A story on Indochinese refugees in Sunday's paper may have created the impression the U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim had just turned his attention to the issue. In fact, Waldheim had for several weeks have urging the international community to provide greater assistance to the refugees. CAPTION: (NEW-LINE)Picture, Vietnamese refugees make their way to Malaysian shore as their boat sinks. UPI; Map, Indochina Exodus The Refugee Trail-May, 1979, By Dave Cook and Richard Furno - The Washington Post

An archipelago of despair has emerged from the cruel history of three decades of war in Indochina. It is traced in the footprints and struggling ocean wake of the million fugitives who in the last four years have fled their homelands in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Today, the swelling Indochina refugee tide spreads like an affronting question mark along the length of the South China Sea. It confounds presidents, prime ministers and bureaucrats in faraway capitals. It provokes new political fears and invokes old racial animosities in neighboring countries of potential asylum.

Yet the terror-driven exodus now multiplies at an awesome rate. Between January and May, the monthly Indochina refugee flow into make-shift camps throughout Southeast Asia nearly quadrupled to 65,300. Tens of thousands more are milling on beaches, in teeming Hong Kong slums or in border jungles, waiting to be counted into the system. Untold numbers still are drowning at sea.

One such refugee habitat is Bidong, a tiny island 15 miles off the east coast of Malaysia. Its beaches are strewn with the garbage and excrement of 45,000 people who lack any semblance of public sanitation facilities. They live in the unrelieved stench, huddled in shacks made of sticks and rice bags. Fear of an epidemic hangs over the settlement.

Bidong is only a midpoint of passage for those who managed the escape from Vietnam, survived the dangerous sea voyage and then the attacks of Thai pirates who routinely board the refugee boats, robbing, raping and sometimes killing the occupants.

By the end of 1979, the population of the Bidongs of Southeast Asia, the archipelago of make-shift encampments run by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, is expected to reach 700,000. Last January, the camps held 200,000.

This human tide, escaping from cities and villages at a vast though unmeasurable rate, has become one of the largest and most tragic Diasporas of modern times.A majority of the current Vietnam refugees are ethnic Chinese (Hoa) whose exodus, it is widely believed, is being encouraged by the Vietnamese government.

On the one hand Hanoi fears the Chinese as a potential fifth column. On the other, it needs the multimillion-dollar bounty of foreign exchange provided by the fleeing refugees as the price of their escape.

Likelihood of an even greater surge of flight ahead is suggested by the 1.2 million ethnic Chinese still believed to be in Vietnam who are bent on leaving the country as soon as they can.

Despite all this, it was not until last week that United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim appealed to 50 nations to convene next month in hopes of forging an international solution to the crisis.

In Washington, the Carter administration is struggling, amid signs of internal political and bureaucratic division, to adopt a coherent policy on refugees - not only as an international pace-setter but ot open further America's own doors to those seeking entry.

Though Vietnam was a central U.S. obsession during the decade of military conflict, the refugee crisis does not seem to rank as the moral equivalent of many other foreign and domestic concerns of the Carter administration.

Britain's newly elected prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, roundly endorsed the call for a Geneva summit on refugees. But Britain has agreed to take only 1,500 more, for a total of 3,000. (The United States, by contrast, has admitted more than 200,000). Underlying the British response was the feeling that Indochina was primarily an American burden, and that England has borne its share with the admission of tens of thousands of East Indians as well as Caribbean and African blacks who flocked into its cities since the dissolution of its empire.

In France senior philosopher and moral arbiter Jean-Paul Sartre, 74, an outspoken critic of French and American military intervention in Vietnam, made a rare public appearance recently in behalf of Indochina's refugees. He was joined by an array of intellectual and cultural luminaries ranging from Simone Signoret and Yves Montand on the left to journalist Raymond Aron on the right.

French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing joined Britain's Thatcher in endorsing the mid-July Geneva meeting. But he told the French public in a fireside chat that France need not suffer "a bad conscience," because it has been helping Indochina refugees since it abandoned its own Vietnam War in 1954. The cream of the French-speaking, western-oriented Vietnamese have, over the years, settled in France.

In the United States, leaders of the hard-core Democratic political constituencies, the blacks and Hispanics, have taken an ambivalent view of the Indochina immigration. Their concern: jobs and wage scales.

Even U.N. Secretary-General Waldheim confessed a sense of helplessness at the immensity of the problem.

"The key, obviously, is where the refugees will go. Not enough concrete measures have been taken," Waldheim said in an interview.

"Where should they be put? In our public lobby? The United Nations is not a country."