The diplomats and politicians are talking now, galvanized by the specter of thousands of Cambodians being pushed back to an uncertain fate by Thai soldiers and by a stern Malaysian policy of pushing any new arrivals back out to sea.
Britain's Margaret Thatcher wants the United Nations to call a high-level emergency conference and she has won support for the idea from France and the United States, among others. Waldheim of the United Nations is expected to issue invitations for the meeting within a few days.
Vietnam, meanwhile, is lashing out in all directions, laying the blame for Southeast Asia's refugee dilemma on the shoulders of the United States and the "imperialists." It says it will attend an international meeting, but only if it discusses Hanoi's own proposals and is under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Western diplomats charge that Hanoi's proposals for an orderly outflow of perhaps 10,000 refugees a month for family reunification are a sham. When Vietnam made its offer, one diplomat said, it was given a list of 5,000 names, all of whom had known relatives in the West. In its response, Hanoi came up with a list of its own with 457 names, only 158 of whom were among the 5,000.
The call for an international meeting and the name-calling between Vietnam and the West typify the responses of many to the refugee ordeal. It will be a minimum of two months between the original call for a conference and its actual convening - two months in which more than 100,000 new refugees will be added to the totals. And now there is great fear that any meeting will degenerate quickly into a name-calling match between Vietnam and its political supporters and the West and Southeast Asian nations that have borne the brunt of the refugee outflow.
"An international conference can be very important," Waldheim said in an interview. "But the governments must not approach this problem in the usual way. They must deal with it as an international emergency."
For this reason, Waldheim has been moving cautiously. Prodded by United States and United Nations officials, there has been a slow but perceptible increase in offers of help, both monetary and in terms of resettlement, from countries such as Sweden, Italy and Israel. Canada, Australia and France are said to be willing to accept more refugees for resettlement, and the United States reportedly favors an increase from 7,000 to 10,000 a month.
The money, as well as the permanent homes, is needed. U.N. refugee officials say their costs have jumped from $7 million a month to $10 million and that they will run out of money "very soon."
There is some justification in the cautious approach. Previous international meetings have been sterile affairs, full of talk of the "problem" and empty of offers to solve it. A previous United Nation-sponsored meeting in Geneva came up with nothing of substance and a meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, in May ended in promises of two islands - one Indonesian and one Philippine - for use as temporary refugee processing centers. The idea was to release pressure on the overcrowded camps in Thailand and Malaysia.
A month later the Indonesian island of Galang, perspective temporary home for 10,000 persons, is still being surveyed for its suitability. The Philippine island was found to be lacking sufficient potable water.
It was the lackluster results of the Geneva and Jakarta meetings that apparently forced Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia into their recent drastic actions.
Malaysian Prime Minister Data Hussein Onn said it most succinctly in a letter to Waldheim a week ago:
"As for those people who are already located in our camps, we have granted them temporary stay only in the expectation that they will be resettled elsewhere and that there are definite pledges and programs that this would be so within a reasonable time frame. I wish to stress our position that Malaysia will not allow itself to be saddled with the residues of these boat people.
"Therefore, if they are not accepted by resettlement countries or their country of origin we will have no choice but to send them out, which is the only alternative to their being left to rot in the camps."
Even if the most optimistic forecasts for international action become reality, the prospect is not a bright one.
About 10,000 refugees now are being resettled each month. Even if this number could be doubled - the best that knowledgable officials expect - it would take a minimum of five years to take care of all those now in camps and the prospective outflow of about one million more ethnic Chinese from Vietnam.
In the meantime, while the diplomats still talk about talking, the flow of refugees continues unabated, and health officials warn of increasing signs of fatal diseases such as plague among those who have managed to survive the sea voyages.
There is a note of desperation in the pleas of refugee officials in Southeast Asia, a fear that all the talking may bear fruit too late.
"Why can't the U.S. 7th Fleet just pick them up and take them to Subic Bay?" said one official in Bangkok. "These are international waters, after all. Maybe we can't do anything for the 42,000 [Cambodians] in camps in Thailand, but at least we can do something for the boat people.
"It would give the 7th Fleet something to do. Take them anywhere just to keep them alive. And then it may take 10 years to find them a permanent country. But this is a terrible toll in human lives now and these governments have got to start thinking like that."