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Protect the boat people from pirates

In making a grant this week of $90,000 to be used to fight river and ocean pirates who prey on Southeast Asian refugees, Canada has taken a practical step toward resolving a moral challenge facing the world community:

Namely, how to strengthen efforts to protect and resettle the thousands of Southeast Asian refugees who continue to seek freedom. The Western nations, particularly the United States and France, who were directly involved in the recent history of that area, have a special responsibility to find appropriate solutions.

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The plight of the boat people has been well docu-mented. Hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians have taken to the seas in their flight to freedom - more often than not on flimsy boats and at great peril to their safety from both the hazards of the ocean and from marauding pirates. Most refugees are Vietnamese, but thousands are also Laotians and Kampucheans. The United States, France, Canada, and Australia have taken in some 900,000 refugees - 650,000 in the US alone. But over 400,000 persons remain in squalid camps in Southeast Asia , and thousands more continue to come by boat, seeking freedom.

Surely the world community must continue to put unremitting pressure on all governments involved in this enormous drama to reduce the dangers to the refugees - and to work out acceptable and prompt resettlement programs. Some progress has occurred. Fewer boats are now believed hit by pirates, in part because of stepped-up patrol efforts. Thailand itself is now clearly aware that it is in the world spotlight on this issue - and that it must take firmer steps to control its fishing boats and restrain local officials from sending refugee boats back out into the sea, as has occurred in the past.

Patrolling the 80,000-square-mile Gulf of Thailand is admittedly not an easy task. Thailand, in fairness, does have a problem, given the refugee camps on its shores, and the thousands of small Thai fishing boats that come and go at sea - and often turn into pirates once away from shore. But there is a need for all parties involved to continue to step up antipiracy efforts.

One necessary step: Fishing boats going into waters traveled by refugees should be carefully registered to show the fishing-boat owners that they are being duly noted and observed by officials. Pirates must be swiftly apprehended, brought to trial, and punished. And Western tankers using shipping lanes traveled by boat people should be more willing to help the refugees than has been the case during the past year or so.

A final point seems in order: Many of the Southeast Asians who have come to the United States have proven to be highly industrious. The US and the other recipient nations need to clear the remaining refugee camps - which in part serve as magnets drawing additional refugees. That won't occur until a means is found to resettle those families left in the camps.

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