Vietnamese refugees have found a safer route - and are using it

More than a decade after the end of the war in Vietnam, the number of refugees fleeing that impoverished communist country and arriving in Thailand is increasing. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the number of Vietnamese refugees reaching Thailand more than doubled during the first half of this year. Some 5,886 boat people arrived in Thailand between January and July, compared to 3,886 in all of 1986.

Thailand is concerned that the growing refugee influx comes at a time when most Western countries, including the United States, are reducing the numbers of refugees they accept for resettlement.

Thailand already has over 100,000 Indochinese refugees waiting to be resettled and another 260,000 Cambodian refugees living in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border.

New Vietnamese arrivals interviewed at the refugee transit center in Phanat Nikhom said one of the factors in their decision to flee now was that a safer route had been developed across Cambodia to Thailand. Before, many refugees left Vietnam on small, poorly equipped boats, and thousands died when their boats capsized in storms or were attacked by pirates.

Now most refugees come to Thailand on a well-developed clandestine shuttle service from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to eastern Thailand. Thai and Cambodian boats smuggle food stuff, consumer goods, and motorcycles to Cambodia and bring fish and refugees back to Thailand.

The trip of Nguyen Duc Tuynh, a former taxi driver, and his two sons is typical. They traveled by bus from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian border and then took a boat up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh. There the three boarded a military truck to Kompong Som, a port in southern Cambodia, where they caught a boat first to the island of Koh Kong and then to Klong Yai, a Thai fishing port and trading town about five miles from the Cambodian border.

``I had to leave Vietnam because I couldn't find any freedom to live as a human being,'' Mr. Tuynh said. He had tried to flee six times since 1975 and was arrested three times, but he was only detained a few days each time. Tuynh paid the organizers of his escape seven taels of gold, or about $7555 for himself and his two sons.

Many of the new arrivals said they had been prompted to flee now by rumors that Thailand would close the Phanat Nikhom center at the end of the year, making it almost impossible for refugees arriving in Thailand to resettle abroad. In the past, Thailand has sometimes made Vietnamese refugees wait two or three years for an interview with a resettlement country in an attempt to discourage refugees from coming.

Several new arrivals said they left Vietnam because of economic hardship. Vo Thi Mong Quyen, a teacher from Ho Chi Minh City, said she could no longer survive on her government salary of 4,000 dong, or about $8 on the black market. ``It was only enough to buy food for two weeks each month,'' Quyen said.

Hanoi has introduced wide-ranging economic and political reforms since the Vietnamese Communist Party congress last December, but refugees here are cynical about the new policies. ``The government is trying to improve its rule, but the Vietnamese people are so afraid of the communist regime,'' said Huynh Thi Thanh Xuan, another refugee.

Several people interviewed in Ho Chi Minh City in July said the reforms made it easier to leave. ``There's less control and more confusion,'' one man, who was considering leaving, said. ``The economic hardships also make it easier to bribe officials to turn the other way when you leave.''

Most of the new arrivals said they had tried to migrate legally, but had given up. Tuynh, the former taxi driver, said he applied to leave under the UN-sponsored orderly departure program in 1979, but never heard whether the Vietnamese government would give him an exit visa. Tuynh now hopes he will be resettled in the West and that his wife and daughter, who remain in Vietnam, will be able to join him under the departure program.

American officials resumed interviewing potential migrants in Vietnam this month after reaching a new agreement with the Vietnamese in July. Hanoi suspended American interviews at the end of 1986, complaining about Washington's selection procedures.

Refugee officials say Thailand is facing the largest increase in Vietnamese arrivals this year. Fewer refugees are setting out on longer, more dangerous boat trips to the Philippines or Indonesia. Arrivals in all southeast Asian countries during the first seven months of this year totaled 15,721, compared to 19,538 in all of 1986.

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