HONG KONG — 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.
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 Fatigued by their plight and pressured by other refugee dilemmas, Western governments have withdrawn the welcome mat.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.
Angered by what they see as the inept meddling of American congressmen, Hong Kong refuses to rescreen the Vietnamese. The bill passed by the House would provide funding to resettle up to 20,000 boat people in the US.
Amnesty International, the human rights group, has charged that the arbitrary detention of Vietnamese asylum seekers violates international standards and that the screening process to determine refugee status was unfair and lacked transparency. Journalists are not allowed to meet with detainees in the camps.
Hong Kong authorities have been reprimanded for heavy-handed use of tear gas in quelling riots among Vietnamese resisting repatriation. This year, Hong Kong officials have taken steps to improve their image, such as notifying camp residents ahead of repatriation operations and allowing human rights monitors and journalists to be present.
In October, there was a 10-hour diplomatic standoff at the airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, when boat people were dragged off an airplane returning them from Hong Kong. Vietnamese officials refused to accept them, charging Hong Kong with violating the repatriation agreement by forcibly ejecting the people.
During meetings in Hanoi this week, Hong Kong officials made little headway in resolving Vietnamese concerns. However, 113 asylum seekers, the largest group since forced repatriations began four years ago, were returned yesterday with little incident.
"Most of the people in the camps would rather spend their lives in detention than return...," says Hoang Chan Cuong, a laborer who spent several years in a camp before winning his release and the right to live here.
Pam Baker, a former government lawyer who now runs her own legal service for Vietnamese detainees, is a feisty critic of UN and Hong Kong refugee officials.
The lawyer, who says she is proud of being banned from the camps for raising false hopes, charges that the boat people have suffered from a biased screening system, poor conditions, and government propaganda that plays on ethnic enmity between Chinese and Vietnamese.
Deriding official claims
"The government's propaganda has been hugely effective. Everyone has this idea that every Vietnamese is a rapist, robber, or a murderer," says Ms. Baker. Baker has never visited Vietnam and says she doesn't want to, because "politically very little has changed. I would take the position that anyone who has suffered persecution before and sat here for seven years is a refugee, regardless of whether he would face persecution if he went back."
"We are the victims of the communistic regime," wrote one detainee who said he had been a South Vietnamese Army officer to Baker. "They considered us as the elements who made a lot of bloody debt. We have only ... death if UNHCR forces us to return...."
But many here feel anger toward the boat people and blame Congress for the repatriation problems. They point to reports of crime, gang violence, and drug abuse in the camps and add that UNHCR owes Hong Kong $130 million for care of the boat people, a debt unlikely to be repaid. "This situation angers the ordinary Hong Kong voter who sees the money going out of pocket to support the Vietnamese while relations ... [with] the mainland are summarily forced back," says a Western diplomat.
As a compromise, the US is holding talks with Hanoi on a plan to rescreen the boat people for refugee status after their return to Vietnam. The plan has encountered opposition from Hanoi, which worries about unrest among the returnees.
Diplomats worry the deadlock will likely drag on until 1997 when it will become China's problem. "You can ask the question: Why should Britain care anymore?" says a Western observer. "They might sit on it until 1997 when the bad guys will be the Chinese and not the Brits."