Vietnamese Refugee Problem Drags On: Hong Kong Struggles to Clear Camps

By Lau, Jenni Meili | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Vietnamese Refugee Problem Drags On: Hong Kong Struggles to Clear Camps


Lau, Jenni Meili, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


HONG KONG - The saga of the boat people goes on, 21 years after the end of the Vietnam War.

Nearly a million refugees who fled hostile forces in their homeland have been resettled in the West. But more than 36,000 migrants still languish in stark camps throughout Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.

According to the U.N.-brokered Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed by more than 70 countries in 1989, the camps should have been cleared by the end of last year. Genuine refugees were to be resettled in third countries. The rest were to return home.

But with negotiators at odds and many "non-refugees" resisting repatriation, population figures barely wavered as the new year dawned. Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines now aim to empty their camps by midyear. Hong Kong, which houses 21,302 - more than half of the regional total - said it needs at least until the end of 1996 to clear its camps.

Hong Kong faces the ultimate deadline: China has demanded that all of the boat people be gone before the handover of the British colony on June 30, 1997.

"Out of sheer practicality, there's not a chance that the camps will be cleared by then. It's a matter of arithmetic," said Pam Baker, a Hong Kong-based human rights lawyer.

The probability of removing about 20,000 boat people within the next 17 months appears unlikely. Last year, the territory only managed to clear about 2,500 refugees, down from about 6,000 in 1994.

Low repatriation rates result partly from many camp dwellers still clinging to hopes of being granted asylum in Third World countries and refusing to budge.

But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said only about 1,456 of Hong Kong's camp dwellers hold refugee status and are entitled to resettlement abroad. The bulk have been classified as economic migrants who fled poverty, not persecution. They must return home, if not willingly then by force.

The more than 36,000 boat people who have not been recognized as refugees must return to their homeland by June 30, the UNHCR announced in Geneva yesterday, according to the German news agency Deutsche Presse Agentur.

The UNHCR will phase out its care and maintenance activities in Southeast Asian camps for rejected asylum-seekers as of July 1 this year, it said.

"UNHCR cannot justify continuing its care and maintenance expenditure . . . for a caseload not in need of international protection," the U.N. agency said.

To encourage voluntary returns, the UNHCR and the Hong Kong government together offer each adult $440, considerably more than the average annual wage in Vietnam.

"Aside from straight cash grants, we counsel them that volunteer repatriation is the most dignified and safe way to return home," said Hong Kong UNHCR information officer Preeta Law.

Forced returns, on the other hand, conducted under Hong Kong's so-called "Orderly Repatriation Program," have led to violent protests, riots and suicide threats by camp dwellers. That's in addition to ugly spectacles of Vietnamese being dragged kicking and screaming onto planes.

To date, the territory has expelled 2,071 persons on forced repatriation flights. Negative publicity and the wrath of human rights groups have prompted several potential air carriers to pull out at the last minute, with Malaysia Airlines currently shouldering the burden.

MEDIA BANNED FROM COVERAGE

Morever, the government, in a controversial move, has banned all media coverage of the flights, deeming them "no longer newsworthy."

While the UNHCR does not openly advocate the flights, the agency's regional chief, Alexander Casella, has in effect deemed them justifiable.

"The world will not see pictures of screaming refugees because they are not refugees - they are illegal immigrants," he said.

But human rights activists charge that many asylum seekers have been unfairly denied refugee status. …

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