Philippines to let Vietnam refugees stay

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The Independent Online
The Philippines, the poorest Asian country to have taken in Vietnamese boat people, has become the only nation to allow them to settle permanently, although the government says it will continue to try to persuade them to leave voluntarily.

The Philippines' move comes as other east Asian destinations are busily deporting boat people, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has stopped sponsoring camps for them.

The guiding hand behind the government's action appears to be the influential Roman Catholic Church, which stepped in last February to prevent the authorities from carrying out a programme of forced deportations of boat people who do not qualify for refugee status.

The administration of President Fidel Ramos had been taking a hard line, and having limited success in persuading the Vietnamese to return home voluntarily: still, fewer than 2,000 people were in the camps.

Meanwhile, the UNHCR, citing more pressing refugee problems elsewhere, has cut off assistance to the Philippines government for maintaining the migrants. In recent weeks, Filipino charities have provided food and other support.

By making the Vietnamese, in effect, permanent residents the government will be able to close down the camps and integrate the remaining 1,500 to 2,000 boat people into the workforce.

Other places of first asylum for boat people - most notably Hong Kong, which has taken in by far the largest number - have adamantly refused to allow permanent settlement, fearing a fresh exodus of asylum seekers.

Even those who qualify for refugee status, under standard UNHCR criteria, are not allowed to settle outside refugee camps but remain in centres pending entry to countries of asylum.

Hong Kong and Malaysia have stepped up forced deportation programmes, aiming to clear the detention centres of boat people by the end of the year, in Malaysia's case, and, in Hong Kong's, before the middle of next year when China resumes sovereignty.

The exodus of boat people began following the fall of Saigon to Vietnamese communist forces in 1975. Since then, hundreds of thousands have fled, usually in small, unseaworthy boats. At first they were welcomed in the countries of first asylum as refugees from a cruel communist regime, and Western nations promised to resettle them. But, over two decades, sympathy for the Vietnamese has withered to less than zero.

At the beginning of the month, Ngo Doan Tha, a former South Vietnamese police officer, won a long battle for refugee status in Hong Kong after it had been repeatedly ruled out. That was despite the fact that the authorities knew he had passed security information to both the United States and Hong Kong governments, making him vulnerable to arrest in Vietnam.

The Philippines, in contrast, has let its boat people work as farmers and fishermen and kept them in conditions more closely resembling villages than barbed-wire-encrusted prisons.

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