski. He remarked that if America does not now help those refugees, then it would no longer be "America." I agree.