Regional Outlook : Showdown for Vietnam Refugees : A deadline late next year will send thousands of 'boat people' back to Vietnam. Many are already becoming violent and desperate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After nearly 20 years of poignant drama on the high seas, the saga of Vietnam's "boat people" appeared to be heading for a neat, quiet solution.

Departures from Vietnam, which reached tens of thousands a year in the 1980s, had been reduced to a trickle. Hong Kong recorded 20,179 arriving Vietnamese boat people in 1991, but only 94 last year.

The governments of 30 nations met in Geneva in February to resolve the fate of the 58,000 Vietnamese still in refugee camps in Southeast Asia who are hoping to be sent to the United States, Canada or other countries of asylum.

The Geneva conference decided that all the camps would be closed in 17 months. All those people who are determined not to be refugees--the vast majority--will be sent back to Vietnam.

The only difficulty with the neat end to the problem was the refugees themselves. In Geylang refugee camp in Indonesia, two men facing a return to Vietnam burned themselves to death, a traditional protest suicide in their country. A third man immolated himself in the Bataan camp in the Philippines when his wife was rejected for resettlement in Canada.

In Hong Kong, five men walked into the camp center for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and slashed their abdomens with knives. Hunger strikes have been called at camps in Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines, and angry demonstrations have convulsed refugee centers throughout the region.

"What I think we are witnessing is a last-ditch effort to reverse the inevitable," Brian Bresnihan, the Hong Kong refugee coordinator, said in an interview.

Nearly all of the violence in the camps has taken place since the Geneva conference announced the December, 1995, deadline for shutting down the refugee effort. Officials privately fear the violence could escalate as a hard core determined not to return home eventually becomes a majority in the camps.

"We don't have an answer about what will happen to those who refuse to go back," said Werner Blatter, director of the U.N. refugees office for Asia and Oceania. "We're not policemen."

Since 1975, when South Vietnam was taken over by the Communist north, nearly 1 million people have fled the country by boat. They washed up in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Thousands more fled northern Vietnam and ended up in Hong Kong.

The scenes were pitiful. Fishermen pirated the leaking, overloaded boats in the Gulf of Thailand, raping women and girls and killing the men. Untold numbers never reached sanctuary. Television and newspaper photos opened hearts abroad.

For the first 14 years, the United States and other Western countries accepted all the refugees for resettlement without question. More than 300,000 ended up in Southern California alone.

In 1989, under pressure from Southeast Asian states that were growing weary of the burden of looking after them, the international community agreed to permit screening of the boat people for genuine political refugees, those deemed liable to face persecution if they returned to their homeland as opposed to those who sought to emigrate to improve their economic prospects. Those accepted would be resettled, while those rejected would be asked to return home.

The idea of forced repatriation to Vietnam was rejected by the United States and the U.N. body said it wanted no part of it. Only Hong Kong attempted forced repatriation, but scenes of women and children being dragged aboard airplanes aroused so much sympathy that the government there has used the practice sparingly: only 850 people have been forced back to Vietnam in the last five years.

Instead, the international community has stressed voluntary repatriation, with U.N. refugee groups offering $240 per person as an inducement to return. So far, 61,000 people have gone home voluntarily since 1989, including 43,000 from Hong Kong.

Part of the motivation seemed to be the changing economic circumstances in Vietnam, where jobs are now more available because of economic reforms. Counseling also seemed to convince others that return was their only way out of the camp.

But the February conference in Geneva has raised the possibility of forced repatriation on a huge scale if the voluntary program fails to work. Even the United States, which had opposed forced repatriation for years, reversed its stand, perhaps because of accusations of inconsistency with its policy on Haitian refugees.

"The U.S. government does not in principle oppose mandatory return of screened-out non-refugees in accordance with international law and practice, when necessary, as a supplement to the preferred solution of voluntary returns," said Warren Zimmerman, head of the U.S. delegation at the Geneva conference on refugees.

Paradoxically, ever since the threat of forced repatriation was raised, the number of voluntary returns has plummeted. In Hong Kong, for example, the number of voluntary returnees averaged 2,000 a month late last year. The number has steadily declined, reaching only 193 volunteers in May.

"We believe there is still mileage in the voluntary departure program. We are just going through a trough at the moment," said Hong Kong's Bresnihan.

Refugee officials said the decline in part reflects misplaced hopes by the Vietnamese that the recent violence will force countries to relent and accept them for asylum. Another, more sinister reason given by officials is that people in the camps are being bullied against returning.

"We are very concerned where an individual in a camp doesn't have the freedom to take decisions because there is group pressure," said the U.N. office's Blatter.

Officials said they are especially concerned about a campaign called the New Democracy Movement, which is said to be based in the Vietnamese expatriate community in Orange County. The Movement has organized a letter-writing campaign urging relatives in the camps to hold out against returning home.

But there is also a growing awareness that no matter how terrible Westerners find the refugee camps, the Vietnamese themselves consider them superior to the world they left behind.

"Life is better here than in Vietnam," said Tran Nhu Dung, 21, who arrived by boat in the Philippines in 1989 and now lives on Palawan island, which has been described as the "Club Med" of refugee camps. The camp features free food, three schools and beautiful beaches.

"I'm staying until the camp closes," said a man named Tran, who since his arrival here has married and fathered two children.

"Life is very hard for us in Vietnam," agreed Phuoc Chi Tran, another refugee in the Philippines. "If they say all refugees must go back, I'll go back. Now, we're just waiting."

Even in less comfortable camps in the region, asylum-seekers are treated far better than most Vietnamese at home, with access to Western-style medical care, education for their children and generous food allotments.

Given the benefits of staying, it is unclear how the governments in the region are going to get the number of voluntary returnees to rise again. Last year, the European Union announced that it was going to curtail an aid program for volunteers, which caused a surge in returnees who hoped to beat the deadline. But the program is ending this year, so it will no longer offer much incentive.

"I'd rather die than go back," said 67-year-old Pham Tiet, who now resides in a Manila detention center. "I worked for the American soldiers. If I go back, the government will kill me."

The camps include a number of people who, for various reasons, are afraid to return to Vietnam. The Hong Kong camps, for instance, are believed to include a large number of convicted criminals whom the Vietnamese let out of prison and put on boats. They know that returning home means a likely return to jail.

Another group consists of 500 people who managed to leave Vietnam as legal immigrants to the United States as Amerasians, or their relatives. But when they got to a processing center in the Philippines, U.S. officials discovered they held counterfeit documents and rejected them. They are now trapped in limbo, with neither the United States, Vietnam nor the Philippines willing to take them.

Arrivals of 'boat people' in East and Southeast Asia: 1976-1992

1976: 5,644

1977: 15,633

1978: 86,373

1979: 202,158

1980: 71,451

1981: 74,749

1982: 43,807

1983: 28,055

1984: 24,865

1985: 22,214

1986: 19,538

1987: 28,096

1988: 45,530

1989: 71,364

1990: 30,936

1991: 22,422

1992: 58

Source: U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

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