Refugees: pushed by persecution -- or pulled by opportunity?

It sounds like a discussion of classroom physics. But the emerging debate over the "push-pull factor" is hardly academic. At stake is the future of tens of thousands of Indochinese leaving Cambodia and Vietnam.

The question: Is this continuing flow of humanity a crowd of refugees "pushed" to move by intolerable political repression at home? Or is it a flow of immigrants "pulled" to move by the attractive resettlement programs and preferential refugee quotas of "wealthy" countries such as the United States?

Thailand, like much of Southeast Asia, has clearly chosen the "pull factor" theory. It recently announced that the thousands of Vietnamese still arriving on its shores can no longer be classified as "refugees." Most Southeast Asian countries share this view.

But, officially at least, the United States stands by the "push factor" theory. And ironically Thailand and other Asian nations hope the United States will continue to accept the "push factor" theory -- for the time being.

For if the US were to slash the numbers admitted as "refugees" from already established Asian camps, countries neighboring Indochina would face a swelling population of Indochinese. To prevent this, they might be forced to close their doors to new refugees and perhaps forcibly repatriate those who have already come.

Squadron leader Prasong Soonsiri, secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council, has described the majority of those arriving as "economic adventures" seeking a better life in countries such as the US.

Col. Soonthorn Sonponsiri, a member of Thailand's Supreme Command, told a recent conference that as of Aug. 15 Vietnamese "boat people" who land in Thailand will not be allowed to resettle in third countries such as the United States. Instead they will be held in Thai detention camps indefinitely.

The new Thai policy is clearly a step aimed at destroying the "pull." The hope is that when word of it gets back to Vietnam, migrants thinking of using Thailand as a way station to the US will sail their boats elsewhere.

In Asia advocates of the "pull factor" theory have largely won the day. Most governments there have sought to make entry of Indochinese as difficult as possible in hopes this will discourage still more from coming.

In the US the "push-pull" debate continues. Officially the State Department endorses the "push factor" theory of political repression. Unofficially there is concern among refugee officials that an increasing number of migrants from Indochina are responding mainly to the "pull" of economic opportunity.

This concern is especially strong in the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of the Justice Department. INS officers who screen potential candidates for resettlement have often concluded that those awaiting resettlement do not meet the definition of political refugee.

Reports from the INS and a growing number of other skeptical refugee officials are one reason why a special State Department fact-finding panel has been touring Southeast Asia. Led by former Assistant Secretary of State Marshall Green, the group is to make recommendations influencing the funding of resettlement programs for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

The current flow from Indochina is far below the peak period of 1979. Still some 5,000 to 12,000 are leaving Vietnam by boat each month, according to refugee officials. They make for Hongkong in the north, or Thailand and Malaysia in the south, depending on the wind.

US law grants a special quota of 14,000 a month for Indochina refugees. This means that migrants from Indochina can "leapfrog" other candidates for entry.

Many of those who have entered did demonstrate their special need. Among them are former employees of the US government or US companies in Vietnam, former members of the anticommunist South Vietnamese army, and members of special groups, such as Roman Catholics, who can expect discrimination or persecution in communist Vietnam.

But refugee officials have pointed out that an increasing number of arrivals to refugee camps in Asia do not fit these categories. Many are young people, farmers, and workers with no reason to fear harassment. Unlike two years ago, very few are ethnic Chinese vulnerable to persecution.

Like would-be migrants from all over the third world, the new refugee sees the US as a land of economic opportunity -- where even a factory worker can hope for a television, refrigerator, and automobile.

One Hong Kong study of 300 arrivals is reported to have found that 55 percent had left Vietnam for economic reasons, 25 percent to avoid military service, 4 percent for family reunion, and only 8 percent to avoid government persecution.Some other studies give even higher percentages as economic refugees.

The current generation of refugees has often been encouraged by letters from relatives and friends who have already reached countries like the US. Vietnam's low standard of living caused by war and economic mismanagement is another incentive to leave.

So far the Reagan Administration has resisted pressure to accept the "pull factor" theory." The State Department has instructed its officers in the field to tell reporters that "nothing has changed." A number of surveys suggesting that a large number of those leaving are not really refugees have been kept from public view.

In late May Attorney General William French Smith ended a policy which the State Department said would threaten the six-year program of admitting large numbers of Indochinese refugees. Under the discarded program, INS officers had been "deferring" for later consideration refugees they considered to be economically motivated. This had resulted in "deferring" up to 16 percent of refugees interviewed in Southeast Asia.

The new policy, backed by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., makes it easier to meet the special 168,000 quota set for 1981 by the Refugee Act of 1980 . (Under the old policy only about 130,000 would have been admitted.)

In a letter April 30 Secretary Haig is reported to have said his department regards, with "rare exception," all those who have fled Indochina as "refugees" entitled to admission because they faced "real persecution" in communist countries.

The victory of the State Department position over the INS may have helped persuade the Thai government to drop a plan aimed at forcibly repatriating some 140,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand and at keeping out any more Vietnamese boat people. Knowing that the US will continue to help empty Thai refugee camps , Thailand can now afford to be less drastic.

Continued acceptance of the "push factor" theory by the US and other countries has thus encour aged the countries of Southeast Asia to be more humane

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