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REFUGEES: More Trials for the Boat People

6 minute read

Red tape is scuttling their hopes for resettlement

In spite of the worldwide crescendo of concern for them, Indochina’s refugees remain the victims of acts of God and man. Though President Carter dispatched a five-ship Seventh Fleet task force to pick up whatever boat people it could find, the Navy rescue mission was temporarily halted after twelve days, when the 150 m.p.h. winds of Typhoon Hope whipped the South China Sea into a cauldron of death. Some 443 Vietnamese aboard three junks barely made it to Hong Kong after being pushed back to sea from Macao by Portuguese officials the day before the storm hit.

They were among the fortunate; an estimated 300,000 refugees have drowned since 1975 because passing ships refused to help them or Asian governments denied them haven. Such deaths may now decline, however, if only because the number of people fleeing Viet Nam, whose inhumane policies have generated the bulk of the boat people, has dropped sharply. The flow of refugees from Viet Nam declined from 110,000 during May and June to an estimated 22,000 in July, apparently as one result of last month’s U.N. -sponsored 65-country conference on refugees in Geneva. There, Hanoi officials pledged to slow the exodus from Viet Nam, which in four years has consisted of 550,000 ethnic Chinese, who are being forced out because they are a hated minority, and 350,000 Vietnamese who do not want to live under Communist rule. Ironically, however, the curb on the exodus will only increase the misery of the many people who wish to leave but now cannot. To cut the refugee flow, the Vietnamese have stepped up police patrols along their coasts, and some Western representatives at Geneva now fear that Hanoi is violating some of the same human rights that the conference was convened to protect.

So far, the slowdown has been applauded mainly by Southeast Asian states that have had to house a refugee population that now totals 380,000. Indeed, most of the boat people rescued by the Seventh Fleet and ships of other countries in the past two weeks had not come directly from Viet Nam; they had previously landed safely in Malaysia, only to be towed out to sea again by the Malaysian navy. As for the refugees already in camps, their plight has not improved much, despite the promises of the Geneva participants to provide $190 million in additional aid. In fact, bureaucratic delays threaten to thwart many of the good intentions announced in Geneva.

In Hong Kong, for instance, where the population resents the aid given Vietnamese, the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found itself so short of funds last week that it decided to cut off the $1.20 daily food allowance provided for 17,000 Vietnamese refugees in the colony who are unemployed but capable of working. Of the 8,200 refugees who have found work in Hong Kong’s factories, many are paid $4.20 for an eight-hour day, or about half of what local employees earn.

Though many Western countries pledged at Geneva to raise their refugee immigration quotas, nothing has yet been done to shorten the shocking delays involved in resettling the homeless who are languishing in camps in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Hong Kong. In Bangkok, where the U.N. maintains a 15-story skyscraper, the UNHCR has only 48 full-time employees to deal with a refugee population currently totaling 175,000. At the country’s 16 refugee camps, a swamped staff of just twelve field workers is assigned to monitor aid and assist in resettlement. At least 40,000 of the inhabitants have been in the camps for three years or more because they do not qualify for resettlement; usually, that means they do not have a “prior link” with a resettlement country, such as having relatives there. The despair among the non-qualifiers can run deep. At one Thai camp two weeks ago, seven members of a Laotian hill tribe attempted suicide by jumping into a river because they had no resettlement prospects and feared they would be sent back home; four drowned.

Though the U.S., which will take 168,000 refugees over the next twelve months, has by far the largest quota (next biggest: Canada, which has pledged to accept 50,000 by the end of 1980), it also has one of the most time-consuming screening procedures. A family eligible for immigration typically must wait 14 to 16 months while its members are subjected to a series of four widely separated interviews by different organizations, all covering the same ground. Refugees with communicable diseases like tuberculosis may be delayed indefinitely. By the time a refugee is on a U.S.-bound plane, says an American refugee worker in Thailand, “he or she has earned a Ph.D. in waiting.”

The processing problem is just as bad in Hong Kong. More than half the 67,000 refugees there have not even been interviewed by the understaffed local UNHCR office.

Vietnamese in the U.S. and Europe seeking relatives in the British colony are hampered by the fact that Hong Kong immigration officials inexplicably make a practice of registering refugees by number rather than by name. Even after a refugee is finally located and sponsored by a relative or a refugee agency in the U.S., he can wait for weeks for a medical checkup. Since the U.S. has failed to dispatch a team of public health physicians, refugees have to be examined by local doctors who must work them into their crowded appointment schedules.

Inevitably, the refugees pay in shattered hopes for the administrative confusion and excessive red tape. When vacancies appear in a country’s quota, refugees are ordered to go, even if the country is Norway and their relatives are in Arizona. Says Hong Kong’s UNHCR Director Angelo Rasanayagam: “We take the necessary measures to those who refuse an offer. We explain the realities. We disabuse them of their illusions.” Explains one volunteer caseworker who quit a Hong Kong refugee program in disgust: “Those who refuse are told they’ll go to the bottom of the list or be sent back to Viet Nam. If these people were really numbers the job wouldn’t be so hard. But they’re human, and everyone wants to go to America.”

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