Governments and relief workers are watching to see if thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" will follow last year's pattern of seeking refuge abroad. Despite rumors, there is no sign Vietnam's government is about to again collaborate with large-scale "exporters" who evacuate thousands of refugees in rusty, "syndicate-owned" freighters.
There are signs, however, that the number of small refugee-bearing fishing boats is growing despite tightened naval and police control, reporters and other visitors to Vietnam report. There does not seem to be any large-scale bribe-taking.
The exodus of smaller boats appears to be growing in part because of improved sea and weather conditions. "Boat people" arriving in other Southeast Asian countries reached more than 5,000 in March, double the previous month.
Increasingly, boatloads of as many as 150 refugees are landing Hong Kong. And Malaysia's Foreign Minister Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen has warned that the number of illegal departures is rising. So far, however, all indications are that Vietnam has prevented a resumed large-scale exodus -- partly to improve relations with its noncommunist Southeast Asian neighbors.
Any massive refugee increase would quash the opening diplomatic dialoque begun last month by the visit of Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach to Malaysia and Thailand. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines -- fear that the often largely ethnic Chinese refugees that land on their shores might produce economic burdens and racial friction.
As long as Vietnam hopes to end its diplomatic isolation over the occupation of Cambodia and other issues, restraint on refugees can be expected, according to some diplomatic observers.
Some press reports say a full-scale Vietnamese refugee expulsion program is about to start. But Bangkok sources consider this largely based on unsubstantiated rumors in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). One reason behind the continued but limited exodus is the failure of the United Nations-sponsored "orderly departure" plan. According to some UN sources, only some 2,000 "refugees" have left so far under the program worked out by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees a year ago in Geneva.
As originally envisioned, Vietnam would present one list and the UN would act as a kind of "clearinghouse." But in practice each country can accept "orderly departures" only in accord with its own immigration laws. The United States. for example, can theoretically accept 32.000 Vietnamese immigrants (as opposed to refugees) a year. To be a acceptable, however, the applicant proposed on the Vietnamese government list must: (1) have direct family links in the US. (2) have been an employee of the US government in Vietnam, or (3) have relatives in the US.
Both sides have worked out matched lists of 1,000 persons who want to leave, can be allowed to leave, and are acceptable to the US. But as this writing no final agreement has been reached.
The publicity created by last year's conference, coupled with the protest against Vietnam's open export of refugees, appears to have driven home a political message in Hanoi: If you want friends in Southeast Asia and the world, do not make profit out of massive refugee export.