A congressional delegation that returned yesterday from a nine-day tour of Indochinese refugee camps is considering recommending that the United States open a liaison office in Vietnam and prepare for an airlift of refugees from that country.
Delegation leader Benjamin S. Rosenthal (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference here yesterday that the refugees would be helped most by the United States moving on "a fast track toward normalization" of diplomatic relations with the Hanoi government. Asked how soon the State Department should act, Rosenthal said, "The sooner, the better."
The nine-member delegation visited Southeast Asia to determine what could be done to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war in Cambodia or repression in Vietnam. The delegation expects to present its recommendations to the State Department and the president within a week.
"I suggested that we do with Hanoi what we did with China, and open a liaison office there," said Rep. Robert, F. Drinan (D-Conn.), indicating that the other members of the delegation agreed with him. Drinan also said that Vietnamese Acting Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thatch was receptive to suggestions by the group that the United States airlift some refugees from Vietnam.
The delegation visited refugee camps in Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, ending the trip with two days of consultations in Vietnam. Rosenthal described camp conditions as "subhuman" and "degrading," and said he saw massive overcrowding, malnutrition and lack of sufficient water.
Rep. Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.) called for "top priority" aid for the 38,000 Hmong tribesmen at the Loei refugee camp in Thailand.
"The suffering at the Loei camp clearly rivals any suffering in this decade or any decade," Downey said. He added that he had seen Hmongs at Loei with severe malnutrition because they had eaten nothing but wood for more than a month.
Many of the Hmongs, formerly farmers in Laos, sided with the United States during the Vietnam war and sometimes aided U.S. pilots by acting as air controllers or radar operators, Downey said.
The congressmen said they pressed Thach about a list of 5,000 persons living in Vietnam who have immediate relatives in the United States. The Vietnamese government has cleared only 228 for emigration. Drinan said Thach explained, "We have red tape here just like you do."
The group urged that the United States move quickly to help set up reprocessing and relocation centers for the thousands of refugees in the areas they visited. Those "first points of refuge," the nations bordering or near Vietnam and Cambodia, havebeen "victims of circumstance" in the mass exodus, Rosenthal said.
The delegation members said they also are considering recommending that the United States stop using the Seventy Fleet to pick up refugees. "Every single official we spoke to in Malaysia and Indonesia objected to the Seventh Fleet," Rosenthal said. "It is perceived over there as seeking a military advantage. They'd like hospital or civil ships instead."
As many as 2.2 million ethnic Chinese, former U.S. supporters and "disaffected Viet Cong" still seek to leave Vietnam, the delegation reported. But Thach seemed reluctant to allow them to emigrate, particularly those of draft age, Drinan said, because Hanoi fears a renewal of fighting with China.
Rosenthal described Vietnam as "destitute" and on the verge of economic collapse, partly because of the exodus of 325,000 ethnic Chinese. "A large part of the bureaucratic and commercial infrastructure deteriorated when the Chinese left," he said.
Vietnam is desperate for the aid that would accompany normalization of relations with the United States, Drinan said, but he said the State Department is reluctant to take the first step for several reasons. Among them are Vietnam's war against Cambodia, the friendship treaty is signed last year with the Soviet Union and its seeming indifference to the plight of the "boat people" leaving the country. CAPTION: Picture, Briefing reporters yesterday after nine-day visit to Indochinese refugee camps, Rosenthal, right, and Downey show sites of tour on map of Southeast Asia. AP