November 17, 2007

A Time Article about NW 82

Monday, Dec. 13, 1982

Waiting in Hope and Despair

Indochinese "residuals "find they have no place to go
The exodus of refugees from Indochina is a story of broken lives, broken dreams and broken promises. Since the fall of Saigon seven years ago, almost 500,000 boat people have passed through Southeast Asia to find new homes, mostly in the U.S., Western Europe and Australia. But an additional 175,000 refugees still languish in camps in Thailand. Because so many of them lack the skills deemed essential for resettlement elsewhere, they have come to be known in official jargon as "residuals," or people with "no guarantee of movement onward." The worst of these refugee camps is NW 82, a tropical purgatory 16 miles north of Aranyaprathet, a town on the Thai-Cambodian border. United Nations officials are not allowed to have a permanent presence in the heavily guarded enclosure. TIME Bangkok Bureau Chief David DeVoss was the first foreign correspondent permitted by Thai authorities to look inside NW 82. His report:
NW 82 looks more like a concentration camp than a refugee sanctuary. A barren mud flat smaller than a football field, it was originally designed to hold 800 people. Today it is home to more than 1,900 listless Vietnamese "land people," who singly or in family groups bribed their way across Cambodia, which is still occupied by 160,000 Vietnamese troops. Jumbled together inside 27 tents, the refugees each have a coffin-size sliver of space, 6 ft. by 3 ft., in which to rest and sleep. Living conditions for new arrivals are even more crowded: they are housed in a series of bamboo tiers reminiscent of a 19th century slave ship.
Several months ago, the entire population came down with scabies. More recently, respiratory infections have been a problem, especially for the camp's 400 children. But the most serious malady is malaria. Nearly everyone has it, and some have suffered six or seven attacks. Says Tran Long, 27, a former mathematics teacher from Saigon: "Inadequate food and sanitation are our biggest problems. There are not enough latrines. The rainy season turns the camp into a cesspool."
Though it is surrounded by hostile anti-Vietnamese Khmer guerrillas and is within range of Vietnamese artillery inside Cambodia, NW 82 is not guarded by the Thai army. That task falls to the local militia, a sparsely equipped organization composed of former peasants, who are ill-disposed toward their Vietnamese charges. Several refugee women claim to have been raped, and men say that beatings are common. What is certain is that refugees who "misbehave" wind up spending the night in a red bamboo "tiger cage" 3 yds. long, 2 yds. wide and 1 yd. high.
Who is responsible for living conditions at NW 82? Thailand's supreme command insists, somewhat disingenuously, that it is the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.). The Red Cross vehemently denies any responsibility, other than medical, for the camp. Nearly a dozen Western embassies in Bangkok have joined the I.C.R.C. in asking the Thai government to move NW 82 away from the dangerous, malaria-infested border. But all the legations began to backpedal when the Thais said they would comply if the countries represented by the embassies agreed to resettle all 1,900 refugees within 45 days.

Thailand's great fear is that it may be stuck with thousands like the residents of NW 82. During the first ten months of this year, 38,968 refugees were resettled, compared with 91,154 during the same period in 1981. Appearing before the executive board of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva last month, Prasong Soonsiri, secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council, blasted Western nations that have not honored their commitments to resettle Indochinese refugees. Said Prasong: "The lesson we learn is that being too merciful could lead us to bear an endless burden, and it cannot be forecast how much longer the Thai people would want to live with the problem."
Prasong is particularly angry at the U.S., which cut its quota for Indochinese refugees from 168,000 in 1980 to 100,000 in 1981. In the end the U.S. took in 73,000. What has happened is that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has new qualifications for refugees. Says a Bangkok-based U.S. official: "Someone who was a refugee in 1976 might not qualify as a refugee in 1982. A person must be able to show he has a good reason to fear prosecution. Conjecture is not enough."
During a five-day visit to Southeast Asia last month, U.S. Attorney General William French Smith discussed the problem with Thai officials. Smith said that Washington was not going to increase this year's quota of 64,000 refugees from Indochina, though he did promise that the U.S. would do its best to accept as many refugees as possible, up to the maximum quota.
Thailand has contributed to the problem through its policy of "human deterrence." In an effort to make the country unattractive as a sanctuary, the Bangkok government has decreed that no refugee arriving after August 1981 can leave for resettlement until every refugee who arrived previously has been moved out. The policy has proved a perverse punishment for many Laotians and Vietnamese who would meet American immigration requirements because they worked for the U.S. (luring the war years or have relatives in the U.S.
Despite the harsh conditions, most Vietnamese say they prefer living in NW 82 to returning to Viet Nam. Indeed, more than 600 land people cluster around hospitals in three border camps, hoping to get into NW 82. Says Nguyen Quoc Khanh, 41, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, whom the Communists sent to a jungle work camp for three years: "If we can get into NW 82, perhaps we can eventually get on a resettlement list. If you lived in South Viet Nam, you would understand why people have to flee. If it takes three years, I will wait."


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