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Walkathon Focuses on Plight of Boat People : Human rights: More than 4,000 take part in fund-raiser to provide legal aid for Vietnamese asylum-seekers in Southeast Asia.

November 20, 1994|NANCY HSU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FOUNTAIN VALLEY — Five months ago, Sang Nguyen was almost forced back to a homeland where he is no longer welcome.

Saturday, Nguyen, who now works for the American legal group that helped him avoid forced repatriation to Vietnam, joined thousands of others hoping to aid boat people still in the detention camps he escaped.

More than 4,000 people gathered in Mile Square Regional Park for their fourth annual walkathon fund-raiser to benefit the Vietnamese boat people.

Participants denounced what they called unjust treatment of detainees in Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries. Traffic slowed as people driving along Euclid Street and Warner Avenue honked in support.

"I heard a lot of sad stories from some of the elders," said Amy Troung 27, as she marched with a group of students from Cal State Fullerton. "A lot of the (boat people) don't want to go back. Some commit suicide. As a human being, I don't want to see this happen."

Organizers of the annual event hope to raise more than $100,000 to hire attorneys, legal assistants and interpreters for the Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seeker (LAVAS), a Virginia-based nonprofit organization.

The group, which has an office in Westminster, is currently aiding Vietnamese boat people who are subject to a screening process established in 1989 by the United Nations and Southeast Asian countries holding the Vietnamese refugees.

This process helps immigration officials determine if there is enough evidence of political or religious persecution for boat people in the camps to be allowed to stay.

"If they're determined to be a refugee, they can stay (in that country)," said Daniel Wolf, co-founder of LAVAS. "If they only have economic reasons for leaving Vietnam, they are forced to stay in the camps or to go back."

But the organization believes the screening process is flawed.

"Immigration officials do not understand international law, do not understand the Vietnamese language and do not record what people say," said Lan Nguyen, a member of the group. "When it comes time to make a decision, they try to base it on what they remember. Some are also corrupt, asking for bribes and sexual favors."

Sang Nguyen considers himself as one of the luckier people. Sang Nguyen, who recently immigrated to Santa Ana, pointed at a list of more than 200 people helped by the organization. His name was 73rd on the list.

Nguyen was imprisoned for three years, beginning in 1979, for speaking out against the Vietnamese government's policies, he said.

"I was in my second year at the university," Nguyen said. "I spoke up. My opinion was noticed by the school authority. They reported my opinion to local authorities. One day, they came to my house in Saigon and invited me to the police station."

Nguyen said he fled to the Philippines in 1989. There, he was screened and denied refugee status. He lived in the camp until this June when, with legal help, his appeal was reconsidered and approved. He is now working as an interpreter for the group that aids asylum seekers.

Currently, there are more than 45,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers detained in camps throughout Southeast Asia. All the camps are scheduled to close by the end of 1995.

When they do, detainees not granted refugee status will be forced to return to Vietnam, where many have no jobs and no families, and face possible persecution, Wolf said.

"No matter how hard we work, most of those people will end up back in Vietnam," Wolf said. "The biggest tragedy is that people have wasted so much of their life in a camp. Children who go in there at 4 and don't leave until they're 10 never know a life outside."

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