Long Escapes That Came Up Short

Vietnamese boat people who languished for years in Southeast Asian camps are forced to start life over again - back home

Thach Seri shifted uncomfortably on the bright-red plastic chair in the airport departure lounge. He wasn't used to the chill from the airconditioning or to the hard glare of the neon lights. But after six years in Sikhiu refugee camp, 125 miles west of Bangkok, Mr. Thach did at least seem cautiously happy about one thing: He was going home.

One of 109 boat people who returned voluntarily last month to Vietnam, Thach had ended his dream of joining other members of his family in the United States.

Instead Thach, who lost his right eye fighting the Communist North Vietnamese near Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) during the Vietnam War, has returned into the arms of a regime he bitterly opposed. He must also accept that the past six years of waiting and hoping have been in vain.

Thach is one among many thousands of Vietnamese boat people all over Asia that once were the focus of an unprecedented surge of international compassion. After the fall of Saigon to Communist forces in 1975, more than 839,000 Vietnamese fled overseas, mostly in flimsy, overcrowded boats. Many perished at sea.

Shocked by their suffering - and in the case of the US keen to try to help their anticommunist allies - the West, led by the US, has taken in some 755,000 boat people.

But slowly the boat people have been pushed into the shadows by newer tragedies and the fact that Vietnam is no longer seen as a pariah state. Those who remain in camps in Asia now face a difficult choice: Go home voluntarily or be forced onto a plane as part of the euphemistically entitled Orderly Repatriation Program.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Bangkok, more than 89,000 boat people have already returned to Vietnam voluntarily.

In 1989, 30 countries drew up a plan aimed at stemming the continuing flood of boat people. The plan ended the boat people's automatic right to refugee status and resettlement by defining them as "economic migrants." For Thach, who knew nothing of the policy change when he left Vietnam in 1990, it effectively ended his hopes of traveling to the West.

Conditions have changed in Vietnam, too. Though still firmly in control, Vietnam's Communist rulers now advocate a market economy. An "open door" investment policy has drawn swarms of international companies and prompted the US to end its investment embargo. In July 1995, Vietnam won international respectability when it became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which ironically had been founded as a bulwark against the advance of communism.

Though many boat people worry that they will be persecuted upon returning to Vietnam, their fears appear at odds with a Vietnam that is set on taking its place in Asia's political and economic mainstream.

"Actually, it's more complex than just fear of the old regime," explains Eric Bertin-Magit of the French charity Doctors Without Borders. "Many [refugees] don't want to give up the chance of going to the West. Some left debts behind. Others are just plain criminals. Some have even remarried and are afraid to be reunited with their old families."

To try to sweeten the return, the UN and Western nations offer guarantees of safety, prospects of employment, and promises of financial support ($240 per person) once back in Vietnam. "We've seen no evidence of a policy of harassment on the part of the government," says Rebecca Ramirez of the International Catholic Migration Commission, which has provided business grants of up to $900 to returnees in Ho Chi Minh.

Sitting in a roadside cafe in southern Vietnam, returnee Phuong Duc Tho says he is happy to be home. He used his grant to start a photocopying business, and he is already making a small profit.

Last September, Hanoi and the European Union unveiled a $20 million Refugee Assistance Program designed to help returnees. In a separate initiative, the US dangled a carrot in front of voluntary returnees by promising that once back in Vietnam they would be granted interviews with American immigration officers, holding out a chance of emigration.

More than 15,000 boat people have returned to Vietnam from Sikhiu, leaving just 250 refugees at the nearly deserted camp. "Thailand's last camp should be cleared in a matter of weeks," says a UNHCR official in Bangkok.

Sikhiu is the second-largest remaining camp in Asia, after the infamous Whitehead detention center in Hong Kong (see story at right), where some 11,000 asylum seekers still wait to be repatriated before the British colony reverts to China next July.

Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore succeeded in closing their camps earlier this year, sending their boat people back to Vietnam by ship. Only the Philippines has broken ranks by offering an option of residency to some 2,000 boat people in its last camp on the island of Palawan.

"We can't really do much to stop [the refugees from] being sent back because, technically, they're not refugees," says Robert Burrows of the UNHCR in Bangkok. "In fact, there's nothing really shocking about the Thais sending these people home when one considers you have people being sent back from countries like England and France every day."

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