Indochina refugee bride is a 'woman without a country'

A shipboard romance between an Indian seaman and a young Vietnamese refugee illustrates just how winding a refugee's path can be on the road to settlement and security.

The bride, Tran Thi Hanh Dung, is still languishing - alone - in a Singapore refugee camp three months after her shipboard marriage to second engineer Wilson Torcato aboard the cargo vessel in which she escaped from her native Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

Like many other Indochina refugees, she has met a slow-moving bureacratic machinery as well as a growing reluctance to absorb a seemingly never-ending flow of Indochinese refugees.

For months Torcato has sought to cut through the red tape that keeps his bride in a Singapore refugee camp, even though she is now recognized by UN refugee authorities as his wife.

Other refugees face increasingly difficult obstacles. Singapore has never accepted any refugees for permanent stay. Thailand has clamped down on the influx of Indochina refugees. Neighboring Malaysia said recently it would ''review'' its policy on Vietnamese refugees if third countries reduce their intake. This is a clear reference to the much more stringent conditions imposed this year by the United States on its acceptance of refugees for resettlement.

The frustrated romance of Wilson Torcato and Tran Thi Hanh Dung began on Jan. 22 this year when Dung secretly boarded a Hong Kong-owned cargo boat, the Singapore II, moored off Ho Chi Minh City.

When the vessel reached Singapore on Jan. 27, Dung was not allowed to disembark. Singapore refuses to accept any Indochinese refugee without a guarantee of resettlement elsewhere. Because the vessel was Hong Kong-owned, the head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Singapore, Shashi Taroor, asked Britain to supply such a guarantee. While the British were deciding, the vessel sailed for the Sri Lanka with Dung still on board.

Ultimately, Britain refused the guarantee. Then Dung and Torcato were married on board ship - a marriage considered entirely valid by the UNHCR.

Dung was still without travel documents when she and Torcato returned to Singapore on Feb. 20. Then Shashi Taroor used a fall-back procedure known by its acronym DISERO (disembarkation and resettlement offers).

Some Western countries pledge a certain number of supplementary resettlement places over and above their normal quotas. These go into a common pool. The idea is to prevent vessels, registered in countries that are unlikely or unable to accept refugees, from ignoring distress on the high seas.

Taroor asked the French to offer Dung a letter of guarantee under the DISERO program, although it was assumed by everyone that she would eventually go to India, not France.

But India says it cannot begin to process Dung's application for permanent residence until Torcato presents himself in person with copies of the marriage certificate and his passport. The French are naturally reluctant to take for permanent resettlement the wife of a foreign national. Meanwhile the vessel, carrying the increasingly concerned bridegroom, has been traveling almost everywhere in Southeast Asia except Singapore.

Torcato has not seen his wife since his ship set sail again in February, but he has written to her expressing hope that he could come to Singapore and pick her up. But this looked more and more improbable as the Singapore II failed to meet yet another commitment to come to Singapore.

In addition, the Indian high commission explained it would take at least three months from when the first application was made before the paperwork could be sorted out.

New friends at the camp have urged Dung to try for resettlement in Australia or Canada. But she says she is determined to wait for Torcato, wherever she has to go next.

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