VIETNAMESE in camps scattered around Southeast Asia are often described as an ``indigestible lump.'' After braving perilous sea voyages, the 53,000 refugees face scant hope of a new home soon. But lately, the ``lump'' has become a political hot potato.
An international conference on the plight of Indochinese refugees is set for mid-June in Geneva.
The preparations alone, however, have fired up disputes which lay dormant since the last conference a decade ago - such as who is a refugee and what is Vietnam's responsibility for the problem.
The meeting is primarily a response to noncommunist nations in Southeast Asia, who cry that they are at their political limits in being way stations for Vietnamese fleeing to the West.
The countries, chiefly Thailand and Malaysia, insisted that the conference take place after they foresaw an end to Vietnam's isolation and its occupation of Cambodia, perhaps by next year. They feared Western nations might take fewer Vietnamese, leaving the ``lump'' as an unbearable burden.
They also saw more and more Vietnamese coming their way.
Thailand tried to prevent boat people from reaching its shores last year, only to face a stiff reproach from abroad. After years of a decline in the number of boat people, a renewed exodus began after 1986 as Vietnam's economy worsened.
Vietnamese officials admit the exodus is a stigma for a nation now wooing foreign investors. That's why they will be in Geneva, and likely make concessions.
Even the pre-conference talk of automatic resettlement soon being denied to many boat people has encouraged more to leave.
A fresh example comes from Hong Kong, which was hit by a tidal wave of refugees last year from northern Vietnam. The British colony told new arrivals who came after June 16 of that year that they would never go any place but back to Vietnam eventually. But that did not stop the flow. The British colony also sent 75 ``volunteers'' back to Vietnam on March 2, the first such group repatriation.
``There's a shifting perception that resettlement in the West may not be the cure to the problem, but the cause of the problem,'' says an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). ``Slowly, we have to shift from resettlement to repatriation, voluntary and perhaps someday forced.''
In early March, both Eastern and Western nations involved in the issues signed a pre-Geneva ``package'' of measures in Malaysia, which only opened up new issues. Follow-up meetings are planned next week.
The hottest issue was a decision to begin winnowing genuine political refugees from those seeking a better economic life for themselves. This process is a difficult task of astute interviewing for refugees' motivation to determine if there is a ``well-founded fear of political persecution.''
Until March 14, the winnowing was done by Western nations. Since then, the decisions are to be made by the six nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
UNHCR promised to help ASEAN learn the process. Hong Kong's screening resulted in less than 10 percent gaining temporary political asylum. That number may be lower than for ASEAN, since most arrivals came from northern Vietnam, where the Communist Party has ruled for 35 years. Arrivals from the south have more recent reasons to cite political persecution.
Western nations are uncertain that ASEAN will be fair in its screening.
``The screening will be tough,'' says a United States refugee official. ``A lot of people will be labeled as economic refugees.'' When the US conducts its interviews, ``even though a lot of cases are pretty weak, we give them the benefit of the doubt,'' admits one immigration official.
But the West has ASEAN's assurance that it will continue to accept incoming boat people and end ``push-offs'' of boats. In the new screening, ASEAN's practical interests will be to have just the right number of refugees who will be accepted under Western quotas, with the remaining ``economic migrants'' going back to Vietnam.
``The big gamble is that with less hope of resettlement, refugees will agree to be repatriated, and that Hanoi will be accommodating,'' the immigration official says. ``But the idea of forcing anyone back to a communist country will not go down well in the US and many other places,'' the official adds.
Many officials expect the need for new, long-term holding centers for those labeled ``economic migrants,'' until Vietnam's political and economic situation changes.
Vietnam opposes forced repatriation - at least so far - citing potential domestic disruption. It did agree to make greater efforts to halt clandestine departures, and announced March 23 it had sentenced a Haiphong police official to life imprisonment for helping migrants flee.
Hanoi accuses the West - especially the US - of labeling boat people as political refugees to encourage their departure. Such a stand helps it justify demanding hard cash to help settle returnees. Hong Kong gave $130 million to the UNHCR to help in the resettlement. A dispute over whether to give money directly to Vietnam could be a major stumbling block in Geneva.