Stand-off at the last camp for boat people

Vietnamese refugees begin sit-in at Pillar Point, their home for 25 years, as the authorities try to close it down
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Around 140 Vietnamese boat people refused to leave Hong Kong's last refugee camp yesterday, rejecting offers of residency from the authorities who are trying to close the centre and end the 25-year saga that followed the Vietnam War.

Around 140 Vietnamese boat people refused to leave Hong Kong's last refugee camp yesterday, rejecting offers of residency from the authorities who are trying to close the centre and end the 25-year saga that followed the Vietnam War.

Security officers locked shut the Pillar Point camp at midnight on Wednesday, sparking protests from refugees who refused to leave.

Up to 200,000 Vietnamese sought refuge in Hong Kong after the communist victory over South Vietnam, part of an estimated one million people who fled the country. Regina Ip, the secretary for security, said yesterday: "It's about time we draw an end to this unhappy saga. In the past 25 years, we have helped Vietnamese boat people to the best of our ability."

The government had announced in February that it would close the camp by the end of May, offering the remaining 2,000 inmates residency rights to stay in the territory. To date, some 143 refugees have not yet applied for residency.

Pillar Point's closure marks a formal end to Hong Kong's status as the port of first asylum for Vietnamese fleeing persecution or poverty. "Those who are remaining behind should try and look after themselves," Ms Ip said. "We've done our duty."

Following scuffles with security officers on Wednesday night, about 80 refugees staged a sit-in protest yesterday outside the office of Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's Chief Executive. The protesters demanded free housing and higher removal allowances, complaining they would not be able to pay Hong Kong's rents.

The refugees have been given more time to organise their departure, but a curfew has been imposed on them and if they cannot be persuaded to leave the camp, the government could cut off water and electricity supplies.

Richard Burn, a former Hong Kong government official and long-term resident, said: "Now the camp is closed, the boat people story is finally over. Vietnam is prospering compared to 10 years ago, so the boat people don't want to come anymore."

Given Hong Kong's history as a haven for Chinese fleeing Mao's revolution, there was initially sympathy for boat people fleeing the Vietcong. Yet the Vietnamese soon outstayed their welcome in the prosperous but overcrowded city of 6.5 million people. As the territory maintains strict control against illegal immigrants from the mainland, there is little sympathy for foreign migrants.

"The government is absolutely right to shut the camp," Yue Chi-hung, a shoe salesman, said yesterday. "Housing the boat people has been a burden on the people of Hong Kong. It costs thousands of dollars to watch them, while some refugees are involved in petty crime, as pickpockets, drug traffickers or prostitutes."

The first boat people arrived just four days after Saigon fell in April 1975. Later migrants included many ethnic Chinese fleeing the persecution that propelled China towards a short border war with Vietnam in 1979. While some migrants arrived packed into cargo ships, most braved a dangerous voyage across the South China seas on more ramshackle craft. Survivors brought harrowing tales of fighting the elements, sharks, and even pirates who would steal the refugees' meagre belongings before dumping their victims overboard.

"The refugees saw Hong Kong as a safe place to escape. If they went to Malaysia, or elsewhere in south-east Asia, they would just be pushed back out to sea," Mr Burn said. The Geneva Convention of 1979 ruled that the boat people could obtain automatic refugee status and be eligible for resettlement in the West. Western countries took more than 38,000 people, but enthusiasm waned, while Hong Kong continued to be swamped by migrants in the Eighties. From 1988, the authorities introduced screening procedures to distinguish economic migrants, often North Vietnamese, from genuine political refugees, more commonly from South Vietnam.

China had initially encouraged boat people to keep going towards Hong Kong, rather than stay at mainland ports, but its leaders grew anxious about inheriting the problem as the 1997 handover of sovereignty approached. Peking pressured the British government to speed up repatriation. The numbers of migrants also began to tail off as conditions improved in Vietnam, and news filtered back that Hong Kong was no longer a transit point to the free world, but a prison-like dead end, with the threat of forcible repatriation.

Many Vietnamese boat people have grown up knowing little beyond life in the camps. Hong Kong has finally decided to accept them into the community, but integration will not be easy. "Most of the remaining refugees were not allowed to emigrate as they were rejected by other countries," Mr Yue said. "They have criminal records and little resources. Some have no formal nationality, as they were born in Hong Kong or China."