MANILA — PRESSURE is building to resort to forced repatriation to stem the flow of boat people. The United States and Vietnam oppose a drive by Britain and most Southeast Asian nations to set up a United Nations-run program to force Vietnam's ``economic migrants'' to return home. The idea of deporting Vietnamese back to a communist country has raised strong emotions among Vietnamese in the US.
Hanoi has left open the possibility of accepting small numbers of ``boat people'' returned to Vietnam, according to Filipino officials.
But any full-scale international program to force Vietnamese migrants to go home has been rejected by Hanoi as a violation of human rights.
Still, Vietnam recently offered bilateral talks with other nations in Southeast Asia on the general issue of repatriation, says Herman Laurel, administrator of the Philippine Refugee Processing Center.
A program to repatriate Vietnamese boat people from British-ruled Hong Kong began in March, but only on a voluntary basis. So far, 143 Vietnamese have returned after braving a dangerous escape by sea last year.
More than 83,000 are in camps around the region, with Hong Kong particularly hard hit in the past year. Hong Kong has placed about 44,000 Vietnamese boat people in detention sites - purposely made barely tolerable for living - and has told most they have no chance of settling in countries outside Vietnam. Few have decided they might be better off going back. Hundreds more arrive each day.
The Southeast Asian nations most affected by a rapid rise in the number of boat people agreed that any Vietnamese who arrived after March 14 should be judged as either a genuine political refugee or as someone looking for a better standard of living.
The latter, tagged as economic migrants, will be told they face an undetermined waiting time before being deported back to Vietnam. Hong Kong began such a screening process for Vietnamese who arrive after June 16, 1988.
The issue of forced repatriation was debated at an international conference on Southeast Asian refugees in Geneva on June 13-14. But a decision was delayed until October, after a relatively uniform screening process is set up.
The Vietnamese offer in Geneva for bilateral talks on the topic of repatriation could be taken up by Thailand, and perhaps Malaysia, both of whom are frustrated at the slowness of resettlement to Western countries. Vietnam has improved its ties with Thailand, which is eager to end a decade of Western-led economic isolation of Vietnam imposed after the `78 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.
The Philippines has more than 7,000 boat people. It offered, in Geneva, to set up a regional resettlement camp for Vietnamese who arrived before the deadline for the new screening. This would help relieve pressure in ``first asylum'' countries, especially Hong Kong and Malaysia. Western countries have agreed to take most of these estimated 55,000 refugees, with the US offering to resettle about 40 percent.
But the Philippine offer was made under conditions that (1) these so-called ``screened-in'' refugees be resettled within three years, (2) Western countries foot the bill for the camp, estimated at over $30 million, and (3) Vietnam accepts the idea of a UN-run camp being built on its territory to house economic migrants.
This last condition could go half-way to settle the repatriation issue by returning boat people but without subjecting them to live under Hanoi's Communist-run government or the extreme poverty in Vietnam. ``We want to deport Vietnamese economic migrants,'' says Mr. Laurel, one of the Filipino negotiators in Geneva. ``But it should not be a callous move.''
An added condition for a Vietnam-based camp would be that those deported could apply for legal emigration through the Orderly Departure Program.
The ODP was set up at the last international conference on Southeast Asia refugees in 1979. Despite allowing more than 168,000 Vietnamese to leave legally, the program has failed to stem the flow of boat people willing to risk their lives on small boats to escape conditions in Vietnam.
US officials say Vietnam would be unlikely to allow an international camp on its territory. But the US does not rule out forced repatriation to Vietnam, stating in Geneva that it is possible when ``dramatic improvements occur in that country's economic, political and social life.''