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Turning Back `Economic Migrants'

VIETNAM'S HUDDLED MASSES

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PRESSURE is building to resort to forced repatriation to stem the flow of boat people. The United States and Vietnam oppose a drive by Britain and most Southeast Asian nations to set up a United Nations-run program to force Vietnam's ``economic migrants'' to return home. The idea of deporting Vietnamese back to a communist country has raised strong emotions among Vietnamese in the US.

Hanoi has left open the possibility of accepting small numbers of ``boat people'' returned to Vietnam, according to Filipino officials.

But any full-scale international program to force Vietnamese migrants to go home has been rejected by Hanoi as a violation of human rights.

Still, Vietnam recently offered bilateral talks with other nations in Southeast Asia on the general issue of repatriation, says Herman Laurel, administrator of the Philippine Refugee Processing Center.

A program to repatriate Vietnamese boat people from British-ruled Hong Kong began in March, but only on a voluntary basis. So far, 143 Vietnamese have returned after braving a dangerous escape by sea last year.

More than 83,000 are in camps around the region, with Hong Kong particularly hard hit in the past year. Hong Kong has placed about 44,000 Vietnamese boat people in detention sites - purposely made barely tolerable for living - and has told most they have no chance of settling in countries outside Vietnam. Few have decided they might be better off going back. Hundreds more arrive each day.

The Southeast Asian nations most affected by a rapid rise in the number of boat people agreed that any Vietnamese who arrived after March 14 should be judged as either a genuine political refugee or as someone looking for a better standard of living.

The latter, tagged as economic migrants, will be told they face an undetermined waiting time before being deported back to Vietnam. Hong Kong began such a screening process for Vietnamese who arrive after June 16, 1988.

The issue of forced repatriation was debated at an international conference on Southeast Asian refugees in Geneva on June 13-14. But a decision was delayed until October, after a relatively uniform screening process is set up.

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