Still waiting for a future

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 December, 1999, 12:00am

'After 14 days afloat on the sea we saw high buildings and thought this must be Hong Kong. We shouted 'eureka' and I threw my slippers into the sea because I would not need them anymore. I was laughing, and we were so happy that we had finally arrived in a free country.' Vietnamese refugee Hoai Thu THE first Vietnamese refugees arrived in Hong Kong waters in May 1975 on board the Clara Maersk. Thousands followed as the fall of American-backed Saigon to communist Hanoi prompted people - at that initial stage, mostly ethnic Chinese who had been living in south Vietnam - to risk everything to flee to another country.

At first the boat people were put in open camps and mixed freely and generally harmoniously with local people. But 1979 was to herald the start of nearly 20 years of trouble. Later the southern refugees would be joined by northern Vietnamese, both ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese.

From January to July that year more than 66,000 refugees arrived - at a time when there was also a flood of illegal immigration from China. International ministers met in Geneva in July 1979 and agreed that while Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries should provide first asylum, the West would provide places for final settlement.

The summit made another declaration - that anyone fleeing Vietnam in a small boat would automatically be regarded as a refugee and be eligible for a new home in the West.

Western countries made good their promises and 38,000 refugees in Hong Kong found new homes overseas, cutting numbers here to 24,000. But hostility still grew in Hong Kong. Workers complained that cheap Vietnamese labour was taking their jobs, while public sympathy was lost when police were hurt putting down a disturbance at a camp at Kai Tak.

Instances like this led to the introduction of the Closed Camp Policy in July 1982 where new arrivals were kept behind fences and barred from working until they resettled. Five years of relative calm followed.

But in the sailing season of 1988, thousands of new refugees arrived. That June Hong Kong unilaterally renounced the Geneva accord and introduced screening to determine which of the arrivals were fleeing persecution and therefore eligible for resettlement, and which were only 'economic refugees'.

Like the closed camps, the introduction of screening failed to act as a deterrent. Within 16 months, the number of asylum-seekers swelled to 57,000. People were packed on to old ferries afloat in the harbour, into disused pigsties on Tai A Chau and into tents at Sek Kong.

Hoai Thu (not her real name) and her father were among those who arrived in the summer of 1988, six weeks after screening was introduced. She never asked why they left her mother and two younger brothers to make a new life outside Vietnam - but her memories of public security officers taking things from their house, of people calling her father a traitor for not joining the army and the difficulties of being ethnic Chinese give a clue to the reasons.

And one day, the 10-year-old was told to gather a few possessions, since she would be leaving her hometown of Haidung, 60 kilometres from Hanoi. She went with her father to the coastal town of Dosan in May 1988, but they were under suspicion and had to wait until July, missing the cut-off date for screening.

'We had a hard journey. It was a very small boat with 31 people. We were on it for 14 days and we had to stop in China to beg for food and because our boat had problems. When my father was begging, I was laughing, as I had never imagined him doing that.' One day they were intercepted by a marine police vessel - and knew they were nearing Hong Kong. An officer read a statement that they had arrived after a cut-off date, but most remained optimistic even as they were taken to Green Island reception centre.

Later Hoai Thu and her father were shipped to Hei Ling Chau detention centre where they remained for 'one or two years'.

While she was there, a second Geneva conference was held in 1989, where the British Foreign Secretary warned that Hong Kong was 'simply and absolutely unable to cope'.

A Comprehensive Plan of Action was agreed, and the issue of returning the people to Vietnam came on to the agenda - sparking a hunger strike by thousands on October 14.

At 3am on December 12, 1989, prison officers in full riot gear raided Phoenix House detention centre, isolating and dragging out 51 people - 42 of them women and children - who were sent back to Vietnam on a Cathay Pacific flight. The media had been in attendance throughout the operation and there was an outcry at the handling of the people and the lack of monitoring of what would happen to them back in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese Government said it would not accept any more people from forced repatriation. But the operation had a tremendous impact on the Vietnamese public - arrivals in early 1990 were 87 per cent down on 1989, with arrivals from the North down by 98.7 per cent.

Little had been solved for those already in the detention centres. Some people were beginning to leave on the nascent voluntary repatriation scheme run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but the camps were still intolerably crowded and violence between detainees and guards was common.

In August 1989 the police lost control of Tai A Chau detention centre and fled the island, returning in raiding parties the next day to 'retake' it. A month earlier a 59-year-old man had died and many children and adults hurt when police put down a disturbance at Sek Kong detention centre.

Gradually more people did go back to Vietnam. But those successes followed a horrific battle and fire at Sek Kong - in which 24 people died - and repeated raids by teargas squads, the first of which - at Whitehead in April 1994 - saw more than 300 injured.

Hoai Thu and her father were screened out in a process she believes few understood and which was deeply flawed. They went to Whitehead detention centre where they slept in triple-deck bunks, sharing a hut with 400 others. Persistent rumours renewed hopes, she said, even on the day she felt herself choking on teargas.

Still there is no solution. Her father was forced back to Vietnam, while she is now free 'on recognisance' after more than 10 years behind barbed wire.

Vietnam does not recognise her as Vietnamese and though Hong Kong still hopes to send her back, it is not permitted by the court to hold her in detention. Now 21, she lives in Sha Tin.

Though the Government is closing camps as the number of boat people dwindle, for one woman at least, the future is as uncertain now as it was 11 years ago on a boat in the South China Sea.