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Last of Vietnamese Boat People in Philippines Start for United States

The last group of Vietnamese boat people in the Philippines has started leaving for the United States, under a program coordinated by the International Organization for Migration.

About 1,600 Vietnamese refugees, who fled their nation more than 16 years ago, are finally making their way to the United States. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), says more than 200 left on a flight to Los Angeles Monday, and the rest will follow over the next six months.

Tony Do, an IOM supervisor handling the Vietnamese resettlement project in the Philippines, says many of the refugees came to the country at the height of the "boat people" era of the mid-1980s, when thousands were still fleeing the 1975 communist takeover of South Vietnam.

When the Philippine refugee camps closed in 1996, the refugees spread throughout the country, mostly making a living as market or street vendors.

Mr. Do says they are mostly being allowed into the United States on claims of persecution or fear of persecution. Many had originally been denied refugee status because they were viewed as economic rather than political cases.

"They've been here as stateless people," said Mr. Do. "They're allowed to stay here in the Philippines, but they were never given citizenship, so many of them could not get jobs. People who had professional training in Vietnam could not practice. It was a state of limbo."

Many of the refugees have relatives in the United States, and Mr. Do says the return program ends a long ordeal for them.

"It is very emotional," he said. "I was at the airport seeing the first group off. They were very happy, they were very emotional, and they were very appreciative of what we did to help them."

The U.S. and Philippine governments agreed to a resettlement program in 2004 for the remaining refugees, believed to number about two-thousand. Several hundred have not received final approval for resettlement.

The IOM coordinated medical screening and administrative support for the refugees, who were also checked by U.S. authorities.