Why are the reluctant hosts of Southeast Asia’s hordes of refugees turning to desperate measures to get rid of them? What is the United Nations doing to stop them? Why is it not doing more to find the refugees permanent homes else-where? UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim recently returned from a tour of capitals in Indo-China. Last week, in an exclusive interview with Maclean’s New York Bureau Chief Rita Christopher, he answered these pressing questions:
Maclean’s: How did the countries of first asylum explain their policies of turning away refugees, of threatening to shoot them on sight, to you?
Waldheim: The prime minister of Thailand told me they are quite ready to fulfil their obligations. I appealed to him not to send refugees back to Kampuchea [Cambodia], He told me he was quite ready to do this but could not wait forever. He asked me for help in two directions—there are more than 200,000 refugees in Thailand—to ship food so they can feed the people and to get more places for the refugees so they can begin to leave.
Maclean’s: What about Malaysia? Waldheim: The prime minister assured me they were doing their best to respect human rights. He told me: “We do not want to push these people back!”
Maclean’s: But the Malaysians have started doing just that. . .
Waldheim: When they started, I contacted the prime minister and he said they would wait for assistance from the United Nations but that they could not wait forever.
Maclean’s: What about the Malaysian order to shoot refugees on sight?
Waldheim: I asked the prime minister to clarify it for me. “It is not true,” he said. But he told me that unless there is more help soon they will start sending the people back out to sea, and that is already happening. Maclean’s:What about the government of Kampuchea?
Waldheim: What government? We don’t know who to talk to there.
Maclean’s: How did the Vietnamese government explain the policy of wholesale deportation of ethnic Chinese?
Waldheim: I spent long hours with Pham Van Dong, the prime minister. I appealed to him not to force the use of these illegal, these wild, methods of departure. The deputy high commissioner for refugees was recently in Hanoi and a seven-point plan was worked out, but the fact remains that the exodus continues. I raised the matter again in New York with their ambassador a few days ago and he told me the government is taking measures to stop it. But it will take a certain time before these new procedures are operative.
Maclean’s: Did you ask the Vietnamese why
they are pushing out more than a million people, many to certain death?
Waldheim: They reject this theory. They say that the people want to leave and are simply not waiting for orderly procedures. Maclean’s: Did it look to you as if the ethnic Chinese were leaving voluntarily?
Waldheim: We have no proof of this. All we know is the tragic consequences.
Maclean’s: If the countries of first asylum were provided with sufficient funds, could the refugees be permanently settled there? Waldheim: The refugees have said, most of them, that they don’t want to stay there. And there’s always the question of ethnic composition in these countries. They have a very
delicate balance of populations and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese could mean real complications for this balance.
Maclean’s: In practical terms, estimates are there will be half a million Southeast Asian refugees by the end of this year, a million by the end of next year. How many of these can the so-called countries of final asylum in the Western world absorb?
Waldheim: It should be possible to absorb all of them in the long range. But we need the necessary means. That’s why I'm seriously thinking of convening an international meeting of the prospective donor countries, you know the ones who would supply money and places, to discuss the problem.
Maclean’s: Won’t critics say this is just another example of the United Nations talking instead of acting?
Waldheim: What else can we do? We can’t handle the problem alone. We must have the help of member states.
Maclean’s: What will the conference
Waldheim: I have no illusions. We are not going to find any quick and easy solutions. But we have to make a start. The countries of Southeast Asia can’t wait too much longer. Maclean’s: Have you been satisfied at the rates with which developed countries are absorbing the refugees?
Waldheim: Countries are making efforts but in some cases I have been disappointed. We have indications from the United States, for example, that they will increase their Vietnamese allotment, but making plans from indications is difficult.
Maclean’s: Do you see any viable solutions other than an international conference? Waldheim: Well, if countries had done more bilaterally, we wouldn’t have to be doing so much on a multilateral level. But I don't want to criticize. I just want to make the point that it's not reasonable for countries to think we can handle the whole thing on our own. We can only co-ordinate efforts.
Maclean’s: President Carter has said he wants to raise the issue of refugees at the Tokyo summit. Will that pre-empt your international conference?
Waldheim: On the contrary, that will help it. If they can agree to more massive aid among themselves, that would be very good. Maclean’s: At this point then, it’s your assessment that the high commissioner, with limited funds, is doing the very best he can? Waldheim: It’s always easier to criticize. Much of the press is very naïve about what is going on. I’ve worked with the people in the high commissioner’s office, I’ve seen them in the camps. I’ve seen UN personnel holding children in their arms so they couldn’t be taken away and put on ships. I’ve seen them working in the tropical heat, treating sick people with whatever supplies they have. It is one of the most tragic experiences of my life. We have been working our hardest to feed these people, to care for them and we are ignored. Of course we haven’t solved the problem. If countries have the will to help, we will be able to solve it but it all takes time. One should not expect miracles.
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