Boat people out of sight, out of mind: Welfare services to Vietnamese refugees are being cut to persuade them to go home, writes Teresa Poole in Hong Kong

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The Independent Online
PILED in a heap outside the locked gates of a section of Whitehead detention camp for Vietnamese boat people stood the rubble from a routine weekly search. There were several yard-long strips of metal, a baton made of empty soft-drink cans taped together lengthwise and bowlfuls of fermenting rice that had been brewing secretly to make rice wine.

At about 1am that night in another part of Whitehead, Hong Kong's largest camp for boat people, a Vietnamese man died from stab wounds after trying to intervene in a fight. Violent crime is much rarer in Hong Kong's camps these days, but it was a timely reminder that a refugee problem largely forgotten by the rest of the world has not yet been solved.

For the local United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office the situation is daunting. Of the 40,907 people in Hong Kong camps, three-quarters have, after screening, been defined as non-refugees and do not therefore qualify for resettlement in another country. Two-thirds of the camps' population have been in Hong Kong for more than three years. But many of the long-stay 'non-refugees' show little inclination to volunteer to go home to Vietnam.

Conditions in camps such as Whitehead are grim. But, now that refugees in places such as Sudan and former Yugoslavia make the headlines, the boat people find they have lost their place in the world's consciousness and their claim on its cheque-books.

The UNHCR has now taken a highly controversial decision to scale back sharply the provision of non-essential welfare services in the camps as part of a strategy to encourage voluntary repatriation. It is, as Robert Van Leeuwen, the head of UNHCR in Hong Kong, admits, a strategy with 'an element of risk'. Many aid groups doubt that it will work. It also runs counter to recommendations by a judicial inquiry after last year's fire tragedy at Shek Kong detention centre, when 24 Vietnamese died, that facilities should be increased to keep camp residents occupied.

Jasminder Singh Kang, the senior officer in Whitehead from the Correctional Services Department, which administers the centres, admitted last week the cutbacks may have 'some effect on the stability of the camps'.

Volunteers for the first three months of 1993 stood at 1,872, more than double for the same period last year, but too low to meet government forecasts that 14,000 will voluntarily go back to Vietnam this year.

Many doubt, however, that cutting back services such as adult vocational training is likely to encourage repatriation volunteers when camp conditions are already so awful. Even Mr van Leeuwen admits: 'It is generally known that, particularly at night when the international community presence is not there, anything you can imagine under the sun goes on - drug trafficking, extortion, intimidation, forced prostitution . . . ' The nearly 11,000 asylum-seekers who have not yet been screened are kept in the same conditions.

Tucked away out of sight in the New Territories, the rolls of barbed wire give Whitehead the appearance of a secure prison. Some adults never leave the large caged pens in which gangs thrive. Everyone lives in huge, bunked dormitories with no privacy, and little to do.

UNCHR policy now is to 'bring things into line' with refugee camps elsewhere in the world, even though some agencies have independent funding. For example, Community Family Services International (CFSI), which provides social work and mental health services in all the detention centres, has been told it must leave the camps by the end of August. Save the Children was originally told that all its well baby and health education services would have to stop at the end of 1993, but it has now negotiated a reduced programme for 1994.

The British Red Cross and Medecins sans Frontieres were originally told to get out of the camps by the end of June. But this has now been extended to the end of the year because it emerged that the Hong Kong government did not have the funds, on top of its existing healthcare commitments to the camps, to replace the medical services these agencies provide.

CFSI works with unaccompanied children, the mentally and physically disabled and the severely depressed. According to Jane Warburton, the agency's Hong Kong director, apathy and 'switching off' can leave people unable to make decisions. 'We encourage people to think about their reality. We strongly recognise that people who remain in detention centres are damaged.'

Measures will also be taken to address a situation that the UNHCR and the Hong Kong government have themselves created. Nowadays more than half the adult population of the camps have jobs for which they are paid, either working for the government in camp management or for the aid agencies. The maximum salary is only dollars HK180 ( pounds 15) a month, but the UNHCR believes this is enough to provide an incentive for some to stay. Job cuts are to be introduced.

All sides agree that the one thing that may encourage volunteers to come forward is more information about changing conditions in Vietnam. Yet the UNHCR has recently blocked a monthly magazine in Vietnamese called Freedom that was produced by a Vietnamese team in Whitehead. After much wrangling, the UNHCR finally said it could not be associated with anything 'political', even though it is already vetted by the camp authorities.

The Hong Kong organisers of Freedom, one of whom is a stockbroker, point out that, apart from poetry, health tips and children's puzzles, almost all the general information about Vietnam published in recent issues has been translations of articles from the Economist, Financial Times, Far East Economic Review and other mainstream publications. And the popular articles were those on development economics and changes in other former Communist societies.

(Photograph omitted)