Much of the world was relieved when Vietnam, at Geneva, promised to restrain the exodus of refugees. For a while, anyway, there would be fewer photos of floundering boats and weeping women.
For Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries, there would be no more drenched souls to push away from their shores. The international community, moreover, would have a breathing spell in which to arrange some less tragic system of receiving those who risk everything to flee Vietnam.
But tricky moral dilemmas lie barely under the surface of the new situation. Does the world really want Vietnam forcibly bottling up those desperate enough to risk death on the seas? Does it want a system of Vietnamese temporary transit camps holding perhaps houndreds of thousands unwanted by the government in Hanoi? Does it favor the idea of bureaucrats picking and choosing who can go, who must stay behind?
After the months of drownings, of helpless people being towed out to sea in hastily repaired boats, the natural response is to believe that serving a stretch in a Vietnamese camp is clearly preferable.
"There is a dilemma," conceded U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, defending the Vietnamese decision he announced in Geneva. "But these people are drowning in the sea. We've got to do something about it."
But asking the Vietnamese to "rerestrain the outflow," as it is usually phrased, contradicts some respected rules, including the U.N. charter's insistence on unfettered emigration. it also clashes with the U.S. human rights policy, which asserts that those who want to should come out, period. Many in the State Department have been opposed to the idea of transit camps in Vietnam from the start and their fears are now being expressed in the chilling suggestion that the trend of events is drifting toward a system of U.N. sponsored concentration camps on Vietnamese soil.
To the Southeast Asian Countries that have begged Vietnam to turn off the tap, as they say, such arguments are moralistic thumb-twiddling. Some think it reflects a private decision by the United States and and other countries to evade the task of resetttling those who eventually would come out.
If the United states and other countries oppose the idea of Vietnamese transit camps, Malaysian Home Minister Mohammed Ghazali Shafie said Recently, he wants to here no more humanitarian handwringing from those corners of the world.
The Vietnamese agreed several months ago to a U.S. proposed plan that would bring out certain refugees, mostly those with families settled elsewhere, and said at Geneva they wuld curb the flow of other as much as possible.
It wasn't so much a noble gesture as it was a Vietnamese attempt to placate Southeast Asian neighbors who had demanded that the exodus halt. Vietnamese officials then announced they would immediately begin organizing centers for those wishing to depart.
The U.S. proposal is for an orderly emigration that would permit Vietnamese to step forward freely, get on an airplane or safe boat, and head for a temporary home somewhere in Southeast Asia outside of Vietnam.
Large transit camps would be built with U.N. assistance, perhaps in the Philippines or Indonesia, to house the refugees until permanent resettlement is arranged in other countries.
The problem is that nothing like that is available and probably won't be for months. Two small island camps are being readied on Tara in the Philippines and Galang in Indonesia but they could only hold about 20,000 refugees, hardly enough to make a dent.
While the Philippines has promised an island for about 50,000, it has not yet said where and preliminary surveys are yet to begin. Officials in Manila say Busuanga probably would be chosen.
Until the promises of resettlement become real, the Malaysians insist, the best temporary solution is to keep the refugees at home in Vietnamese transit camps. Any illegal emigrants who tried to escape on their own, Home Minister Ghazali asserts, should be picked up at sea and taken to those camps.
A number of countries endorse the idea, although reluctantly, as the least bad among a lot of unpleasant choices. They assume that Vietnam would permit some degree of U.N. supervision and care for the waiting refugees. But even the optimistic, in the view of one Asian diplomat, do not believe the Vietnamese would permit the close supervision needed to assure a free choice by every Vietnamese who might want to flee by way of the camps. "many would hang back out of fear of repression and choose illegal flight through Vietnamese patrols patrols now encouraged by the international community to turn them back forcibly.
Moreover, this diplomat, who has been deeply involved in the international rescue effort, says the world has not yet faced up to the sheer size of this exodus. It has been assumed that the maximum number to be resettled eventually would be about a million, based on a belief that there are that many ethnic Chinese in Vietnam who are being given the choice of fleeing or accepting harsh new lives in "new economic zones."
This diplomat, though, suspects the number eventually will be between 4 and 5 million and will include many non-Chinese. Officials in Malaysia said recently that of those fleeing in May and June a majority was ethnic Vietnamese.
Another approach, until a resettlement system is a fact, would be for the Vietnamese to do nothing -- assembling the unwanted people in camps nor forcing them to choose between flight or the new economic zones. That seems to be what the French had in mind at Geneva in proposing a six-month moratorium on departures.
It presumably would require the Vietnamese to suspend their lucrative practice of exacting exit fees in gold. But there is a certain timeliness in the proposal: the rainy season is developing in Southeast Asia and fewer refugees will be trying to buy their way out to stormy seas regardless of what the Vietnamese do. CAPTION: Picture, Vietnamese refugees leaving Malaysian camp for eventual U.S. settlement wave to those left behind AP; Map, no caption, By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post