The numbers are forbidding now, but it wasn't always that way. When the South Vietnamese government collapsed in April 1975, more than 220,000 persons fled, most of them directly to the United States or to France. But then the refugee issue disappeared.

For months, there was a relative trickle of refugees - 2,050 in June 1976, 1,940 in February 1977, 3,885 in March 1978. Few expressed any particular alarm. But in mid-1089, something happened. What had been a small stream became a flood - 19,220 in October 1978, 22,000 in March 1979 and more than 65,000 last month.

In coastal boats and in rusty freighters, Vietnamese poured onto the shores of Malaysia and Hong Kong. Cambodians and Lao hill tribesmen limped in their rags across the border into what they hoped would be sanctuary in Thailand. In May 1978, there were 118,240 in the camps. By the end of last year, the figure had swolled to 205,000. Six months later, the number stands in excess of 300,000.

For each refugee resettled in the United States, France or elsewhere, officials say six have been landing in the so-called countries of first asylum. The numbers of those who drown at sea or die of starvation or illness are not known - the figure 50 percent is most often heard.

Figures in a column are cold - 50,000, 100,000, 200,000. It is easy to forget that there are people in the camps - women who long ago lost track of their husbands; children who remember only the horrors of war, the terror of too little or nothing to eat.

Lim Hua sat quietly on a wooden stump near the Thai border town of Baan Laem. In a low voice drained of emotion, he spoke for five hours of life in Cambodia.

He told of Tian, a woman in his commune who once boiled rice rather than steam it as Pol Pot had ordered. He told of the soldier who came up behind her as she was planting rice and with a sharp swing of a hoe split open her head.As she lay bleeding in the paddy, he raised the hoe again and slammed it into her spine.

Hua told of the day two soldiers came and took his father with them. Hua said he tried to follow, but the soldiers threatened to kill him. Later, his younger brother Hien stumbled into their small camp and told of seeing their father dead in the canal at the foot of the hill.

Hua, his mother and the others in the family lived for four years with the terror and the hunger. They slept under a crude canvas, often survived on jungle roots, until finally they escaped to Thailand early this year in the confusion of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that overthrew the Pol Pot government.

Lim Hua is 12 years old.

Then there is Bajay Vong, who arrived in a Thai camp just across the river from Laos. His feet were bloated with scabs. Infected sores covered his body. It had taken him more than a month to descend the mountains of Laos, cross the Mekong River and reach the camp.

There were 60 other HMong hill tribesmen with Bajay Vong when he arrived last April. Nearly 10 percent of the people of Laos already have left their country and the rate is growing.

Bajay Vong's story mirrors that told by many from the hill tribes who fought for so long under U.S. tutelage against the Communists.

"We did not accept the new regime; instead we went into the mountains of Bhu Bia," he said. "But in 1976 the soldiers of the new regime came. The communist Vietnamese came with the Red Lao, so we ran into the forests. We fought and fought those years [1976-1979], waiting for Vong Pao [the HMong wartime leader under the CIA.] This year I realized Vong Pao was not coming back to help, so I got out."

He said 5,000 more were on the mountains, waiting to flee. We don't have rice fields or anything there," he said. "We mostly ate fruits and roots. No salt, no rice."

By far the most visible refugees are the "bot people" - the thousands upon thousands fleeing Vietnam. It is their plight that has dramatized Asia's refrugee crisis, their pictures in the crowded boats and camps, their stories of drifting at sea or being pushed away from shore by angry villagers.

The seven members of the Chu family are typical of these boat people. Their small fishing craft happened to bring them to Hong Kong. It could as easily have taken them to Thai or Malaysian or Indonesian waters. Many never reach land at all.

The Chus speak no English, have only their clothes, a small amount of gold and other odds and ends of property. Like many of the 57,000 boat people in Hong Kong and the 76,000 in Malaysia, they left Vietnam with no firm idea of where they eventually would settle. They left because, as ethnic Chinese, life had become intolerable for them in Vietnam and an uncertain passage across the ocean was, to them, preferable to enduring home any longer.

