Refugees: Hong Kong ends help to boat people

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The Independent Online
The Hong Kong government will announce today that it is to end its 19-year-old policy of granting a port of first asylum to Vietnamese boat people. Stephen Vines in Hong Kong reports that this brings to an end a controversial humanitarian effort which has seen almost 200,000 Vietnamese make their way to the territory's shores.

The decision to end the first asylum policy, taken at a meeting of Hong Kong's Executive Council on Tuesday, came after China made it clear that it would not tolerate any Vietnamese asylum seekers in its new territory.

The move will be popular in Hong Kong where there is resentment over the amount of money spent on the Vietnamese. There is also resentment over their right to land which contrasts with the plight of illegal immigrants from the Chinese mainland who are immediately deported.

Under pressure from Britain, Hong Kong reluctantly took on the burden of allowing boat people to land in the hope they would be resettled in third countries.Neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia were pushing the boats back out to sea. Many lost their lives to pirates or were raped and robbed while at sea.

At the height of the flight from Vietnam in 1979, after the fall of Saigon, almost 69,000 boat people landed in Hong Kong in a single year. Very quickly the government ran out of space to house the asylum seekers. At one stage the authorities had to resort to taking over an empty factory and commandeered the military airport to accommodate the tens of thousands awaiting resettlement.

The countries, including Britain, who promised to give new homes to the Vietnamese were less than generous in granting immigration visas. As a result, generations of boat people families were born and raised in the grim camps where they were treated as prisoners, although guilty of no crime.

By 1988, it was decided to treat all boat people as illegal immigrants unless they could prove they qualified for refugee status. A tough screening policy was introduced, then in 1989 the government embarked on a policy of forced deportation.

From that point on it was made increasingly difficult for the Vietnamese to obtain refugee status. However the outflow could not be capped. In 1991 another 20,000 boat people landed in Hong Kong.

Before taking over Hong Kong, the Chinese authorities told the British government that it wanted all the Vietnamese cleared out of the former colony. Yet 3,364 are still here, most living in a heavily fortified detention centre in a remote area. Almost 400 cannot go back to Vietnam as they are ethnic Chinese who are not recognised as citizens by the Vietnamese authorities.

The Hong Kong government claims that all those entering the territory in recent times are economic migrants, seeking work in the relatively prosperous territory.