One of the greatest refugee tragedies

The response of the international community to the Indochinese refugee crisis has been marked by a great generosity of spirit. Over a million refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have been resettled in the United States and other nations. But while the flow of refugees from Indochina has now declined considerably, one continuing problem in that region constitutes one of the greatest tragedies in the history of refugee movements.

That tragedy lies in the story of Vietnamese men, women, and children who have taken to the high seas in search of freedom and who, on the verge of succor and safety in Thailand and other countries of first asylum, fall victim to brutal and, in many cases, fatal pirate attacks.

During 1981 alone, out of 16,695 known departures by boat from Vietnam, at least 571 refugees were killed, 243 abducted, and 599 raped. Horrifying as these figures are, they do not take account of the number of individuals who were lost at sea, and they reflect only those refugees arriving in Thailand.

In 1982, the overall numbers of boat people fleeing Vietnam are down, but about 80 percent of the boats arriving in first asylum countries are still attacked by pirates, with the average boat being victimized three times.

Since the demise last September of a six-month US-Thai program to prevent piracy, no organized effort has been undertaken against pirate attacks in the Gulf of Thailand. During the limited time the US-Thai program operated, no appreciable decline was registered in the rate of murder, rape, abduction, and theft. This $2.2 million bilateral effort allowed Thailand to buy only two patrol boats, two spotter aircraft, and one fishing boat - a commitment of resources hardly commensurate with the size of the problem.

The Thai government has now signed an agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to implement a multilateral program to deter piracy in the Gulf of Thailand. The UNHCR has collected $3.67 million from 12 countries, including a contribution of over $1 million from the US, to fund a new drive against piracy. Yet even with this UNHCR-Thai program in place, the area to be patrolled is so vast and the resources in hand are so small, that we must significantly supplement this effort if we are to address the problem in a serious and sustained fashion.

In attempting to frame a compassionate American and international response to this crisis, it is useful to keep in mind the magnificent contribution Thailand has made by providing ''first asylum'' to hundreds of thousands of refugees. At a time when its resources have been strained by the influx of refugees, it is neither fair nor feasible to expect Thailand to carry the entire burden in the fight against piracy.

Recognizing that measures taken to date have proven terribly inadequate, members of Congress have pressed the administration to devote greater attention and resources to this problem. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has voted to authorize an additional $5 million, beyond present efforts, to combat piracy in the Gulf of Thailand. The funds were approved by the committee in a manner which provides the administration with maximum flexibility in determining how they should be used. This authorization was intended to spur other countries to strengthen their own commitments to protect Vietnamese refugees from pirate attacks.

Our government, in cooperation with Thailand, should explore the feasibility of various suggestions made by private organizations dedicated to solving this problem. One proposal, advanced by S.E.A. (Southeast Asia) Rescue Foundation Inc., would call for an expenditure of $8 million to $10 million for the purchase and deployment of 20 wooden-hulled boats to patrol the area of the Gulf of Thailand where refugees are most frequently victimized. Another idea, put forward by O.R. (Operation Rescue) Inc. of the US, is to enlist the cooperation of approximately 1,000 local Thai fishermen and provide them with a two-way radio service in exchange for information on abductees and pirate attacks.

Testifying in April before the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, Lu Phuoc, now a resident of Virginia, described the terror he and his family encountered when their boat was attacked eight separate times in an 18 -day span in the Gulf of Thailand. Mr. Lu said he hoped the story he had recounted of robbery, rape, and abduction would move our government ''to pursue an active role in ending this barbarism.'' While professing a devotion to human rights, our nation can do no less.

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