Boat people: exodus slows but pirate attacks increase

Rising pirate violence against Indochina refugees is causing growing international concern.

The spotlight is on the need for better patrolling of waters neighboring Indochina to deter the massacres and sexual assaults that some refugee workers say are becoming more and more frequent - and brutal.

The increased pirate violence comes amid signs that the exodus of ''boat people'' from Vietnam has declined, but hardly ended.

International efforts are under way to assist Thailand in a stepped-up patrol program designed to deter piracy against refugees crossing the Gulf of Thailand.

Despite all the attention Thai and other governments have given to piracy in recent years, the statistics and personal accounts of survivors seem to indicate the severity of the attacks is growing.

For example, a recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Regugees (UNHCR) indicates that some 550 refugees were killed in 14 massacres in 1981. Some refugee workers see the growing number slain in outright massacres as a disturbing new element.

More than 80 percent of the refugee boats that finally reached Thailand between January and November 1981 (some 289 out of 357) were attacked, some several times, along the way. The average number of pirate assaults per boats that were attacked was 3.4, for a total of 985 attacks.

Some 36 percent of refugee boats reaching Malaysia between January and October 1981 (141 of 393) were also attacked by pirates, again some several times. In all there were 251 attacks, with an average of 1.8 assaults per attacked vessel.

The problem is not confined to vessels headed for Thailand, nor are all pirates Thai. But there has been concern because a Thai anti-piracy program begun in February with $2 million in US aid expired in September.

Under that program one surface ship and two aircraft had extended Thai patrolling beyond immediate territorial waters.

In early October a UNHCR conference in Geneva on the problem initiated a call for $3.6 million fund to help Thailand renew and enlarge its anti-piracy measures.

Under the enlarged program, one to three surface ships and two aircraft would be patrolling.

So far about $1.5 million has been pledged to the new fund, including $600, 000 committed by the US.

Thailand has ''in principle'' agreed to the UNHCR $3.6 million program. Refugee officials say negotiations are in progress to see if the expanded Thai anti-pirate patrolling can be started before the full $3.6 million is pledged.

To deter or catch the pirates has always been difficult and expensive, given the size of the Gulf of Thailand, and the large number of planes and ships needed for comprehensive patrols. Thai officials maintain their country is often unfairly blamed for what is an international problem - especially since Thailand has sheltered hundreds of thousands of Indochinese refugees since the Vietnam war ended.

Some of the pirates are thought to be professionals with organized crime connections. Others are fishermen (often Thai or Malaysian). Sometimes impoverished, they may turn to piracy because they see refugees as targets of opportunity likely to be carrying gold and other valuables.

Still, other fishermen, who often get less publicity, help protect refugees from pirates and the weather by providing food and towing leaky vessels into safe harbors.

Despite a crackdown by Vietnamese authorities, refugees continue to board their sometimes rickety boats for the risky voyage across the Gulf to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, or Indonesia.

But fewer ''boat people'' arrived in the area in 1981 than in 1980. According to US statistics, 16,728 boat people arrived from August to November 1981, compared with 23,635 during the same period in 1980.

Refugee officials explain the decrease by citing Vietnam's crackdown on the exodus (which damages the country's fishing industry) and a shortage of boats for escape.

Still, the refugees keep coming - motivated largely by poverty and a desire to escape communist rule. The illegal flow continues even though Vietnam is cooperating in flying out some 8,000 emigrants a year under the ''orderly departure'' program negotiated with Western countries, including the United States. The boat people keep coming even though they know before departure of the dangers they face from pirates and rough seas.

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