Ban Vinai, Thailand — Most have been in the camps now for at least four or five years. Many of the 30,000 refugees living in this cluttered hillside settlement near the Laotian border still hope to be accepted for resettlement in the United States, France, or other so-called third countries of permanent asylum.
But at the same time, letters and tape cassettes from relatives abroad have brought sad tales of hardship in their new homelands: cold northern cities, unemployment, ruptured family life, severe integration difficulties. As time goes on, there is more reluctance among these refugees - most of whom are Hmong - to take the final step into the unknown.
For others, such as Chou Vng, a former farmer and resistance fighter from Sin Kuan Province in Laos, it is a matter of waiting for relatives from ''inside'' to arrive before deciding what to do. ''I don't know whether the rest of my family is still alive or not,'' he admitted, but said that he would wait until they came out.
According to officials from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Thailand, feelings of trepidation have also become tragically apparent among candidates already accepted for permanent asylum. ''We have had numerous cases of people not turning up for departure at the last moment,'' said a refugee field officer.
Asked why the refugees do not want to return to their mountain farms in Laos, Chong Moua Lee, the Hmong deputy camp chairman, said: ''We all want a homeland, but we can't go back while the Vietnamese still control our country.''
But in comparison to Vietnamese and Kampuchean (Cambodian) refugees, the resettlement in Western countries of Hmong hill tribesmen has not proven satisfactory. Clans and families dislike being broken up and have generally adapted poorly to suburban life whether in St. Louis or Paris. Increasingly the Hmong are finding themselves in a disconcerting and inextricable state of limbo.
''Life for the Hmong has become a long wait . . . a wait for nothing,'' a European volunteer relief worker said gloomily.
Since 1975, some 60,000 Hmong have been resettled abroad, more than half in North America. But over the past three years, the number of departing refugees has dropped substantially. This is due not only to the reluctance to leave, but also to the trend among third countries to take fewer Indochinese refugees. In 1982, for example, only 645 Hmong departed for the United States.
Even successful resettlement projects such as the Hmong farming communities in French Guyana, where 1,300 refugees have been able to pursue a life similar to that left behind in Laos, remain limited in size. Despite enthusiasm among a substantial number of Hmong to move to the French overseas territory in northern South America, only 120 more are expected to arrive in the coming months.
The plight of the Hmong is only one example of the overall refugee problem in Southeast Asia, a problem that simply refuses to peter out. Although the overwhelming deluge of refugees of 1979, when 393,562 persons fled to Thailand, Malaysia, and other countries, is hopefully a phenomenon of the past, the asylum seekers continue to filter through. This refugee figure does not include the tens of thousands of ''boat people'' thought to have perished on their sea journeys.
The UNHCR is still seeking durable solutions to the crisis. Last year there was a decrease in the number of refugees in the camps. Thailand, for example, which maintains 83 percent of the region's 198,000 asylum seekers, has closed down most of its camps and is aiming to run only four major refugee centers, one for each ethnic group: the Hmong, the Vietnamese, the Khmer, and the lowland Laotians.
UNHCR officials described the present caseload as ''manageable.'' They hastily pointed out that resettlement quotas can be expected to drop even further in the year ahead. ''Realistically, the great majority of those now in the camps are unlikely to be accepted for resettlement for a long time or not at all. There is obviously a limit to what the traditional third countries can absorb. Other solutions will have to be found,'' a spokesman said.
Temporary asylum hosts such as Thailand or Hong Kong are worried by the drop in resettlement numbers and fear that they will be stuck with a large residual refugee group.
Last year Hong Kong, for example, adopted a policy of closed camps with grotesque barbed wire compounds. In Thailand, the Bangkok authorities has sought to discourage anything that might stimulate a ''resettlement atmosphere.'' The official teaching of English, French, and other foreign languages is banned in the huge Khmer holding center at Khao-i-Dang along the Kampuchean border.
With asylum seekers still coming in and resettlement possibilities difficult, the UNHCR and other relief organizations are increasingly looking toward the possibility of repatriation. But the feasibility of repatriation will depend on whether political settlements in Kampuchea and Laos can be worked out to the satisfaction of the refugees.
Some 32,000 Khmer have been repatriated from the Thai holding centers to the border areas, but the refugees cannot be expected to return en masse while conditions of insecurity remain. Similarly, more than 2,000 Laotians have been repatriated amid much fanfare by the Vientiane government, but UNHCR regards the numbers as too small to be significant.
More pessimistically, however, there appears little hope of an end to the exodus from Vietnam. The number of new arrivals dropped by 40 percent in 1982, but the boat people continue to land at a rate of as many as 1,300 a month.
The Hong Kong authorities, for example, fear that the influx will pick up once weather conditions are again favorable. Last year they had to deal with 8, 000 boat people.
International relief officials say that many Vietnamese, particularly young people, are still likely to make bids for freedom via the southern sea route or overland through Kampuchea.
''As long as poor economic conditions prevail in Vietnam, these people will continue to escape. For many, they have nothing to lose,'' observed the Rev. Mais, a Catholic priest dealing with Indochinese refugees in Paris. ''It's sad to say, but I see no end to the situation.''