Yang, 19, a Hmong hill tribesman who waited two years to go to the United States, tried to kill himself with a knife inside a squalid Bangkok way station for refugees. His precise motives are unclear. But his despair appears to have been heightened by his dealings with a resettlement bureaucracy that many refugees consider impersonal and arbitrary.
The attempted suicide took place inside Lumpini transit center, where Yang and five other family members had arrived in late July after receiving clearance to enter the United States.
In theory their stay in Lumpini should have lasted only a week or two while travel papers were issued and flight reservations fixed. But tuberculosis was discovered in Yang's mother and sister-in-law, and U.S. officials, routinely following U.S. law, put the entire family on "medical hold." They would all have to stay put until the disease was treated.
Meanwhile, Yang heard rumors that the Thai government planned to put all Hmong refugees on boats and sink them at sea. Thailand has forcibly sent home some refugees, and Yang appears to have believed this boat story. Already discouraged by two unscheduled months inside the crowded, prison-like transit center, he slashed himself deeply with a knife. He is still recuperating in a hospital.
Yang's case is an extreme example of the pain that the bureaucracy can inflict on people wending their way through the resettlement process. In camps around Thailand evidence of bureaucracy is abundant: Visitors are often besieged by people clutching worn photocopies of applications and pleading for intercession with resettlement authorities outside the camps.
U.S. officials here estimate that about 40,000 of the 175,000 refugees in Thai camps have been there three years or more. But they argue that low quotas, not paperwork, are the most important reasons for the long waiting periods.
Thailand harbors large numbers of refugees who have entered the country by land from Laos and Cambodia, as well as smaller numbers of Vietnamese who have arrived by boat.
The augmented quotas that followed last summer's Geneva Conference on Refugees -- the United States is accepting 6,000 people a month from Thailand compared to 1,500 a year ago -- have dramatically cut the time lag, U.S. officials say.
Before the conference a "well-qualified" refugee (one who had a relative in the United States or who worked for an American or American-supported agency in Indochina) faced a minimum of 14 months between registration and departure. Officials say that period has been cut in half.
Nevertheless, refugee workers privately tell tales of bureaucratic ineptitude prolonging the resettlement process.
Last month, for instance, too many people were brought to Bangkok for processing, and the city's three transit centers became saturated with what one official called "long-term medical holds."
To relieve the crowding, it was decided to send 800 of them to a camp 250 miles away. Many refugees were furious. Others, suspecting a plot to forcibly repatriate them as happened to 42,000 Cambodians in June, had to be cajoled into boarding the buses.
The refugee bureaucracy in Thailand has grown by fits and starts. It is coordinated by no single agency and is composed of disparate private and governmental groups that sometimes feud with each other and within themselves.
For example, official Thai policy is that refugee resettlement elsewhere should be expedited. Yet the Thai agencies that donated space for the three Bangkok transit centers have all petitioned for their return. Foreign refugee officials had to spend months negotiating an expansion of the Lumpini center, which the Thais wanted to turn into a gymnasium for cadets.
The local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees serves as a sort of employment agency for countries accepting Thais for resettlement, proposing candidates who meet standards the countries lay down. Yet the United Nations has insufficient staff to register everyone in the camps and is not sure precisely how many people are actually there.
Many countries, notably the United States, France and Australia, send their own people into the camps to register and interview. Refugees sometimes apply for several countries and then are accepted by one and leave without informing the others. If the departing refugees are orphans, speakers of a European language or have skills in high demand, the countries that lose out are not pleased.