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US-Viet refugee impasse could swell boat-people exodus

As the winds and rains of the summer monsoons sweep southern Vietnam, the number of people leaving the country by sea has dropped. When the seasonal winds shift in October and November, however, many observers expect a dramatic rise in the number of boat people reaching Southeast Asian refugee camps.

Vietnamese officials think this is precisely what the United States wants -- a continuing uncontrolled exodus that will embarrass Vietnam in the eyes of the world. But American officials contend they would like an orderly process -- which Vietnam is preventing.

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The problem has been compounded by the inability of both the Vietnamese and the Americans to untie the red tape that is currently hampering Vietnamese refugees from entering the US. If the impasse drags on, the possibility increases of another flood of boat people floundering across the seas of Southeast Asia.

Nguyen Van Nam heads the office that deals with Ho Chi Minh City residents applying to leave the country legally. "Right now we have about 1,500 people who have permission to leave Vietnam and who also have permission to enter the United States, but the Americans have not yet accepted them," he says.

"Earlier, we arranged for 228 people -- all of them on a list sent to us by the United States -- to leave. The Americans cabled back that they could only take people who had US visas. We checked and found 139 who had visas. The Americans responded that they could only accept 10 people per flight," Mr. Nam adds.

He produces a copy of a cable, sent by an official of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), which backs up his story.

To Nam and other Vietnamese officials, these two situations are part of a pattern. The Americans, they believe, are deliberately making it difficult for Vietnamese to emigrate to the United States legally and safely.

Lee M. Peters, US consular officer in charge of the Bangkok office that processes the papers for people leaving Vietnam legally for the US, presents a very different point of view.

He says the two examples Mr. Nam mentions are from different eras and represent different sets of problems. The series of cabled messages was from mid-July 1979 -- before the UN-sponsored meeting later that month in Geneva that tried to find solutions to the boat-people problem.

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"At that time here in Bangkok we had hundreds of visa petitions [filed by relatives in the US] and only one consular officer to deal with them," Mr. Peters says. "And we had no orderly departure program. . . . We had only limited authority to issue visas under tight restrictions. Subsequently we were given more flexibility under the refugee act."

US law still requires that each person coming to the United States be interviewed by a US consular official. Even when all the paperwork is complete, US officials have to confirm the identity of the refugee. They also have to make sure there are no conditions -- such as polygamy or severe mental retardation -- that would block entry into the United States.

Lacking diplomatic relations with the US, Vietnam has been reluctant to allow American officials to work inside the country. The US has modified an earlier request for an office in Ho Chi Minh City. Under a compromise proposal now being discussed, US officials would fly into the city in the morning, conduct interviews in the airport transit lounge, and fly out with refugees in the afternoon.

Only a few dozen people would be allowed to leave on each flight. But that would still be an improvement over the current 25 to 30 who now leave on a weekly Air France flight.

Even if the interview procedures can be worked out, a large number of people who want to leave Vietnam will be left hanging. The US gives priority to people with immediate relatives in the US and to people closely associated with the country in the past.

Vietnam also has given exit permits to another class of people -- those who want to go abroad "to make a living." More than 31,000 of them were on a list presented to the UNHCR last November.

The list "reads like the Cholon phone book," Mr. Peters says. Cholon is Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown, and the people on the list are apparently mainly small traders and their families. They are not interested in farming or working in factories. The Vietnamese are willing to let them go.

If they have no connection with the US, though, they are unlikely to qualify legally for the departure program, even if interview procedures can be worked out. This puts the problem back in Vietnam's lap.

"It has a very negative impact here," Mr. Nam says. "People ask to go legally, but other countries will not accept them. So they think, if I go illegally, it will be dangerous, but at least I'll get in."

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