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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vietnamese Refugees Wary Over U.S. Plan

HONG KONG -- For the 36,000 Vietnamese boat people languishing in detention camps around Southeast Asia, a new U.S. plan to resettle qualifying refugees could be their last chance for life in America -- or, by some accounts, a trap.

On Monday, the U.S. government announced a program aimed at helping to end the long, often bitter odyssey of the thousands of economic and political migrants who fled Indochina and washed up in countries around the region in the years after the Vietnam War.

Washington said it will find homes for Vietnamese refugees who can demonstrate genuine ties to the United States. There is one condition, though: They must return to Vietnam to apply. The plan is designed to lure home thousands of holdouts in camps across Southeast Asia, many of whom fear they will be harassed or imprisoned if they return to Vietnam. The still-crowded camps are scheduled to close at the end of June, except for the largest settlement, in Hong Kong.

The plan offers resettlement to those who can show close ties to the United States or the former South Vietnamese government before 1975, and to members of certain ethnic or religious groups. And it offers a glimmer of hope to those who say they fled Vietnam to escape persecution.

They are the last of more than 1.6 million Vietnamese who have left their country since the Vietnam War ended more than 20 years ago. The United Nations, which has turned its attention to more recent and pressing refugee cases in Rwanda and Eastern Europe, says most of the people left in the camps have been classified as economic migrants and should be repatriated.

The Southeast Asian countries hosting the largely unpopular settlements welcomed the news Monday. A government spokesman in Hong Kong urged the territory's 18,358 migrants to "seize the opportunity" and "apply for voluntary repatriation as soon as possible."

But Pam Baker, a Hong Kong lawyer and advocate for Vietnamese migrants, is skeptical.

"This is meant to spur them into going back without any sort of guarantee at the other end," she said Monday. "This is a sophisticated population of people who will want a lot more specific details. A vague promise is not good enough."

Baker argues that the Vietnamese government has sole control of exit permits and may be reluctant to admit that any of its citizens face danger by returning, even if the U.S. will accept them.

Applicants must enlist in the program by June 30 and go to Vietnam for an interview. Only those detained since Oct. 30, 1995, are eligible; migrants who returned to Vietnam before that date will not qualify, a U.S. spokesman said.

The United Nations and other international organizations recently ended financial incentives to induce people to return to Vietnam, a country that has shown considerable economic growth and political opening since most of the migrants left on rickety boats over the last decade.