Asia's Mired Huddled Masses
BOAT PEOPLE LANGUISH
TWENTY years after the end of the Vietnam War, the saga of the Vietnamese boat people, one of the world's most prolonged and intractable dramas, approaches a new crisis.Skip to next paragraph
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Just a few years ago, the boat people grabbed international headlines and automatically won refugee status in "first asylum" countries in Asia. Tens of thousands later emigrated to the West.
But times have changed. Fatigued by their plight and pressured by other refugee dilemmas, Western governments have withdrawn the welcome mat. Asian governments impatiently try to repatriate - often with force - the 36,819 Vietnamese who were denied the chance to emigrate and still languish in camps across Asia.
By year's end, an international plan drawn up to resolve the problem will expire. Asian officials are soon due to meet with Western counterparts, with little hope of achieving their goal of total repatriation. Beset by growing demands in Bosnia and other world trouble spots, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) plans to phase out its involvement by 1996.
Overshadowed by its 1997 turnover to China, Hong Kong, home to more than half the region's boat people, is frustrated by what officials consider a "hard-core" Vietnamese population.
These boat people fled Vietnam in search of a better life and refuse to go back. Once Beijing takes control, refugee officials here suggest the Chinese will forcibly transport them to the border and expel them into Vietnam in what could have the makings of a calamity.
"The situation in the camps is generally quite tense," says Jahanshah Assadi, UNHCR chief in Hong Kong. Those remaining in the camps are "a very problematic group. They will not go home. They think they have been wrongly [denied refugee status]. They think they will be persecuted if they go home."
At Hong Kong's Whitehead Detention Center, American flags again fly like bellwethers of defiance. Earlier this year, the Stars and Stripes were hardly seen above the camp buildings housing 9,700 Vietnamese boat people.
Rejected for immigration to the United States and other Western nations, the Vietnamese were voluntarily returning after years in detention. Meeting in March, Western and Asian governments pledged to shut all camps in 1995 in a region swamped with more than 2 million boat people over the years.
Then, prodded by Republican congressmen who say the boat people have been treated unfairly, the US House passed a bill in June to give the Vietnamese another chance to emigrate. The legislation is stalled in the Senate.
The American flags went back up at Whitehead. Repatriations slowed to a trickle. Riots broke out in some detention centers. Even China's warning to close the different Hong Kong camps and send home the 20,300 people confined there before the colony's return to Chinese control in 1997 only hardens the detainees resolve, Whitehead officials say.
In Asia this year, only 5,005 boat people have been sent back from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, compared with 12,551 in 1994 and 19,233 in 1993.
Detainees say that Communist China's imminent takeover will force the US to accept them, says Whitehead Superintendent J.S. Kang. "They think that since they have already been here for six or seven years, why not stay for one more year and take a chance?"
But refugee and human rights activists in Hong Kong say the Vietnamese deserve a better deal. The Hong Kong government's policy to detain all boat people so as to determine if they are refugees or economic migrants has been widely criticized.
Angered by US meddling
US Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey, who proposed the legislation that has renewed the Vietnamese refugees' hopes, charged that their screening, overseen by UNHCR, was biased and should be redone.