SINGAPORE — A Republican proposal to offer millions of dollars in new U.S. aid to Vietnamese asylum-seekers has been blamed for revolts in refugee camps across Asia, causing outbreaks of violence and the cancellation Tuesday of flights to return several hundred people to their homeland.
Officials of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said three charter flights, two from Bangkok, Thailand, and one from Hong Kong, had been intended to return home 422 Vietnamese migrants who had been denied the official status that would make them eligible for resettlement in the United States and other Western countries.
The officials said all but 14 of the individuals had changed their minds about going home because of Republican-sponsored legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress last month that would provide $30 million to resettle in Western countries about half the 40,000 Indochinese now in camps.
"They all said they wouldn't go home because of the new U.S. policy," said Ruprecht von Arnim, head of the U.N. refugee agency office in Bangkok. "They said they are now expecting to be resettled in the United States. They are refusing to go back."
The flight cancellations Tuesday followed a riot at a center outside the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on Monday; 18 people were injured when Vietnamese who cut through a security fence clashed with riot police firing tear gas and water cannons. The protesters were threatening mass suicide if authorities tried to send them home.
Under an agreement among Vietnam, Southeast Asian nations and Western countries, the 40,000 Vietnamese designated "economic migrants" who are still languishing in refugee camps were supposed to have been shipped home by the end of the year and the camps closed. Hong Kong, which accounts for about half the total, was given until early 1996 to clear its camps.
Vietnam agreed in March to streamline the processing of these individuals in a move to increase the flow of returnees from a few hundred a month to 3,600 starting in mid-June.
But those plans started unraveling as reports from Washington filtered into the camps that the United States may change its policy.
"We are very concerned by the recent initiatives taken in the U.S. Congress," Brian Bresnihan, Hong Kong's refugee coordinator, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"These initiatives have created false hopes in the camps and induced people to linger on rather than go home," he said. "There is also an underlying fear that what is happening in Congress could prompt another influx of arrivals from Vietnam."
The attempt to change U.S. policy was contained in an amendment to a foreign aid bill proposed by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican.
Saying that "many of these people would be refugees by any fair definition of the word," Smith proposed to earmark $30 million to pay for resettlement of 20,000 Vietnamese and Laotians who have been denied refugee status after a process of screening carried out by local authorities.
It was unclear if the proposal would require the United States to provide asylum to all 20,000 people, who would benefit from a broadening of the terms of refugee status to include Roman Catholics and civilian employees of the former South Vietnamese government.
The amendment, vehemently opposed by the Clinton Administration, is to be debated on the floor of the House today.
"We have spent six years screening 60,000 Vietnamese, and there can be no question of rescreening," Hong Kong's Bresnihan said.
Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, in testimony to a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, said Tuesday that Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten had also made known his concern about the GOP proposal when they met May 20 in Hong Kong.
Whatever the outcome of the congressional debate, refugee officials in Asia said they fear that the damage to the return program has already been done, with most migrants now sure that the United States will eventually allow them in.
In Hong Kong, a demonstration by 10,000 Vietnamese at the Whitehead refugee center May 17 led to violence that left 200 people injured, mostly corrections officers who were pelted by knives, homemade spears and boiling water. The Vietnamese waved U.S. flags and photos of President Clinton in the mistaken belief that he was behind the proposed changes.
Jahanshah Assadi, head of the U.N. refugee agency office in Hong Kong, said there was little doubt that the increased violence stemmed directly from the proposals in the United States.
"People in the camps have told us they won't go home anymore. People who had volunteered to go home have changed their minds," Assadi said. "Repatriation is stagnant."