The Asian lands most directly affected - Malaysia and Thailand, Hong Kong, distant Indonesia - have reached a concensus: this has to stop, they say, knowing full well that it will not stop and at best if can only be curbed.
At the beginning of the refugee influx, government officials were warily receptive. Concern deepened to the point of alarm. "We thought their numbers were going to decrease," said Malaysian Home Minister Tan Sri Ghazali Shaife. "We are not lacking in the humanitarian sense but there is a limit to our endurance."
with camps already crowded beyond health and decency, Malaysia began in January to resupply arriving boats with food and water and tow them back out to sea. So far, Ghazali said, 267 boats loaded with 40,000 people have been turned back. Coastal defenses have been bolstered: there are now 100 observation points, navy ships and 2,000 specially assigned army troops to enforce the tow-away policy.
Already swamped with overland refugees from Laos and Cambodia, Thailand began turning away Vietnamese boat people last year and did little to stop Thai pirates from preying on them in the gulf. The Thai navy, supported by regular air force spotter missions, now tows incoming boats out to sea.
Then this spring, as turmoil in Cambodia forced thousands more across the frontier, Thailand got tough with them as well. "The Khmer Rouge were building up in terrifying numbers," a western diplomat in Bangkok explained, "and Thailand felt it just had to get rid of them." On June 11, Thailand hauled 42,000 Cambodians to the border and dumped them there. The removal was abrupt and harsh - but it worked.
Hong Kong, which has long had a steady stream of arrivals from China, sought at first to accommodate the inundation of Vietnamese (most of whom are still ethnic Chinese). But the flood this year quickly outran U.N. facilities and is now expected to cost Hong Kong $50 million for food and shelter.
During May the camp population doubled with the arrival of 21,000 refugees. Twelve thousand more have entered the camps in the first two weeks of June.
Frustration with the problem is growing daily. Hong Kong already suffers severe shortages of housing and social services, and simply cannot cope with the refugee burden, officials say. The colony's governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, traveled last week to London, Washington and the United Nations in search of help. As it has in Malaysia and Thailand, he warned, resistance in Hong Kong to the refugees is growing.
While the governor was away, Hong Kong's legislative council enacted new laws intended to stem the flow directed, at this point, primarily at the smuggling of illegal immigrants from China. But a law allowing navy units to board any vessel suspected of carrying refugees may well be a sign of things to come.
On leading Hong Kong politician has publicly urged that the boat people be turned back. Newspaper editorials, letters to the editor and private conversations suggest a widespread feeling that the refugees are being coddled, and that in their hapless thousands, they are abusing the colony's hospitality.
Indonesia also had ordered its security forces to prevent the entry of Vietnamese. The government has been presuaded to offer space in the more than 13,500 islands under its jurisdiction as resettlement centers for the region. But the Indonesians agreed only on the condition that the country will not have to bear any of the cost of developing, maintaining, administering or supplying the islands or of transporting the refugees.
Japan, among other Asian states, has been restrictive on the refugee issue to the point of embarrassment. Only three Vietnamese - the family of a worker named Huu Loi Mai - have been granted residence in Japan of the 2,200 brought there by ships that picked them up drifting in the high seas.
Until recently, the Japanese described their policy as "passive." But in fact, Vietnamese were discouraged from staying by bureaucratic coolness and red tape. "We have never turned away refugees from Japan," a government spokesman said defensively last week, "but in the future we are going to have to do a little more."
For each of these lands, rejecting the refugees can be explained with multiple rationales - some stated; others inferred. There are severe economic pressures in countries both poor and overpopulated. Inevitably, they argue caring for the refugees is a burden that richer countries in the West should bear.
Thailand, Malaysia and, ironically, Vietnam claim subversion is their fear. The Thais and Malaysians say refugees may be communist agents assigned to strengthen local communist movements in their countries - now at the front lines of what they see as Vietnamese communist encroachment across Laos and Cambodia toward them. The Vietnamese in turn fear Chinese in their midst.
Race if also an element, an inescapable factor in maintaining the delicate political balance of Southeast Asia's complex societies. Japan is in-