Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1996
UNHCR's work with the Vietnamese boat people still remaining in Hong Kong has been changing and evolving as the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Action has progressed. The closure of the CPA this year has marked the end of one of UNHCR's most impressive programmes of solution.
By Preeta Law
Two Viet Nam Airlines aircraft stood on the tarmac of Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport on 9 August this year. At their side were buses carrying 310 Vietnamese boat people who had volunteered to return home. UNHCR staff distributed the travel allowance granted to each returnee before leaving Hong Kong. Kai Tak airport had seen this kind of scene many times before in the history of Hong Kong's long (and difficult) relationship with the boat people. But this particular repatriation marked a milestone: the 50,000th voluntary return to Viet Nam.
The honour of being the 50,000th fell on Mr. Nguyen Xuan Dung, who was returning to the northern province of Hai Phong with his family of five. Officials of the Hong Kong government and UNHCR planned to mark the occasion with a small ceremony and gifts for the Dung family, when a commotion broke out. A man had been seen scaling the airport fence, we were told. Sure enough, Hong Kong Immigration officials confirmed that one of the Vietnamese had jumped out of the window of his bus, scaled the airport fence and fled.
Perhaps inevitably, the "escape" of one person provided more drama for the press than the voluntary return of the 50,000th boat person from Hong Kong. Naturally enough, journalists – who heard of the incident over police radio – wanted to know "why a volunteer would escape." The incident illustrates the complexities surrounding UNHCR's work with the Vietnamese boat people still remaining in Hong Kong – work which has been changing and evolving as the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA, the international agreement on the boat people issue) has progressed.
When the boat people first began arriving in Hong Kong in large numbers, resettlement countries had pledged to take them all, and UNHCR was responsible for arranging their resettlement. After screening was instituted and the Hong Kong government began placing asylum-seekers in detention centres, UNHCR focused its energies on monitoring the screening procedures, providing legal advice to asylum-seekers and ensuring that appropriate services were provided in the camps.
In keeping with the CPA, UNHCR gradually began voluntary repatriation counselling. For the last two years this has been a major focus of our work in Hong Kong. Some outsiders, however, have seen the change in our role in the territory as a contradiction of our mandate.
Still, the return of Mr. Dung and his family, who had lived in detention centres for seven years, gave UNHCR staff a sense of achievement. Two of the Dung children had been born in detention, and they would now be able to live fuller lives not constrained by wire fences. The last time we had felt this pleased – prematurely, it turned out – was in May 1995, when more than 1,000 families were individually informed that they were cleared for return by the Vietnamese government.
UNHCR encouraged these people to take the decision that would get their families out of the camps and into new lives. After a week of counselling, more than 800 people applied for voluntary repatriation, and we began to foresee the closure of the detention centres.
Our hopes for a quick resolution of the problem were soon dashed. Within a few days rumours and events outside our control led to almost all of these people withdrawing from the voluntary repatriation programme, and the detention centre population remained almost static for the rest of 1995. In Hong Kong, the CPA Steering Committee's time frame for the return of the last boat person in the region – June 1996 for the closure of camps in South East Asian countries, with Hong Kong to follow soon after – seemed unachievable.
But things are again looking up. In the see-saw manner of our work in Hong Kong, 1996 has seen a marked surge in the number of Vietnamese returning home under UNHCR auspices. More than 1,000 people came forward for voluntary repatriation in the last week of October alone. By the end of the year, the total population in the two detention centres for Vietnamese non-refugees in Hong Kong – Whitehead and High Island – fell to 5,500. It was then decided to transport these people to High Island and to close Whitehead on 3 January 1997, except for the two holding centres for those awaiting voluntary repatriation. That's still a large number, but those of us who have seen Whitehead alone crammed with more than 20,000 people can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.
More than 105,000 Vietnamese have returned to Viet Nam from detention centres in the region so far. What can they look forward to back home?
Economic difficulties are the overriding concern of most returnees. Reports from our offices in Viet Nam indicate that returnees who did not choose to volunteer and were repatriated under the Hong Kong government's Orderly Return Programme are sorry they did not avail of the extra financial assistance available to volunteers. I was recently told by a monitoring officer in Hanoi that he had to witness the embarrassing spectacle of a young man being upbraided by his mother for not returning voluntarily and thereby denying himself the assistance.
What the returnees are assured of, however, is their safety. Under UNHCR's understanding with the government of Viet Nam, all the 100,000 returnees from camps in the region and those still to return benefit from an amnesty for their illegal departure from the country. The agreement stipulates that UNHCR staff are able to visit returnees in their homes to monitor the conditions of return. We have been satisfied that Viet Nam has abided by its agreements on the treatment of returnees.
Indeed, our presence in Viet Nam has convinced many of the boat people to return home, and it plays a big role in our efforts to promote voluntary repatriation in Hong Kong. We know that returnees have access to UNHCR; some have written letters to family members still in Hong Kong saying they were surprised by how easy it was to visit our office in Hanoi!
Since the beginning of this year, UNHCR has not been present in the camps on a daily basis. Our efforts are now concentrated in the voluntary repatriation centres at the Whitehead camp, from where field staff are dispatched elsewhere as needed. The Hong Kong government has taken on greater responsibilities in the task of counselling the camp population to return home voluntarily. And as we near the end of the year, the rise in applications for voluntary return makes us feel a resolution of the boat people problem in Hong Kong is not too distant.
Things do not look so good for the refugees who arrived before June 1988, when screening was instituted by the government, and who nonetheless failed to find resettlement in third countries.
While the detention centres for non-refugees in Hong Kong are run by the Hong Kong government, UNHCR manages the only remaining open refugee camp, Pillar Point. You reach "PP" after a long drive through a semi-industrial part of Hong Kong's New Territories, passing what will be Asia's longest suspension bridge connecting the colony's new airport to the Kowloon peninsula. The airport site provides our refugees with most of their employment opportunities.
Despite the resources UNHCR has committed to this camp – the daily presence of a field officer, primary and secondary education, a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières and other social services, visitors usually notice the tension on first entering the camp gates.
There are tough Gurkha guards at the gate to check identity cards. They have been placed there by UNHCR at a very high cost to deter drug trafficking and other gang activities inside the camp. The majority of the remaining 1,200 refugees in Hong Kong are not wanted by resettlement countries because they have criminal records or a history of drug addiction. Hong Kong does not want them either, so most of them are in a state of limbo. Viet Nam, however, expects that these refugees should be resettled.
Although most of these people are uncertain about remaining in Hong Kong after 1997, they also know that they can continue to make better living working on construction sites in Hong Kong than they would back in Viet Nam. A few (mostly the elderly) have applied to UNHCR for assistance to return to Viet Nam and have been accepted by Hanoi on humanitarian grounds. But finding a solution for the majority of the unresettleable refugees – and those non-refugees who have not been accepted for return to Viet Nam – will be our major challenge as we try to close the book on the Vietnamese boat people saga.
Will we manage to do it before Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty by the middle of next year? Will we at that time be able to end an association with the territory that began with our setting up an office to assist White Russians coming from China in 1952? We hope so, as the intractable nature of this problem has overshadowed our other achievements, just as the escape of one voluntary returnee who would prefer, nonetheless, to be an immigrant, overshadows the return of 50,000 volunteers. UNHCR's success in resettling almost three-fourths of the total of some 200,000 Vietnamese who have arrived in Hong Kong since 1975 is one of the most successful and dramatic resettlement efforts ever made in UNHCR's history. And the closure of the CPA this year has similarly marked the end of one of UNHCR's most impressive programmes of solution.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)