MANILA, JUNE 15 -- The United States and the Philippines have managed to defuse a confrontation over more than 300 Vietnamese "boat people" who were rescued at sea and brought here by U.S. naval ships and other merchant vessels. But the two-week standoff underscored this region's growing impatience with the continued exodus of Vietnamese asylum-seekers and the perceived reluctance of the West to resettle them.
The Philippines has been known as the most hospitable and open country in the region for refugees. The two Vietnamese refugee camps here, at Morong on the Bataan Peninsula and on the island of Palawan, are the region's most spacious and best maintained, compared with the virtual prison conditions under which Vietnamese refugees are kept in Hong Kong. And while other countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, push boat people back out to the open seas -- where they sometimes come under attack by pirates -- here there have been countless stories of Filipino fishermen risking their lives to rescue drifting Vietnamese.
Thus it came as something of a shock to the international refugee community this month when the Philippine government abruptly announced that it would refuse to allow 307 Vietnamese refugees to disembark from four ships until the U.S. government guaranteed it would resettle them within six months.
The refusal appeared to deal another blow to the policy of "first asylum," an agreement reached after the fall of Saigon in 1975 that the countries of this region would temporarily take in all Indochinese refugees in exchange for Western countries resettling them later.
The first asylum policy has been under increasing attack lately as a number of countries, most recently Malaysia, have announced that after 15 years of taking in Vietnamese boat people, they are fed up with the West's slow pace of resettlement and have begun taking unilateral actions. Malaysia has pushed off nearly 8,000 refugees since it silently dropped its first asylum policy last year, with most of the refugees going on to Indonesia.
Hong Kong and the six members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations support a policy of screening the boat people for "genuine" refugees as opposed to what they call "economic migrants" simply fleeing Vietnam to seek a better life. They want the economic migrants repatriated to Vietnam, either voluntarily or by force, something both Washington and Hanoi strongly oppose.
Philippine government officials who work with refugees said their refusal to allow the Vietnamese to disembark here was designed to show displeasure at the U.S. and Vietnamese position.
Officials here, however, said they feared the refusal would send another signal to the international maritime community: that it was unwise to pick up boat people at sea because countries of this region are refusing to take them.
Officials working for refugee organizations here said it is not unprecedented for countries to refuse to allow refugees picked up at sea to disembark at their ports. Singapore, they said, refuses entry to refugees rescued at sea by merchant vessels, making ship captains reluctant to take refugees on board.
However, officials said this was the first time they had ever known the Philippines to adopt such a hard-line stance. "Traditionally, the Philippines has been the receiver of these people, the grantor of asylum," said Bill Applegate, director of the International Catholic Migration Commission. "This is the first time I remember the Philippine government didn't routinely let them in."
While U.S., British, Philippine, and United Nations officials negotiated to resolve the standoff, 256 of the refugees remained stranded aboard two U.S. Navy ships that had plucked them out of the South China Sea and brought them to Subic Bay Naval Station at Olongapo.
The first group -- 24 Vietnamese picked up from a small wooden boat on May 24, and 77 rescued two days later -- was brought to Subic on the USS Beaufort, a Navy rescue and salvage ship. At Subic, they were transferred to the USS White Plains, when the Beaufort returned to sea.
On Wednesday, the USS Peleliu, a helicopter-landing ship, arrived at Subic carrying 155 more Vietnamese refugees, who had been rescued at sea the previous weekend.
In addition to the refugees at Subic, 17 Vietnamese have been waiting on a Philippine merchant ship, the Ratna, in Manila Bay, after having been refused entry to Taiwan. After the ship picked them up, they spent close to a month at sea, as port after port refused to accept them.
An additional 34 refugees were stranded on another merchant ship that arrived in Manila Bay June 9.
Cardinal Jaime Sin, the influential archbishop of Manila, tried to settle the dispute when he urged Philippine Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus to accept the refugees for humanitarian reasons. The standoff ended Thursday when the Philippines allowed the boat people to disembark, but only after the representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) here, Sri Wijeratne, assured the government that the refugees would either be resettled or repatriated within three years.
Manglapus told reporters, "We are taking the word of the UNHCR and the final resettlement countries that they will clear our camps in three years." But Wijeratne said no firm guarantees were given. "I hope there won't be many more ships in the next few weeks," he said.