A SMALL BAND of Vietnamese refugees was rescued from a barren coral island a few days ago and taken to Taiwan. There were 24 of them-the survivors of a group of 120 who had left Vietnam in a small boat more than two months before. The number of these unhappy stories is rising rapidly. The exodus from Vietnam is accelerating. At first it seemed to be a leak-out, in which courageous people were taking great risks to escape. But that movement has now been greatly augmented by a kick-out, in which the Vietnamese government is deliberately encouraging, and perhaps even forcing, people to leave by the thousands, in particular, a campaign is running against the ethnic Chinese. There was a sudden jump in the numbers of refugees this autumn, and the current outflow is four times that of last spring.

The purposes of the Vietnamese government are no clearer than anything else in this migration. Perhaps it is attempting to divest itself of an urban middle class that a Communist regime might well consider an implacable enemy. There is a precedent in Fidel Castro's policy of letting middle-class Cubans flee to Florida. At the same time, the food shortages in Vietnam may also constitute a pressure on the government to try to reduce the number of people to be fed.

But surely there could hardly be a more distressing example of exile than that of the Vietnamese who leave their country in open boats to seek haven wherever luck and the weather might land them-and where frightened people sometimes rebuff them and push them out to sea again because too many have already landed. Malaysia has borne the greatest impact of this emergency, and conditions in the Malaysian camps are reaching the final stage of overcrowding and desperation. Even the supplies of water are inadequate.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees reports that there are now some 175,000 indochinese in temporary camps in Southeast Asia-most of them in Malaysia and Thailand. What happend to them now? But there's another question to add to that one. Until the past month or so, most of the world thought that this tide of people would diminish as time passed. On the contrary, it is increasing, and no one has any idea what dimensions it may reach. If the present refugees are living in intolerable conditions, what about those to come?

Next week in Geneva, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees will convene a meeting of the several dozen governments that have demonstrated an interest in helping. There are several things that the international community can do. One is to organize food aid to Vietnam, relieving hunger there and perhaps mitigating that pressure to force people into exile. It is also necessary for rich and distant countries to reassure Vietnam's small neighbors, above all Malaysia, that they will not be left to deal with large, permanent populations of unassimilable refugees, living at the subsistence level in hugh camps. Of all ways to handle refugees, that one is the worst. The great tragic example of that truth over the past generation has been the fate of the Palestinian refugees in the Lebanese camps. The camps not only brought great harm to the people abandoned to them but, after a generation of accumulating hatred, they brought great harm to Lebanon itself.

If the refugees are not going to remain in camps to Southeast Asia, a great many of them will necessarily have to be permitted to resettle in those rich and stabel countries, on other continents, that have the capacity to absorb them. At the head of the list is, obviously, the United States. So far, since the beginning of this country's part in the Vietnam War, about 175,000 Indochinese refugees have come to live here. You could hardly argue that the United States has reached a limit of the number that it can take-or that its responsibilities to Indochina's refugees have been fulfilled.