SINCE the Vietnam War ended in 1975 more than a million Vietnamese citizens have sought a less onerous life elsewhere. Their reasons are not hard to fathom. Vietnam has suffered three decades of nearly continuous warfare at home and has been drained by another decade of fighting the genocidal Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia. An overwhelmingly rural country with a top-heavy ratio of people to cropland, Vietnam's ability to export its raw materials and to seek Western aid and investment has been sharply curtailed by an economic embargo imposed by the United States. Appallingly, Vietnam's current per capita income of only $130 is barely half the level of 1980.
Since 1987 increased economic hardships have seen a new wave of Vietnamese leave home. Push-offs, ramming, and ``redirecting'' from Malaysia and Thailand induced more boat people to head instead for Hong Kong. The British colony had long attempted to discourage the boat people through ``humane deterrence'' policies that herded the Vietnamese into crowded and austere camps, but it had never refused the right of asylum.
Yet resentment has been growing toward the boat people in a Hong Kong worried about its own future after reversion to Chinese rule in 1997 - a resentment parallel to the British aversion to more immigrants from Hong Kong. Moderate politicians in Hong Kong now are calling for mandatory repatriation of the Vietnamese; hard-liners want simply to push the boats back into the South China sea.
Last June Hong Kong followed the lead of other Asian nations in declaring that future boat people would be screened for refugee status and subject to mandatory repatriation.
But ``compassion fatigue'' isn't limited to Asia. The West has failed to renew its post-war commitment to admit hundreds of thousands of escaping Vietnamese. The result: a record 57,000 boat people stranded in the Hong Kong detention centers by late 1989. Following many threats of just such action, Hong Kong officials on Dec. 12 sent off to Vietnam a heavily guarded plane carrying the first 51 of some 40,000 Vietnamese slated for mandatory repatriation.
Boat people who recently arrived in Hong Kong came predominately from rural North Vietnam. Lacking ties to the United States or the old Saigon regime, few appear to possess the ``well-founded fear of persecution'' specified in the United Nations (and US) definition of refugee.
No screening program can hope to divide the boat people neatly into categories of persecuted refugees clearly deserving assistance and economic migrants presumably less deserving. And the screening will inevitably be shaped by political considerations of Hong Kong or elsewhere.
The decidedly mixed US record on welcoming refugees - evidenced in our restrictive policies toward non-European refugees from Central America, Haiti, Asia, and Africa - must blunt any US criticism of first-asylum Asian nations. A compassionate US policy towards the Vietnamese boat people must rather take account of the forces behind the Asian policies while exercising real if limited potential for influencing them.
Both ``humane deterrence'' and screening processes inflicted on the boat people have failed to stem the flow of departures from Vietnam. We must assume that thousands of Vietnamese will abandon their homeland each month as long as they are ``pushed'' by deplorable conditions at home and ``pulled'' by a perceived chance of Western resettlement.
If the Vietnamese boat people are to be spared massive refoulement - push-offs into stormy seas, pirate savagery, or forced returns to a homeland they have come to abhor - the West must shift gears to encourage voluntary repatriation for tens of thousands of these courageous people now languishing in prison-like camps in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. And it must create a partnership with Vietnam to assure the safety of the boat people upon their return home and to ameliorate the political and economic conditions that prompted their departure.
For the boat people seriously to consider voluntary return, they must be provided accurate information and counseling concerning their options: the chances for resettlement in the West, the future conditions in their Asian camps, the situation in Vietnam, and the experiences of their compatriots who have returned home. For its part, Vietnam must be held to its pledge that returnees will not be punished or discriminated against and that their activities can be monitored by international agencies. Hanoi's pragmatic insistence that it will accept only truly voluntary returnees further guards against refoulement of genuine refugees.
Reduced departures of boat people from Vietnam also requires an immediate end to the US-imposed economic embargo on Vietnam. Besides combatting the poverty that has prodded many productive citizens to flee, the end of Vietnam's international isolation should lead towards a more open political system. And the prospect of economic assistance will create new international leverage over Hanoi's human rights practices.
A joint US-Vietnamese effort to encourage voluntary repatriation should actually aid genuine refugees. With far fewer arrivals and many more departures, the Asian countries of first asylum could accept screening procedures that would more fairly distinguish persecution-fleeing from prosperity-seeking boat people - and the Western countries could more easily find room to welcome genuine migrants of conscience.