ENCIRCLED by baggage, his artificial leg propped against a wall, Lann Khanh glumly admits there is no place to go but home.
The day before, Mr. Khanh, a 52-year-old farmer who was injured fighting in the then-South Vietnamese Army, was among 129 refugees arriving from Thailand at this reception center in suburban Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
Soon, the refugee will head back to his home Cuu Long province. A daughter stayed behind in their Thai refugee camp, in hopes of making it to the West.
"I was misled by some people to believe that, since I served in the Army, I would get assistance from the United States," he says. "I had trouble with my health so I decided to come back. But my daughter will stay much longer."
Southeast Asia's tragic refugee saga enters a touchy and possibly final phase as thousands of Vietnamese boat people, grudgingly and sometimes with great resistance, start to turn back. Returnees increase
Within the next few months, Vietnamese officials, Western diplomats, and international aid officials predict the return of the refugees, who number more than 120,000, will accelerate.
In November and December, 87 refugees were deported from Hong Kong under recent agreements between Britain and Vietnam to send home boat people, if necessary by force. Of the 64,000 people in camps in the British colony, about 57,000 are expected to be denied official refugee status and be returned.
"It will be difficult when [those who have been in Hong Kong] the longest start to come back in March and April," says an official of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Hanoi. "They don't know the picture of the new Vietnam, and they don't want to listen."
At the same time, Western officials involved with refugees are cautiously hopeful that more boat people will volunteer to go home and that the 16-year exodus from Vietnam is nearing an end.
Since September, arrivals in Hong Kong and neighboring countries have dropped to almost nil, compared to a flood earlier this year.
One deterrent was the forced repatriation. Another holdback came when UNHCR stopped offering assistance to voluntarily returning refugees who arrived after that month.
About 12,000 refugees volunteered to return to Vietnam last year, double the number in 1990. About 19,000 refugees have returned voluntarily since 1989 and applications for voluntary repatriation are on the increase in Thailand and Malaysia.
"The key factor is greater realization that there is no future in the first-stop countries," says Imran Riza, a UNHCR official who formerly worked in Hong Kong and now heads repatriation efforts in southern Vietnam.
The shifting refugee picture mirrors political change in Southeast Asia. For years the flotsam of regional political convulsions, wars, and economic disarray, boat people first took flight after the then-South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975.
Later, waves of people fled economic collapse in Vietnam in hopes of a better life abroad.
Now isolated by communism's fall in Europe and anxious to mend fences with its noncommunist neighbors, Vietnam has agreed to mandatory repatriation after years of resistance. Forced repatriation
Even the US, which officially says it opposes forced repatriation, looked the other way during recent deportations of so-called "double-backers," boat people who accepted UN assistance and went home voluntarily only to return to Hong Kong. In 1989, international outcry forced Hong Kong and Vietnamese authorities to abandon a similar plan.
In the coming months, Vietnamese and British authorities in Hong Kong will step up efforts to bring boat people home. The Thu Duc reception complex, built in 1990 to house 250 people, is already too small, says Capt. Nguyen Kim Hong, an immigration official with the Interior Ministry. This year, 1,000 refugees are expected monthly, double the number of 1991.
To date, Ho Chi Minh City has received only refugees from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines; direct flights from Hong Kong begin this month.
"If the numbers increase as planned, the center will have to be enlarged too," he says.
Verifying that Vietnam is not harassing returned boat people, UNHCR officials and Western diplomats say dim job prospects are the biggest deterrent to boat people. Vietnam says it needs more assistance and blames the US economic embargo for blocking further aid.
"Frankly, we are facing many difficulties in how to resettle people and reintegrate them into the community here," says Nguyen Dinh Bin, a diplomat handling refugee matters. "Due to our limitations, it is very difficult to resolve this problem swiftly."
Returned boat people acknowledge changes in Vietnam but predict that many others will come only against their will. Pham Duy Khanh spent more than two years in a Hong Kong camp before returning to Hanoi last year and establishing a watch shop with his compensation.
"At first, I was afraid. But then I found that people can run their own business," he said.
"But many people in the camps don't want to come back because they sold out their property before going," he continued. "Even if they don't qualify as political refugees and China takes over, they still want to live in Hong Kong."