Vietnamese Exodus Continues...

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Thousands of Vietnamese each month continue to risk the mortal dangers of escape, arriving in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia hungry, ill, and exhausted. In May, 14,792 "boat people" received temporary shelter in approximately 40 camps in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong; in June, 12,368 refugee reached these camps.

People of ethnic Chinese origin, initially the source of most refugees, constitute only a small percentage of the current outflow. Among the ethnic Vietnamese who opt for the perilous voyage and uncertain future are those who, for political reasons, have spent months or years in forced labor or in government re-education camps. There is a growing conviction among refugee agency officials, however, that the vast majority of recent arrivals are fleeing economic hardship, rather than religious, racial, or political persecution. Nonetheless, all of the Vietnamese who find their way to refugee holding centers administered by the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees are automatically granted refugee status.

A recent article in the July 17 issue of Far Eastern Economic Review reports that the resettlement apparatus established to respond to the massive exodus of "boat people" is now regarded as a factor contributing to the continued flow of Vietnamese refugees:

The high resettlement quotas and the ease with which refugees pass through the pipeline are blamed as the principle pull factors encouraging and perpetuating the exodus.

The announcement of quotas by resettlement countries and thus "opening places for refugees who don't even exist yet" is viewed as provocative.

In private, refugee agency officials increasingly stress the need to adjust resettlement policies to the changing constitution of the Vietnamese refugees, 50 to 80% of whom, they estimate, should be reclassified as economic migrants and subjected to the normal immigration procedures. Domestic pressure on Washington to recognize the economic motives of current refugees and adjust its refugee program accordingly is also mounting due to the Reagan administration's stringent budget policies.

The current crisis in the Indochina refugee program, however, remains without official recognition by the countries involved in resettlement, most importantly the U.S. which currently assumes about 75% of the total resettlement. Reluctance to directly investigate the changing status of those now leaving Indochina is in part a response to the fear of countries hosting transitcamps, of a sudden discontinuation of resettlement programs and the consequent stranding of unresolved cases in Southeast Asian camps. Washington's failure to respond to the problem, however, has raised questions concerning the indirect objectives of the continued operation of the resettlement programs. "Because of the way Washington has conducted its program - the whole-sale presumption of refugee status, its failure to respond to changed circumstances, and what many view as its provocatively high resettlement quotas - there is also growing doubt about the motivations behind the program."

Unofficial surveys, which have recently proliferated, indicate that recent migrants are generally less educated and of younger average age than earlier refugees and are leaving Vietnam to flee difficult economic conditions or to avoid military service in Cambodia.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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