Mounting concern that the coming winter monsoon may hamper delivery of food and medical supplies to Indochinese "boat people" stranded in these remote South China Sea Islands has prompted a step-up in processing efforts by officials of the U.S. Refugee Program and the Joint Volunteer Agency here.
Living on islands that are accessible only by boat, helicopter or seaplane in good weather, most of the 31,491 registered refugees attempting to survive in this spectacularly beautiful, but inhospitable, island group exist on daily rations that allow each a small tin containing about 125 grams of rice, a little soy sauce and occasionally some cabbage.
U.S. Refugee Program coordinator for the region, James Schill, said the five months of monsoons that begin in October could cut into those meager rations even more.
"Obviously, we want to do the best we can to move refugees now residing in the islands prior to the onset of monsoons," he said.
Schill said no more than 20 or 30 refugees have been moved out of the Anambas since the first boatload put in March 20 at a small island called Berhala, a five minute rowboat ride from the seat of the local government here in Letung.
That slow pace led Maj. Djoko Soewindi, an Indonesian Army official handling refugee matters in these islands, to predict that it would "be three to five years" before the last refugees leave the Anambas islands.
Schill said the United States is making a major effort to avoid such a long stay. He said his office has prescreened 3,000 people in the Anambas.
"We would probably move them 3,000 strong over a period of weeks down close fo Singapore," he said, "where they transit through Singapore to the international airport in Singapore and then on to the United States. It's not easy though."
Despite pledges made at the Geneva conference on refugees last month, the only other government represented in the Anambas during my visit were the French.
Delegate Guy H. Horlin of the French-Vietnam Aid Committee spent four days in the refugee camps.
He refused to disclose how many refugees France will resettle from the Anambas, but his file did not appear very large. He said he believes it will be two years before most have left the island.
Some U.S. officials are optimistic that all the boat people in the Anambas at least will be moved within a year to Bintan Island, just south of Singapore, where about 10,000 refugees now live in four camps.
How well the majority of those in the Anambas can survive even a year is in question.
Partially for safety reasons, the Indonesian Navy last week began relocating refugees last week to the two largest camps called Kuku and Air Raya on the island of Jemaja.
The refugees are scattered in nine locations in the Anambas Islands, about 170 nautical miles from Singapore. There are also 1,050 in the Natuna islands, farther to the north and more remote.
The chief of all Indonesian refugee operations, Adm. A. Wibisono visited the camps last week to oversee the start of the move.
The admiral said Indonesia plans to transfer all people and Natunas to Air Raya and Kuku before the monsoons begin in October. That would swell the size of those two settlements to more than 15,000 each.
The camps are on flat, sand beaches, and small mountains jut up sharply behind each camp, limiting the living space available. As many as 40 refugees crowd into huts no larger than the size of a standard hotel room.
The camps are located on the southern side of the island, however, and the mountains will provide some shelter from the monsoon rains, which rage in from the north.
"It will also be easier to look after them in two places instead of 10," Wilbisono said.
Another Indonesian military official expressed concern that friction may be growing between the refugees and the nearly 12,000 local Indonesian residents in Letung. Some ethnic Chinese refugees have made major inroads into control of the local economy, setting up shops and engaging in banking activities for fellow refugees at interest rates sometimes as high as 20 percent.
As part of the relocation effort, the refugees have been ordered by the military to wear colored ribbons pinned to their shirtsleeves identifying the camp each person resides in and keeping the refugees distinct from Indonesians.
Phung Kin Hao, 27, a physics student living in the Berhala camp, said an early taste of monsoon weather claimed its first victim three weeks ago when a six-year old girl was killed when a gale uprooter a coconut tree. Three other camp members also were injured.
Of greater concern, however, is the possibility that supplies of food and medicine may be cut off for days or weeks at a time if bad weather makes intercamp travel impossible and prevents shipments from Bintan Island, off the coast of Sumatra and about as far from the Anambas as Singapore.
Supplies arrive irregularly, usually aboard hospital ships such as the French Ilie de Lumiere.
Lee Get-Shing, an interpreter at the Air Raya camp, said that in addition to the small rice portions, there are only enough eggs to provide one a month for each person, and fish is so expensive that most refugees only buy some once every 10 days. Boat people are prohibited by the government from fishing in Indonesian waters.
The lack of protein has resulted in malnutrition among many of the young children in camp. On Bieh Linh head nurse at Air Raya's only clinic, said the majority of the 300 people treated each day are children who do not get proper food.
The French lead the effort to minister to the sick in the Anambas. In addition to the hospital ship with 20 volunteer doctors, the organization "Medicine Without Boundaries" has a team of four, including a surgeon and an anesthetist, working and living in the Kuku camp. The group has shipped in an X-ray machine and surgical equipment.
U.S. efforts in the Anambas primarily center on speeding up the processing of refugees.
Schill said the break-through in getting into the Anambas camps occurred two weeks ago, when there members of the congressional delegation led by Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal (D-N.Y.) visiting this area toured the bleak, Terempa refugee camp.