Saving the Vietnamese Boat People

By

VIETNAM is another in the long string of countries proving the misery and ineffectiveness of communism. North Vietnam may have won the war against the south, and the United States, but peace under Hanoi's repressive system has been no panacea for either north or south.

After the American umbrella collapsed and the war in South Vietnam ended, Hanoi took vengeance against its enemies in the south. Government officials and Army officers were imprisoned in tough ``re-education'' camps. Hanoi imposed its austere rule on Saigon. Even many leaders of the Viet Cong, the southerners who had supported the north's war, were swept aside as North Vietnam took over.

In the north itself, life remained hard in the aftermath of war. Communism breathed no vitality into the economic system. Badly needed foreign aid - particularly from the United States - was not forthcoming in light of Hanoi's aggression in Cambodia, and its suspect accounting for Americans killed and imprisoned in the Vietnam war.

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Confronted by political persecution in some cases, and economic hardship in most, thousands of Vietnamese fled the country. Mostly they went by sea. Their terrible odyssey is a largely untold story. The boats they begged or stole were old and often unseaworthy. They overloaded them and set out, seeking any haven. Many boats sank and many refugees drowned.

Those who survived faced other perils. They were set upon by pirates from Thailand and Malaysia. This was not political or ideological persecution, but simply the inhumanity of man to man, wrought upon people who had already suffered enough. The pirates stole the refugees' money if they had any, and their other possessions. Then came the physical abuse. Men were beaten up, women raped. Some children were killed in the presence of their parents. So violent were some of these excesses that some refugees committed suicide by jumping overboard.

After all this, the survivors straggled into refugee detention camps in a number of Southeast Asian countries, often to wait years in primitive conditions for passage to a country that would give them sanctuary.

In the late 1970s the flow of boat people reached the hundreds of thousands. Then the exodus tapered off, but recently has grown again. Now, however, countries that once welcomed the refugees have set limiting quotas.

That has posed a crisis for the British colony of Hong Kong, which traditionally has been a first stopover point for Vietnamese boat people. Then in the past they have been shipped on to refugee camps in other Asian countries and processed and eventually transshipped to their new homelands.

But tiny Hong Kong is already desperately overcrowded with its own nearly 6 million Chinese citizens. British officials say there is no room for them to cope permanently with the kind of flow they are currently getting from Vietnam. Some 45,000 Vietnamese are already perched in makeshift camps and aging ferry boats used as temporary shelters.

So the British government is taking a tough line. It is talking forcible return of the boat people to their homeland. It claims that most of the current boat people are not really in danger of political persecution but are refugees from harsh economic conditions. As such, they do not qualify for political asylum. This has put Britain on a collision course with the US, which holds that the boat people should be held in detention camps until a solution is found.

Hong Kong's own future is insecure. It is due to be turned over to China in 1997, and Britain has lacked diligence in guaranteeing the protection of its Chinese citizens under Beijing's rule.

But on the question of the Vietnamese boat people, the British position is understandable. Hong Kong cannot be expected to absorb the flow while the rest of the world dithers. If the boat people presently streaming out of Vietnam deserve sanctuary, then the free nations of the world should act to provide it. If the price is too high, and it is morally acceptable to repatriate thousands to a communist country from which they have fled, then the free nations of the world should say so.

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