Unable to persuade Hong Kong, Thailand and other "first asylum" countries to change their policies on Vietnamese refugees, Southern California Vietnamese leaders said Saturday that they will focus new attention on establishing regional holding centers to prevent people from being sent back to Vietnam against their will.
Returning from the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees in Geneva, the local delegates representing Orange County's estimated 100,000 Vietnamese said the fate of tens of thousands of refugees holed up in camps throughout Southeast Asia remains uncertain because most of the countries housing the refugees have refused to reject the policy of forced repatriation.
These first asylum countries--Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and the British crown colony of Hong Kong--account for more than 66,000 Vietnamese "boat people" who fled their country hoping to emigrate to the West.
70 Nations Represented
The conference, attended by delegates from more than 70 nations, was convened to discuss common strategies to deal with the refugees and served as a forum for expatriate Vietnamese groups to press for reforms.
Tom Wilson, a Tustin High School physics teacher whose Vietnamese wife is trapped in a refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border, was a member of a group from Orange County that traveled to Geneva in the hope of bringing about change.
Wilson, who is active in the UC Irvine-based refugee-assistance group Project Pearl, said the local delegation distributed a resolution opposing both "screening" and forced repatriation policies used by some governments.
Under the screening process, adopted by Hong Kong where nearly 30,000 Vietnamese have fled, refugees can be declared "economic migrants" instead of political refugees and subjected to being returned to Vietnam.
"It breaks my heart to see people who put their lives on the line to flee be sent back," Wilson said. "The rule of thumb in Vietnam is if you flee, the chances are only one in three you will live through it, and still people are leaving. The screening process is spurious.
Lost on Screening
"We basically lost our stand as far as screening," he added. "We were trying to take the moral high ground. Screening implies forced repatriation."
The international conference reached no consensus, but the countries housing the refugees all indicated that screening will continue and some indicated they will resort to forced repatriation for the "economic migrants."
Wilson said a new strategy will have to be developed, one that most likely will focus on establishment of regional holding centers in the first asylum countries and operated by international organizations.
"At least with an international organization running it you have some assurance of a non-hostile environment," he said.
Wilson said the Southern California Vietnamese leaders were joined by Vietnamese leaders from throughout Europe opposed to forced repatriation. There were hunger strikes and demonstrations and statements of support from both the United States and the Vatican, he said.
As for Vietnam, its delegates said they will not accept people forced back by other countries, only those who choose to return voluntarily. The dilemma, Wilson said, are the thousands of people stuck in camps and holding centers, unwanted both by the host countries and the Western nations that have resettled thousands of others.
Van Thai Tran, a UC Irvine student and former legislative coordinator of Project Pearl, said the outcome of the conference was disappointing but no surprise.
"When we embarked on this project three months ago we knew it would not be easy," he said. "We are talking about international policies of countries that could care less about democratic principles. But morally, we could not sit on our hands and do nothing. We were once former refugees ourselves not so long ago."