Bangkok — Thailand has cut its intake of Indochina refugees and close one Cambodian refugee camp. It is expected to close another for Vietnamese boat people in the next few days.
These moves reflect a growing conviction in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia that the tide of refugees must be checked. Governments in the area are concerned that they may face a growing burden as international efforts to meet the problem with financial aid and resettlement lose steam.
There is also a widespread feeling that more refugees are leaving to seek better economic conditions, rather than to escape persecution.
Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian refugees in Thailand now total 250,000. This is 12,000 fewer than six months ago and more than 50,000 fewer than at this time last year.
The largest camp of all, the Khao I-Dang camp, eight miles from the Cambodian frontier, has seen its refugee population shrink from 140,000 in mid-1980 to fewer than 40,000 today.
No new Cambodian refugees have been admitted for almost a year. Like the Cambodians, Vietnamese who have trekked across Cambodia are being prevented from crossing into Thailand, and the former flood from Laos has abated.
The Thais are employing subtle persuasion, threats, and tough action to lick the refugee problem, which has plagued them since the communist victories in Indochina in 1975. There is general agreement among civilian and military authorities that the time has come to say "enough is enough," but differences remain on how to execute that policy.
Some say the tough policy is popular domestically and note that foreign governments also respond to it. Since the rumblings began in Bangkok, the United States has indicated it will remove immigration impediments which have caused a backlog of Cambodian refugees to build up, and some other countries have promised to take more.
Some of the Thai leaders even advocate enforced repatriation, but most Cabinet members favor more humanitarian policies.
Thai Premier Prem Tinsulanonda is on record as saying that no refugee would be forced to go home against his will. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said his organization would not participate in any enforced repatriation.
United Nations officials, in fact, insist that Thai policy has not changed and that Thailand will not force anyone to go back.
Nevertheless, the Thais are not prepared to regard anyone escaping from communism as a genuine refugee. They feel too many are merely economic refugees seeking better lives outside their own countries.
That feeling is behind Thai refusals to admit 358 Vietnamese refugees not stranded among Cambodian guerrillas near the Thai border.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says their lives are in danger while they remain surrounded by tens of thousands of Cambodians who have a deep-seated hostility toward the Vietnamese.
Despite the ICRC pleas to the prime minister to give sanctuary to the Vietnamese, military and security chiefs have refused to give way. They say the safety of the Vietnamese is not Thailand's responsibility.
One Thai official said the Vietnamese had left at their own risk and had bribed Vietnamese and Cambodian officials all the way along to get to Thailand. The Thais have even ignored American assurances that the Vietnamese would probably be eligible for adminission to the US.
Meanwhile Vietnamese boat refugees are still being allowed ashore although there have been threats to push them back out to sea. A supreme command spokesman said Thailand did not want to encourage refugees to keep on coming. He added that the Vietnamese were not refugees in the true sense but discontented people seeking better economic opportunities.
Thousands of Cambodians have left Thailand in the past year. Some have gone all the way back to their home villages equipped with rice seed and farming implements to resume their old lives. But many more have stayed in the primitive border encampments hoping for something better to turn up.
Thai policy is directed at discouraging them to go away, for, according to military leaders, they are a security risk to Thailand and their own lives are in danger.
Thai and United Nations officials are planning the voluntary repatriation of 30,000 to 40,000 Cambodians still in holding centers inside Thailand. Safe roads must be found for them through areas where Khmer Rouge guerrillas and Vietnamese soldiers are fighting.
The Thais are determined to go ahead with the plan despite Vietnam's threat to attack the Thai border again if repatriation takes place without help from the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh.