Race to kick out the last boat people

China wants Vietnamese refugees gone before the handover, reports Jojo Moyes
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The Independent Online
Next to the clear waters of Sai Kung, where prosperous Hong Kong people spend their weekends waterskiing and partying in corporate junks, sits High Island Detention Centre. Behind the barbed wire and high concrete walls inmates live packed into three-tiered bunks in tin-roofed huts.

The camp is hot, insanitary, riddled with drug abuse, black marketeering and violence, and prone to outbursts of rioting. Yet this is where Hong Kong's last 4,000 Vietnamese boat people would prefer to stay, rather than be sent home.

"I had five hearings today, and we won three. That's more than half, isn't it?" said Pam Baker brightly. The 66-year-old British lawyer and her team of volunteers are working round the clock on appeals for boat people who have been refused legal aid in their fight for refugee status. She is engaged in a race against time, trying to process the remaining appeals before the asylum seekers are repatriated.

"The legal aid department has sat on them for up to five years. They're trying to get the Vietnamese removed before we can get them to have their appeals here," she said. With only three months to go before the colony reverts to Chinese rule, the Hong Kong government is desperately trying to close one of the more embarrassing chapters of its recent history - the 20-year-old saga of the boat people. China insists that all Vietnamese must be out by the handover, and Hong Kong's remaining boat people are being shipped out of their detention camps and back home at a rising pace. Mrs Baker is trying to ensure that at least some have access to legal aid and a chance to avoid forced repatriation.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, arrives in Hong Kong today for talks with the Governor, Chris Patten and his designated successor, Tung Chee-Hwa, about the fate of the boat people. More than 16,000 were shipped out of the territory last year, but Hong Kong officials admit privately that there is little chance that the remaining camps will be cleared in time for the handover on 30 June. Around 1,000 may be stateless when the Chinese take control, while Vietnam refuses to take about 3,000 who it insists are not Vietnamese nationals. It says Britain should take responsibility for them.

One woman, Thuy - not her real name - won her appeal for legal aid last week with the help of Mrs Baker. A former teacher of literature, who arrived in the camp in 1989, she had been arrested in Vietnam for "poisoning young minds" after she was caught teaching the works of jailed writers. Initially she was sent to work in a shoe factory, but lost her job after suggesting how it could improve productivity. She was pushed out of another job in quality control after suggesting that raising standards would improve the outside world's view of Vietnam.

She and her former professor made a plan to write and smuggle work out of Vietnam. He was caught carrying her work and she was arrested. "She was done for subversive literature and propaganda against the state, and got a year inside," said Mrs Baker. "Her husband took the four kids. He was in the army, and while she was inside they told him to divorce her." When she came out, Thuy was so deranged with grief at the loss of her family that, standing in front of the guards, she took a knife and severed a finger. She handed it to a guard, telling him: "Here's my flesh and blood. This is what you're doing to me."

After being arrested for her writing again in 1988, Thuy, who Ms Baker describes as "not an unusual case", escaped to Hong Kong. But the board reviewing her asylum application decided that the "enlightened" view of today's Vietnamese authorities meant she would be safe if she returned home. Mrs Baker says dissident Vietnamese writers are still being locked up.

Volunteers say the mood among the remaining detainees is "very demoralised". "They know their time is looming," said Mrs Baker. Some of them say 'There's no way I'm going back willingly.' They're scared," She and her volunteers will keep fighting right up until the last moment. Her own future in the colony, after 15 years, is uncertain. "I don't know if I'll stay," she said. "I don't really know if they'll want me."