US Ends Era of Welcome For Vietnam's Refugees

Official door closed last month. More people in Vietnam elect not to emigrate.

In 1989, when the US and Vietnam signed an agreement that would eventually bring 34,300 Vietnamese former political prisoners and their dependents to America, Tran Van Tam was among the hundreds of thousands who registered to go.

But by the time Mr. Tam was summoned five years later for an interview to leave, he felt Vietnam was where he belonged after all. A booming economy has improved his life.

"Everything we have is here. We no longer need to go," Tam says.

For many Vietnamese who once wanted to flee their country, and for many who settled in America, life has come full circle: Vietnam is proving more and more attractive.

Hundreds of thousands of the 1.5 million refugees - including those who left after Saigon fell at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and the boat people of the late '70s and early '80s - are returning to their homeland every year, some to stay.

Last month, the United States closed its files on a program to accept former political "detainees," as they are called, who are still living in Vietnam.

Although the US gives him some time to change his mind, Tam says he won't.

"I am very much aware that this [decision] would take away my current refugee status, which would give me and my family emigration priority to America," says the man who spent 10 years in a government "re-education" camp for his service as a commander in the South Vietnamese Navy. But "everything we have is here. We no longer need to go."

Less repression

Tam's decision reflects what he, and others like him, say is their reality. Politically, the country is no longer as oppressive as the years after South Vietnam fell to the Communist-run North in 1975, leading to the eventual emigration of about 1.5 million to the West. Economically, Vietnam is steadily improving, allowing for many of its people to earn a comfortable living so they wouldn't have to seek a better life elsewhere.

His and others' decision to remain in Vietnam is also influenced by the many stories they have heard about their compatriots who, having lost up to a dozen years in re-education camps, now face problems adjusting to a new life in the US.

"I know from friends and family members who have left that it is hard to make it as a migrant in America, especially if you're old," says Tran Huu Tri, who was imprisoned five years for having served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army.

Mr. Tri, who runs a small cafe with his wife in a rural area outside of Ho Chi Minh City, adds: "It seems to me - given what I've heard about the hardship of other Vietnamese in America - we have the better life here."

The odyssey of Vietnamese refugees began with the end of the Vietnam War, when close to 250,000 fled the country on cargo planes and military ships, the start of their journey chronicled by dramatic television footage of people dangling precariously from helicopters.

The second wave of refugees, known as the "boat people," began in the summer of 1978, when the Vietnamese government expelled ethnic Chinese from the country after a dispute with Beijing, forcing thousands to leave on rickety, make-shift boats. They were joined by Vietnamese nationals who bought or forged papers declaring themselves Chinese to allow their passage out of the country. By the time the United Nations phased out its Southeast Asian refugee camps programs last year, close to three-quarters of a million of the boat people were resettled in other countries.

The "third wave" of refugees came in 1989 under the auspices of the US Department of States' Orderly Departure Program (ODP). These refugees include the former political prisoners and their families, those fleeing from religious and political persecution, and Amerasians, or children of former American servicemen. By far, the largest section of this group - about 468,500 people - is the political prisoners and their dependents. Eventually, 159,400 would end up in the US.

Today, more than 1 million of those of Vietnamese descent live in the US, mainly in California and Texas. About 500,000 others have resettled in Australia, Canada, France, and other countries in Europe.

Since 1990, more than 800,000 "Viet kieu," or overseas Vietnamese living mainly in the US and France, have returned home, sending or bringing back with them $600 million or $700 million annually to help friends and families start small businesses.

Little Saigon

Generally speaking, those from the "first wave" were educated and business savvy. Within a few years of arrival, they were able to establish business and cultural communities such as southern California's Little Saigon.

The "boat people," many of whom were uneducated and from the countryside, had more problems adjusting. Some of their children, influenced by an unstructured refugee camp life, got involved in gangs and crimes.

But it is the former political prisoners who faced the most daunting of financial and social obstacles. At an average age of 58, most say they are too old and set in their ways to adapt to a new land, to learn its language, and to find jobs. Unable to cope, a few committed suicide, leaving behind notes detailing their disillusionment with the reality of their "American dream."

US doormat pulled

The dream for a new life began in 1989 when the US program known as Humanitarian Operation began, allowing those who were imprisoned for their work with either the South Vietnamese or the American government to leave Vietnam.

Officially, it ended three years ago. But in practice, it is still continuing, because of voluminous paperwork; the Vietnamese government has been slow in issuing exit visas; and because some who are qualified to be interviewed for immigration never followed up on the process.

On June 1, US officials sent letters to about 650 Vietnamese, informing them their eight-year-old files requesting refugee status would be closed at the end of September if case officers in the country didn't hear from them. But many did not respond even as the deadline neared, says Dewey Pendergrass, the Bangkok-based ODP director. Of the 650 letters sent out, 145 families have responded and requested interviews. Of the remainder, 33 said they were not interested in going and 472 did not answer at all, Bill Fleming, chief of consulate.

Tran Van Tam is typical of those who now do not want to go. If he could have left in 1989, he said, he definitely would have. But in the five years it took for his application to be accepted, "I've come a long way," Tam says. During his years in the re-education camp, he had to feed himself by planting vegetables on infertile soil and was usually hungry. After the cap, he was blacklisted from getting non-manual-labor jobs.

"To leave my country now would mean to start over again, and I'm too old for it," he says.

Once, he wanted better opportunities for his children who could not find jobs in the post-war era. Now, his two sons - an architect and a builder - and daughter, who is a college instructor, make good money to help support each other and their parents. Further, Tam and his wife, Tran Thi Xuan Huong, operate an after-school day-care center out of their home, bringing in about $300 a month, a princely sum in a country whose per-capita annual average income is about $200.

Children well-off

His children "have built a strong foundation for their lives, their futures, so they don't need to go any more," Tam said. "My wife and I are old, but we do OK."

To be sure, Vietnam, which is still one of the poorest countries in the world, doesn't afford a reasonable standard-of-living for most of its 75 million people, the majority of whom live in far-flung villages. Some who are qualified to be interviewed to come to the US say they chose to stay also because of reasons unrelated to the economy.

Keeping families intact

Subtleties such as keeping the family nucleus intact is one reason. A few say they are staying out of pride in themselves - specifically, for having survived re-education camp - and pride in Vietnam.

Ultimately, many say, their reason for staying is simple enough: They don't want to leave their homeland, their families, friends, and neighbors.

"Everyone around here knows me and my wife, and we are at peace with the simple life we have made for ourselves," says Tri. "I'm not sure I could say the same thing if we went to America."

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