A modest alternative to fleeing Vietnam in rickety fishing boats or rusty freighters begins this week with the departure of about 250 Vietnamese . . . aboard a carpeted, food-catered Air France jetliner.
The group will be the first of some 1,500 Vietnamese to emigrate to the United States under an "orderly departure" program agreed to by the United States and Vietnam. The program was worked out by the UN office of High Commissioner for Refugees at a 1979 Geneva conference. It was designed to discourage thousands of refugees from risking drowning by fleeing Vietnam on leaky fishing boats or freighters. Instead the Vietnamese government would make formal arrangements with recipient countries for orderly transfers of those seeking to leave.
But the United States up to now has been unable to agree with Vietnam on just whom it would accept. This is because although the United States can take up to 32,000 Vietnamese immigrants (as opposed to refugees) a year, they must meet stringent US immigration requirements.
The first departures, some 250 Vietnamese, were expected to leave Vietnam Dec. 11 on a weekly Air France flight from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to Bangkok, Thailand. In accordance with US law, those accepted either have family connections in the United States or were formerly employed by the US government in Vietnam.
State Department spokesman John Trattner said in Washington the agreement was negotiated between Vietnam and the UN high commissioner for refugees, who represented US interests. Washington was said to have submitted a list of 17, 000 vietnamese who would be eligible for acceptance. Vietnam submitted a similar list.
But US officials say only 1,500 of the prospective emigres they singled out appeared on Vietnam's roster. This has raised the question of how much longer it will take to agree on more than the first 1,500.
Still, the agreement represents a symbolic breakthrough, even though Mr. Trattner declared it unrelated to the question of normalization between the two countries.
Previously, Vietnam was only interested in getting rid of people it considered burdens. The United States in turn was accused by some of being unwilling to budge from conventional immigration rules. US officials were often highly critical of the United Nations for negotiating the "orderly departure" scheme and in effect speaking for recipient governments without considering their immigration regulations.
Indeed, the first list of persons Vietnam submitted to the United States for "orderly departure" read like the "Cholon [Chinatown] telephone book," in the words of one US official. By this he meant Vietnam had simply padded the list with the names of its Chinese minority. It wanted this group expelled because it constituted an unwanted merchant class in the south and because it was seen as a "fifth column" after the early 1979 war with China.
US officials rejected the first Vietnamese list. Then both sides settled down to the arduous task of preparing subsequent rosters that would have at least some names in common. Other governments more flexible in their immigration rules were able to move faster than the United States, according to some observers.
But the orderly departure program never became a practical alternative to flight by sea. For one thing, the numbers it handled were relatively small. For another, any Vietnamese hoping to leave under the program had to be endorsed first by the Vietnamese government and then by a host government. That added up to massive bureaucracy and tangled politics.
What has really cut into the refugee outflow was Vietnam's decision early this year to halt or at least slow it. Naval patrols were stepped up, and stiff penalties handed out to those trying to leave illegally.
The change was apparently an attempt by the Vietnamese to reduce the exodus of refugees to the already overburdened nations of Southeast Asia.