Vietnam's refugees cling to hope for a new life
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
On the other side of the glass barriers was another world. Tearfully weeping in each other's arms, the departing Vietnamese embraced their friends and family for the last time.
Gathering up their bags and boxes, they filed past the security men at the gate and into the departure lounge, where refugees and Vietnamese government officials were completing the final exit formalities. Those who remained behind pressed themselves to the glass for another glimpse, another wave, or an encouraging smile.
The airport terrace, too, was full. Relatives waved, cried, and even laughed as the refugees, including a few elderly persons aided by sympathetic Vietnamese airport police, boarded the bus that would take them to the Air France plane hidden carefully out of view beyond the terminal buildings. As the plane lifted off, the emigrants, many of them drained of emotion, stared at the fast-receding homeland they might never see again.
''We wanted to leave because we had no freedom to decide for ourselves. The communists always told you what you could or could not do. We did not want to live that way,'' said Nguyen Lunh Hoan, a teacher-training student, who was on his way to Oklahoma City with his father, mother, sister, and brother. Three sisters were already living in the US. ''We shall make new lives in America,'' added a neighbor on the other side of the aisle. ''But perhaps one day, we shall come back. In our hearts we remain Vietnamese.''
Along with a score or so of regular travelers, this plane carried a total of 143 Indochinese refugees including 12 Kampucheans and five stateless citizens who were leaving Vietnam for resettlement abroad. Part of the Hanoi regime's Orderly Departure Program (ODP), most of the refugees on this particular flight in early March were destined for the United States; the remainder, for France and New Zealand.
Stung by the criticism aroused by the earlier waves of refugees known as the ''boat people'' and the damage their departure has inflicted on Hanoi's prestige , the Vietnamese have gradually expanded the Orderly Departure Program in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since April last year. Relief officials optimistically say that by the end of March orderly departures will reach 1,500 per month.
Since 1979, some 27,000 persons have left under the ODP. Another 43,000 have applied to the Hanoi regime for exit visas. According to Phi Tuyen, head of the Vietnamese ODP consular section, 30,000 have been granted permits but ''are still waiting for countries to accept them for resettlement.''
The consular official stressed that his government would also grant exit permits to all Amerasian children fathered by American servicemen during the Vietnam war, if the US government promised to accept them. Relief sources estimate the number of Amerasians, most of them between 7 and 14 years old, at between 16,000 and 20,000.
But Richard Walden, director of the humanitarian group Operation California, pointed out that Hanoi has not permitted outside observers to take a census of Amerasians in cities such as Da Nang and Hue. ''The number could therefore be a lot higher,'' he said. He has made more than 15 visits to Vietnam.
At present the US, which takes between 50 and 60 percent of the Vietnamese released under the ODP on a family reunification basis, has some 30,000 applications on file for those seeking to go to America. Although final decisions rest with the US orderly departure office in Bangkok, Thailand, two American officials have been allowed in by the Vietnamese to deal with initial interviewing for both those adults seeking to emigrate and Amerasians.
At the UNHCR office just outside Ho Chi Minh City, a group of Vietnamese mothers wait with their children. Almost all are Amerasians. Some of them blond with blue eyes, others with Negroid features, the children have been carefully groomed as if for Sunday school as they wait politely in the reception room to be processed.
Pham Thi Theyet, a former PX employee, spoke nervously about the man who is the father of Bao Tran, her daughter. As the light-haired young girl shyly tried to hide her face behind her mother's back, she said: ''I met him when he was working for the pacification study group. I haven't heard from him since 1979. The last address I had from him was in Texas. Where he is today, I don't know.''
Other women recount similar stories. Some have tried desperately since 1975 to leave. Virtually all of them in the room have not heard from the fathers for years. Despite the presence of a government official, several maintained that they had suffered discrimination because of their children.
One mother, now working in a Ho Chi Minh City cafe, had said earlier that she was forced to send her daughter to a private backroom school because the authorities would not let her send the child to a regular school. Vietnamese officials, however, deny that this is the case. They insist that state schools are open to all.
As for the children, only two or three speak English, but all wanted to go to this almost mythical country, America. When asked what he expected to find there , Cao Xuan Dat, a serious looking 17-year-old, replied:''I don't know, but I have been told that I can study to become a student.''
Since September, when Vietnam allowed the first batch of 11 Amerasian children to leave, small groups have departed each month. According to UNHCR officials, only 2,000 or 3,000 are known to have relatives in the US and could thus qualify for sponsorship based on normal procedure. Fewer than 200 are thought to have American citizenship.
But following public outcry in the United States, Washington widened its acceptance criteria in January allowing all Amerasians, who might not otherwise qualify, to be accepted as refugees. Sponsorship no longer is a prerequisite, nor does the father have to assume responsibility.''
We are now hoping to organize one flight a month with about 200 Amerasian children and escorts on each,'' says an official. On March 24, the first major flight with 182 on board is expected to leave for Bangkok.
The Vietnamese authorities have also told the Americans that they would release all political prisoners still held in the country's reeducation camps if the US promises to take them as a group. The Americans have so far refused, arguing that this is a form of blackmail that would enable Vietnam to rid itself of its ''undesirables'' in one fell swoop.
According to the London-based Amnesty International and other such organizations, thousands of former South Vietnamese soldiers, judges, military chaplains, doctors, lawyers, and academics are interned in these camps. The Hanoi regime also continues to use the camps for recent political prisoners; the authorities refuse to disclose the number of detainees, but estimates range from 40,000 to 100,000.
Despite assertions by recent refugees now in Thailand, Europe, and the United States that bribes via middlemen are necessary to obtain exit visas, the Vietnamese authorities claim that anyone wishing to apply must simply do so through the necessary official channels. ''Anyone who wants to leave for family reasons or to work abroad can do so. It is purely an administrative process,'' said Phi Tuyen.
Not all the applicants seeking to leave Vietnam on the ODP are Vietnamese. There are an estimated 30,000 Kampuchean refugees, who fled to Vietnam from the Pol Pot excesses. Almost all of them are ethnic Chinese. They live in government-organized camps in the countryside or in private lodgings or one of two pagodas in Ho Chi Minh City. Few appear to want to return to Kampuchea.
This reporter was one of a group of journalists who visited two open rural camps situated among the rubber plantations of Song Be Province roughly 150 kilometers northwest of the former South Vietnamese capital. The wood and bamboo houses, vegetable gardens, fields, and a local market suggested overtly better conditions than in Thai refugee camps.
Many inmates approached the journalists to appeal for help in order to leave. One young woman, who had written a letter to French President Francois Mitterrand, asked why she had not heard any news.
''The Vietnamese have been very kind to us,'' said Luu Khai Trung from Phnom Penh, ''but if we return, we shall have nothing. Cambodia is a miserable place. My sole ambition is to go abroad and start a new life.''But their prospects for leaving seem bleak. Although the Vietnamese government is eager to rid itself of the responsibility for them, Western relief officials point out that third countries are more likely to take refugees awaiting resettlement in other temporary asylum nations before turning to those in Vietnam. According to the UNHCR, more than 2,000 Kampuchean applications are being processed at present, out of some 8,000 applications from those with relatives abroad. But only a handful are actually leaving.