Refugees have paid an estimated $30 million in bribes to Vietnamese officials in their attempts to leave the country, Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) said today after an investigation at refugee centers throughout Southeast Asia.
The estimate, compiled from U.S. government interviews and Holtzman's talks with people who escaped Vietnam by boat, did not appear to include money paid to secretive business syndicates using old freighters to ship refugees to Asian ports.
Hong Kong sources indicate two freighters that brought a total of more than 6,000 refugees here recently may have collected a total of $2 million in gold.
Holtzman, who visited Hanoi last week, said Vietnamese officials admitted that lower-level bureaucrats had taken money from illegal emigrants and housed them for the night before putting them on boats leaving the Vietnamese coastline. They denied any higher level corruption.
The Hanoi officials said they planned to introduce regulations soon that would allow people to leave the country on an orderly basis and discourage the dangerous clandestine boat trips that have led to possibly thousands of deaths by drowning, exposure and starvation.
Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh said last month that some Vietnamese would be allowed to leave the country legally, but that exit permits would be granted only to those not engaged in what the government considered important work.
The Hanoi announcement does not appear to have stemmed the flow of refugees in small boats arriving here and at other southeast Asian coasts, although there have been no reported landings or large freighters since Feb. 7.
Relief officials are convinced that the refugees boarded the ships through the cooperation of the ship owners and the Vietnamese government. They say there is no way several dozen small boats could have come upon the same freighter at the same time and been picked up by chance.
Hong Kong police investigating the alleged refugee syndicate say they have found clues in cables sent from one refugee-laden ship to its Hong Kong owners before arriving here. Cable copies in the owners' office were reportedly destroyed but police found a message copy at the main cable office here that said "Pick up auntie."
Police believe "Auntie" means gold. Inquiries are being made about the alleged sale of gold leaf for a more than $830,000 to a gold dealer here. Police sources said they suspect the gold was collected from the refugees and transferred off the ship before it reached Hong Kong.
After allowing refugees on board the Huey Fong, a freighter carrying 3,400 Vietnamese, to enter a refugee camp here last month, police literally tore the ship apart. They reportedly discovered more than $1.3 million in gold leaf hidden behind metal plates.
The captain of the Huey Fong and seven others have been charged with conspiracy in the matter.
Huey Fong refugees interviewed in the last few weeks have admitted paying Vietnamese officials to clear the way for their getting in small boats to leave the country. They have been vague about how all the boats happened to be picked up on by the freighter.
Many said they were so sick and exhausted they did not pay attention to what was happening during the transfer. All those interviewed have denied paying money to the freighter owners or their representatives.