Asian `boat people' still dream of life in West

Ten years ago, Yuan Wen Shun and Duong Huy Hoang would almost certainly have been on different sides of Vietnam's bloody civil war. Today, united by their escapes from Vietnam and desire to live in the West, Mr. Yuan from Hanoi and Mr. Duong from Saigon sit together on a bunk in an isolated camp in southern China. They share memories of how their boats sank in the South China Sea -- and the fear that no Western nation will offer to accept them.

According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1.4 million Indochinese refugees have been resettled in Western countries and China since 1975. Of these, 600,000 fled from Vietnam by boat. The United States has accepted more than 700,000 Indochinese, according to government sources.

But the future of the thousands like Yuan and Duong who are waiting to move West is unclear. Under current policies, Duong is likely to be resettled, but Yuan's options are less clear. The differences in the options facing them reflect the sharply conflicting views about the boat-people crisis held by diplomats and UN officials as the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon (April 30, 1975) approaches.

Duong's father served in the South Vietnamese Air Force during the war. For the last nine years he has been detained in a Viet ``reeducation camp.'' His mother fled Vietnam, and now lives in Omaha, Nebraska. Under the American government family reunion program, Duong will almost certainly be able to join his mother in the United States.

But Yuan is unlikely to be admitted. Yuan fled from North, not South Vietnam, and he says he fled Hanoi out of fear that he would be drafted into the Army to fight in Kampuchea. Unlike Duong, he does not have family in the United States.

There is a growing consensus among Western nations, including the US, that fear -- such as that Yuan expressed -- is not a sufficient motive for claiming refugee status. In all likelihood, Yuan would qualify for deportation if the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) screened refugees.

Some Western diplomats in Southeast Asia say that the crisis of the boat people is being brought under control. In particular, they cited the success of the UNHCR's program for ``orderly departures'' from Vietnam. Under this program, 24,681 people left Vietnam by plane for guaranteed places in the West during the first 10 months of 1984.

Other officials, however, warn that the situation may be unresolved for some time. The key to resolving it, some say, rests on matching the numbers coming out of Vietnam with resettlement offers in the West, particularly the US. This point alone, they say, has persuaded the countries of ``first asylum'' -- chiefly Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, the nations serving as way stations before resettlement elsewhere -- to award temporary asylum to the refugees.

At present there is a certain equilibrium between the two figures. But, these officials warn, there is no guarantee that the balance will not suddenly change.

Last September US Secretary of State George Shultz announced before the House Judiciary Committee that the Reagan administration proposed to accept 10,000 political prisoners from Vietnam, as well as Asian-American children and their relatives. The US and Vietnam held discussions on the proposal in October.

Mr. Shultz said that the US will take a total of 50,000 Indochinese refugees during the 1985 fiscal year. Noting that this was virtually unchanged from the quota for 1984, Shultz described the resettle- ment of Indochinese refugees as ``international cooperation at its finest,'' and a major factor for stability in Southeast Asia.

An American diplomat said later that Shultz's statement was partly intended to allay concerns that the US plans any sharp reduction in its intake of refugees from the region.

Within Vietnam, said the UN officials, it is quite impossible to predict the number of people who may decide to leave now or later. As of last August, the US Embassy in Bangkok had registered the names of 490,450 residents in Vietnam who apparently qualified to be considered for resettlement in the US.

At the October meeting in Geneva the Vietnamese delegation, headed by Assistant Foreign Minister Le Mai, said it would issue exit permits for 120,000 people to leave over the next two years.

Many diplomats say Vietnamese will probably continue to leave their country in considerable numbers through a combination of ``push'' and ``pull'' factors.

``It's just not like a tap that can suddenly be turned off,'' says one diplomat.

But some diplomats suggest that once the US has taken in many political prisoners and Asian-American children from Vietnam, American politicians will argue that the US has fulfilled its main obligation and then will call for a drastic reduction in its Indochinese refugee quota.

Such a move, they say, does not appear imminent. But there is a general feeling that the US program of resettlement will not continue indefinitely at its present level. UNHCR officials said that 1984 has seen the Reagan administration for the first time actively support efforts to find alternatives to resettlement in the West.

Three possibilities are being investigated for coping with the flow of Asians:

First, asylum seekers could be screened at frontiers, with a view to deporting those found not to be refugees.

Second, the UNHCR could further explore the possibilities of repatriating refugees who are willing to return home.

Third, greater emphasis could be placed on settling refugees elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

UN officials predict that all three options will be pushed in 1985. But several diplomats in the region call these options unrealistic. One says they they will have no impact on the disillusioned refugees in Southeast Asia for whom there is no immediate help. This is generating bitterness and social tensions.

One obstacle in resolving the future of Asians like Yuan is that there is little chance the Viet government would agree to accept them back. Since 1977, Vietnam has taken back only 141 people of the 1.4 million who left the country, officials say.

The regional option for settlement would involve more movement into China, which is the only country in Southeast Asia to have taken in Vietnamese refugees. In 1978, China accepted 270,000 refugees who were expelled from Vietnam, and placed most of them on 256 state farms.

US refugee coordinator Eugene Douglas and UN officials have lauded the China program. Chinese officials say Mr. Douglas also holds out the prospect of increased US aid if China takes 40,000 Hmong refugees from Laos, who are currently in camps in Thailand.

The Chinese say they cannot accept such large number, however.

Refugees like Yuan who are rescued at sea or on boats that put in along the Chinese coast are given the option of remaining in China. ``They are not encouraged,'' as one local government official in Guangdong province put it.

Chinese officials complain that since 1975 the US has forbidden its contribution to UNHCR from being used in China.

This also applies to Vietnam and Laos, but no longer to Kampuchea.

Given these issues, UN officials say that there appears no clear alternative to resettlement in the West at this time.

The number of refugees like Yuan has remained stable at 40,000 for three years, UN officials say. They warn that the number is likely to grow.

Over the long term, diplomats predict that the exodus of refugees will continue unless there is what one calls a ``political upheaval'' in Southeast Asia. This, he says, would require some resolution of the conflict over Kampuchea and changes within Vietnam.

Until that time, he says, Western governments will have to weigh up the supposed political benefits of pressuring Viet officials against the costs of continuing to resettle Vietnamese refugees.

``The problem of the boat people could be with us for another 10 years.''

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