Refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, escaping at a rate almost seven times higher than early this year, threaten to swamp the resources available for their care and resettlement, State Department officials said today.
At least three times as many refugees are arriving by land and boat in nearby Asian countries called "nations of first asylum" as are being found permanent new homes, said Henry Cushing, deputy director of the State Department Office of Refugee and Migration Affairs.
The swelling flow of destitute people makes all numbers only estimates, but the United Nations High Commission on Refugees believes that 175,000 refugees are in camps in Asia -- most in Thailand and Malaysia.
In both Thailand and Malaysia, the situation is critical. But the Malaysian camps -- where thousands who reach that nation's east coast from Vietnam by boat are sequestered -- are intolerable, said Jere Broh-Kahn, chief of the State Department Indochinese refugee program.
Camps have been established on two small islands off the coast by the Malaysian government, which wants to keep the refugees out of sight to avoid the possibility their presence might inflame tensions between the ruling Moslem Malays and minority Chinese communities.
About 22,000 people were packed onto the larger island when Broh-Khan visited it about two weeks ago, he said. There was one latrine. Supplies of drinking water are inadequate and food and medical care are barely adequate.
Wells have been polluted by excrement and at least three children have died from dehydration caused by diarrhea, Broh-Khan said. Refugees are sleeping without cover on the beaches in monsoon rains. There are about 9,000 people in similarly desperate conditions on the smaller island.
The State Department officials described the refugee situation at a meeting here with representatives of the Citizens Commission on Indochinese Refugees.
The commission, a private group set up with the backing of the International Rescue Committee, is about to visit the refugee camps.
Leo Cherne, co-chairman of the commission, said it has become clear that "there can't be an even partially adequate answer to the refugee problem without a wider, international approach."
Officials of more than 40 governments will attend a High Commission on Refugees meeting in Geneva Dec. 11-12 to seek international cooperation on the refugee problem.
Cushing said that before that meeting it is likely Attorney General Griffin Bell will make final a U.S. decision to allow an additional 21,875 Indochinese into the country beyond the earlier limit of 25,000.
The United States is also permitting Asians to fill about 7,000 immigration places unused by the western hemisphere nations to which they were allotted.
Since the collapse of U.S.-supported governments in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in April 1975, the United States has admitted a total of almost 175,000 Indochinese refugees -- roughly the same number now waiting in makeshift camps.
Asked whether the United States was considering offering resettlement to every refugee who is not headed for another nation, the State Department officials said everything is being considered. Cushing added, however, that he doubts such a step would be taken unless Congress passed legislation authorizing it.
Almost all permanent resettlement is taking place far from Asia.
Each month, Cushing said, the United States accepts 2,100, France 1,000, Australia 750, Canada about 150. 1,000, Australia 750, Canada about Germany has announced it will take several thousand. The U.S. figure will double if the attorney general raises th U.S. quota as expected.
In November, almost 20,000 new refugees left Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Last January only 3,500 a month were leaving.
Broh-Khan said there is a shortage of sponsors in the United States to help the refugees resettle. Voluntary agencies are working to find a sponsor for each refugee family, as they did with the wave of people who came here immediately after the war ended.
Thailand has by far the largest number of refugees -- over 120,000 -- most of them from Laos and Cambodia.
Cherne said "a concerted effort is being made to nearly obliterate the hill tribes" in Laos. Lao troops and Vietnamese planes are attacking villages, destroying crops and poisoning water supplies in the areas of the Meo tribesmen who fought on the U.S. side for years, Cherne said.
The Meos, like the Cambodians, are fleeing for their lives, Broh-Khan said.
In addition to Thailand and Malaysia, a serious problem is developing in Hong Kong. Although the British colony has only about 4,000 refugees, it is bursting at the seams after 20 years of accepting refugees from China.