BANGKOK -- The United States and its Southeast Asian allies remain at an impasse over what to do with tens of thousands of Vietnamese in refugee camps, and the standoff could imperil thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" who continue to make the difficult sea journey each week from their homeland to foreign shores.
The countries had set a July 1 deadline for some action to be taken to resolve the deadlock, but that date came and went without any movement, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has had little success in finding a solution. Without a resolution, more and more boat people could find themselves being refused admission to Southeast Asian countries and pushed back out to sea.
The diplomatic stalemate centers on whether to forcibly repatriate many of the Vietnamese to their homeland. In a position counter to that of the United States, the six countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the British crown colony of Hong Kong want to send back those identified as "economic migrants" seeking only better economic conditions. Those deemed as "political refugees" fleeing persecution in Vietnam would be permitted to resettle in the West. Hong Kong has already sent back dozens of refugees against their will.
There are now about 125,000 Vietnamese boat people in camps throughout Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, and the Asian countries have been screening them to determine which ones are eligible for resettlement in the West and which ones should be sent home.
Under the screening procedures -- which have been criticized as biased and technically flawed by some human rights groups -- fewer than a quarter of the asylum-seekers interviewed so far have qualified for resettlement and the rest must be sent home. Meanwhile, boat people continue to arrive on the shores of ASEAN countries, with more than 1,000 a month reaching Thailand alone.
ASEAN and Hong Kong officials say forced repatriation is no different from the U.S. policy of sending back Mexican, Central American and Caribbean immigrants who illegally enter the United States.
The Bush administration, however, opposes the forced repatriation of Vietnamese, saying that it still considers the Communist government in Hanoi to be repressive despite some recent political and economic reforms. "The U.S. position still is that we oppose forced return, unless there are dramatic political, social and economic changes in Vietnam," said a U.S. refugee official here.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Thorvald Stoltenberg, has been engaged in a round of "shuttle diplomacy" to try to resolve the impasse, but has had little success so far.
Following meetings in Washington, Stoltenberg found "there has been no change in the position of U.S. authorities on the issue," according to a statement released in Geneva. Still, refugee officials said that a recent Stoltenberg visit to the United States may have focused Washington's attention on the issue and has prompted a policy debate within the administration.
Stoltenberg's diplomacy is believed to have bought additional time to resolve the crisis. A meeting is scheduled for mid-July in Geneva between the first-asylum countries and the resettlement countries, and the ASEAN foreign ministers will likely decide their next step at their annual meeting in late July in Indonesia.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who will attend that meeting, is expected to come under sharp attack for the United States' continuing opposition to forced repatriation.
Vietnam, which is seeking to break out of its diplomatic isolation, also opposes the forced repatriation of citizens who have fled, arguing that they will simply leave again. Some analysts said Hanoi is following Washington's line in a bid to gain U.S. diplomatic recognition and end an American trade embargo. Once Washington drops its opposition to forced return, the analysts said, Hanoi will do the same.
At a meeting in Manila last May, the ASEAN countries and Hong Kong set a deadline of July 1 for the United States to drop its opposition to forced repatriation. If Washington failed to do so, the regional countries would then be free to take their own "unilateral action."
Exactly what action would be taken was not spelled out in the Manila declaration, but it was generally taken to mean that after July 1, first-asylum countries would end their 15-year policy of granting temporary refuge to the boat people and begin pushing refugee boats back to sea.
The Manila declaration was seen in part as a regional endorsement of the Malaysian government's controversial policy of pushing and towing refugee boats back to the open seas. More than 8,000 refugees have been pushed off since the policy began last year.
Any region-wide shift away from automatic first ayslum for refugees would spell the end of a compromise reached last year in Geneva. That plan set in place the current United Nations screening procedures, which have determined that the bulk of the newly arriving boat people are economic migrants unqualified for resettlement.
It is unclear what would happen to the boat people if all of the countries in the region refused to accept them. Some might make it as far south as Australia, as happened with a recent boatload of Cambodians, and others could be pushed back into Vietnamese waters.
But many refugee officials said that vast numbers would perish at sea or become victimized by pirates. "There would be real loss of life," said an American refugee worker in Bangkok.
The ASEAN countries and Hong Kong did suggest another alterative: that the United States take all the refugees and build its own temporary holding center somewhere in the Pacific, perhaps on the U.S. trust territory of Guam.
But the Bush administration opposes constructing any refugee center on U.S. territory, arguing that it would act as a magnet for additional asylum-seekers. U.S. officials also said that building a refugee holding center on U.S. territory would mean that refugees refused asylum could appeal their cases in the American court system.
The question over whether the United States should abandon its objections to forced repatriation has sparked a broad policy debate within the administration and the U.S. Congress. At issue is whether the United States is adhering to a double standard, opposing the forced repatriation of Vietnamese while sending home Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and others who try to enter illegally in search of a better life.
In Congress, some liberal Democrats agree that some form of forced repatration may be needed, while conservative Republicans say it is unconscionable to send anyone back to Communist Vietnam.
The debate in the United States is tinged with the lingering hostility that some American officials feel toward Vietnam, 15 years after the Communist North defeated the American-backed Saigon regime.
United Nations and other refugee officials see some hope in the fast-growing program of voluntary repatriation. More than 2,000 refugees this year have voluntarily given up their quest for asylum and taken up the offer to return to Vietnam with United Nations monetary assistance and legal protections.
But the number of boat people choosing to return voluntarily is still far outnumbered by the newly arriving boat people. For several countries, new arrivals of boat people have grown dramatically over the last year.
Many refugee officials interviewed said the various steps under discussion -- voluntary repatriation, forced return, or even the proposed Guam holding center -- were unlikely to have a major impact on the number of new boat people as long as Vietnam's economy remains one of the poorest in Asia and Vietnamese believe they have even a slim chance of resettlement in the West.