Chu Minh Juy, 25, a tailor by profession, wears only a tattered pair of green shorts. Chu grew up in Lang Son, the provincial town in the north of Vietnam captured by the Chinese in the brief border war earlier this year. He studied in Lang Son for nine years in both Chinese and Vietnamese. When he finished school, his parents sold a pig to send him to Hanoi to study garment-making. He returned home and began to ply his trade.

Throughout the war, Chu, like many of his fellow Chinese, managed to avoid army service. He married, had two children, and still making garments under government contract when the Communists captured Saigon in 1975.

For three years, life continued as normal. Then, in 1978, the government introduced a currency reform. All old currency had to be turned in and people with what was considered to be too much money were questioned closely. Later, police began to inspect homes to survey all a family's possessions.

Then the propaganda barrages began against people who "ate Vietnamese rice but worked for the Chinese." Many of the Chus' neighbors began to leave, crossing the border into China. About 200,000 left Vietnam by that route.

The Chus stayed until just before hostilities erupted in February, when they were evacuated. With limited funds and no more than a change of clothes, the Chus traveled south - Chu, his aged father and mother, his wife and two children and his wife's sister. Traveling mostly by train and wearing military fatigues to avoid questioning, they made their way to the port of Haiphong. When they heard from friends that their homes had been destroyed in the war, they decided to leave.

Through a broker, they found that they could arrange passage on a fishing boat for the equivalent of about $1,200. They paid and waited until the morning of March 17, when they were told to go to the pier. There, a policeman checked their papers and they boarded a sail-powered fishing boat crowded with 228 people.

They had no idea where they were going.

For two months they were on a boat so tightly packed that they sat with their knees forced up against their chests. They were often seasick and had to spend time below deck. They despaired that they ever would reach a safe haven.

Chu said they sometimes sighted large freighters at a distance and often lost sight of land. They made stops at Chinese fishing villages, trading what little gold and currency they had for food and water.

Finally, on June 21, Hong Kong loomed on the horizon. Their boat dropped anchor alongside others waiting to go to the docks and to the refugee processing centers. No one had died on the boat.

"We'll wait," Chu says of the future. "If France will take us, we'll go. If the U.S. will take us, we'll go. It's not for us to decide."

But it may be a long wait. Families like Chu's have nearly no chance of qualifying for existing refugee resettlement programs. They speak only Chinese and Vietnamese and have no relatives abroad. They never worked for American agencies in Vietnam. They have no skills that are in high demand, and they have no money. tensely ethnocentric. Outsiders rarely get citizenship. The east coast of Malaysai, officials there say, is one of the country's most conservative areas and least likely to accept refugees of Chinese origin. After a communist coup attempt in 1965, about 300,000 ethnic Chinese in Indonesia were slaughtered. Suspicions remain.

Significantly, nowhere in Asia thus far has a government come under criticism from its own people for turning refugees away. Quite the contrary.

"The refugee problem is our duty to handle," said Thai Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamana, after expelling the Cambodians. "We have to regard our national interest as the most important issue."

Kriangsak assailed the United Nations, the Red Cross and western countries unable to make Thailand's refugee problem disappear. "They're ready to shout about "human rights"," he said, "but why haven't they come and done something about it?"

While Asian nations bridle even at the prospect of giving temporary asylum to refugees, western countries - the likely permanent home for many - still only accepts a trickle.

Margarte Thatcher was elected prime minister of Britain this spring on a platform to tighten immigration restrictions. Three thousand refugees are coming. Conservatives demand that the door be shut after them.

Last week, Margaret Thatcher's endorsement of an international conference on the refugee problem was matched with her ordering of 900 more troops to Hong King to join the 2,500 normally stationed there. She also sent two Hovercraft, a fast patrol boat and four helicopters to help authorities keep refugees away.

Canada has increased recently by 3,000 the number it will accept, to a total of 12,000. Australia and New Zealand, mindful of their proximity to the source of the flow, also are making arrangements to accept more. And France, the colonial ruler of Indochina, has accepted 50,000 people since 1975, 12,000 of them as French citizens. But the totals are small compared to those refugees who remain, and the reluctance to increase the numbers accepted is great.

Throughout the West, the United States is assumed to be the country that will end up - as it has already begun to be - the home for most of Indochina's abandoned people.