Boat people: redefining the refugees

President Reagan is likely to face growing pressure for a sharp cutback in admission of refugees from Indochina. A growing number of immigration officers, refugee workers, and even a few social workers are claiming that many of the refugees are not really refugees but "assisted immigrants."

American quotas of some 15,000 a month give these "economic refugees" favored treatment, compared with hundreds of thousands of other deserving people around the world.

So far this view has not changed US policy. Similar legislation is being proposed to extend the same Indochina immigration quotas for next year. The Select Comission on Immigration and Refugee Policy in its final report to the President and Congress has even called for an overall increase in legal immigration, from 580,000 a year for the last five years to 650,000 a year for the next five years.

But advocates of a clampdown hope rising economic difficulties at home will spur President Reagan to reconsider making substantial cutbacks.

These skeptics are found within the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and among the voluntary agencies that assist in refugee resettlement. Often they refuse to be identified. But they appear eager to use the press to help create a new climate of public opinion that will accept sharp cutbacks.

According to one source, they have already been frustrated in their efforts to petition the Reagan administration for a policy change. But they are outspoken and confident in giving their case.

Their argument is first and foremost that those coming out from Indochina today do not meet the requirement of the US Refugee Act of 1980, which defines "refugee" this way: any person outside his country unable or unwilling to return because of persecution, or well-founded fear of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs.

Instead of applying this requirement strictly and fairly, immigration officials have met the 15,000-a-month quota by relying on certain Vietnam-era provisions. These allow entry into the United States for Indochinese who have been separated from family members now in the US, who have worked for the US military or for a US company, or who have studied in the US. But not everyone meeting these criteria qualifies as a refugee, the critics argue.

"The nature of the refugee exodus has changed markedly since the end of the Vietnam war," maintains a US Foreign Service officer, who refused to be identified.

First there were those directly involved in the fighting.

Then came the wave of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam threatened as a minority during the 1979 war with China.

Now a larger percentage are young unemployed, draft dodgers, students, and many others who may find life in Vietnam hard, but are not being persecuted.

Opponents of this view differ on the facts and in their interpretation.

"There has been some but very little change in the composition," a social worker says."We have always had some former military, many youth, and a variety of nonskilled worker types."

Indeed, in periodically interviewing Indochinese refugees since 1976, this correspondent has found some, but relatively little, change in the types of refugees, with the exception of the 1979 Chinese exodus, and the outflowing of Cambodians fearing execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge before it was ousted by the invading Vietnamese in early 1979. But one now meets fewer people claiming to face retaliation because of past associations with Americans.

Very few from Vietnam ever claimed they actually faced execution or imprisonment. Most said they were leaving because life was hard, because they wanted more freedom, because the state was regulating or confiscating their businesses, because the government was clamping down on Roman Catholicism, because they had relatives in the United States, or because they feared discrimination on grounds they had worked for the US.

Supporters of the refugees thus often maintain that from the beginning many never met the strictest definition of refugee. Rather they have always been an immense human problem which must be handled in a constructive way.

One problem is defining "constructive." As of last January there were nearly 170,000 Indochinese refugees housed in Asian camps of the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees. Some 120,000 languished in Thailand, 12,000 in Malaysia, and 9,000 in Indonesia.

The problem is that if the United States continues to apply its liberal quota , more "refugees" or "assisted immigrants" will be encouraged to take to their boats. Southeast Asian countries will have to take care of the refugees for a time, at least, as they make their way to the US.

Yet if the US clamps down on refugee immigration, the burden of long-term responsibility for these people will fall on Southeast Asia.

Also, if anticommunist President Reagan clamped down on showing welcome to anticommunist refugees, he would be open to political charges of hypocrisy.

"The answer to that is a global policy of clampdown," says a US official. "It would apply equally to Vietnamese, Cubans, and Haitians."

"Enough is enough. Six years later we have a very limited obligation. One is to our former employees and another is in cases of assisting family reunion," this official says.

One proposal is a halfway measure demonstrating continued US responsibility but aimed at deterring a further flow and reassuring Southeast Asian allies.

Under this plan, the US would support huge transit camps holding refugees until other countries accept them. It is hoped the tide of refugees would then be stemmed, since the camps would empty more slowly than at present.

But all such proposals face a major problem: Vietnam's declining economy is a growing inducement for its citizens to leave.

In talking to refugees, as this correspondent recently did, the references to economic hardship are a droning refrain, along with vague references to questions of freedom.It is difficult to generalize, because one encounters only a spot sample and because many refugees are savvy enough not always to tell the truth.

Late last month two vessels bearing 106 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Singapore. Their roster sheets gave ample indication of the nature of the present exodus: The Oakwood, for example, carried 6 fishermen, 8 unemployed people, 9 children, 9 students, 11 workers. The roster list for the Smit Lloyd was similar.

Notable was an absence of intellectuals and businessmen. And the critics say there is a conscious strategy of getting young people out first, then having the older people follow as family reunion cases.

Among them was Nguyen Tan Dung, a former air conditioner repairman who calls himself Dung Yung. This soft-spoken head of a family of 11 brought all of them out after making a deal with a fisherman.

"Why did you leave?"

"Life in Vietnam is hard. We don't have enough food and my brother is afraid he will be drafted to fight China."

The lean workman adds mention of economic hardship, rising prices, food shortages, and limitations of the religious freedom of Catholics.

And like most all he wants to go to the United States. One reason appears to be the letters he gets from a relative already there. "They say life in America is easy, life is good," Dung Yung explains.

For those who want the refugee quotas slashed, the Nguyen Tan Dung family is living proof that refugee is no longer the proper word.

But there are also those like former schoolteacher Tu Thi Tuyet. If her words can be believed, her reasons for leaving are different.

"There is no religious freedom in Vietnam," she said.

She, too, has seen letters from the US. "They said life is hard there. That there is much race discrimination.But if that is the price of freedom, that is what we must take."

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