UN unlikely to pay $1b refugee bill

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2000, 12:00am

The SAR has a slim chance of recovering the $1 billion debt it is owed over the boat people issue, a United Nations official said yesterday as he closed the world's last Vietnamese refugee camp in Tuen Mun.

Francois Fouinat, Asia-Pacific regional director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), thanked Hong Kong for helping more than 200,000 Vietnamese people over the past 25 years.

He was speaking at an official ceremony marking the closure of the Pillar Point camp.

'Hong Kong stands second to none in terms of solidarity and generosity towards those in need,' Mr Fouinat said.

The Vietnamese migrant problem has cost Hong Kong $8.7 billion since 1979 and the UNHCR still owes the territory $1.16 billion. Asked if the debt could be repaid, Mr Fouinat said it was becoming increasingly difficult to raise money for the repayment as problems in other parts of the world needed more immediate financial help.

'Reasonably, we don't have high expectations that these contributions can be repaid,' Mr Fouinat said.

Yesterday's ceremony was staged after the last 14 inmates, who initially refused to leave Pillar Point when it was scheduled to close at the end of May, finally agreed to leave on June 21. The Government announced in February the closure of the camp, which housed 1,070 inmates, by offering eligible Vietnamese migrants and refugees identity cards.

More than 160 inmates refused to leave the camp on May 31 when its management was passed from Caritas-Hong Kong to the Civil Aid Service which managed camps for the first batch of boat people who arrived in 1975.

Civil Aid Service chief staff officer Robert Chan Ming-kui said yesterday that up to 40 inmates sneaked back into the centre by climbing over the fences during the first week of closure in June. 'We decided to speed up the demolition of the vacant huts to prevent the boat people from coming back and the tactic was successful,' Mr Chan said.

Ninety per cent of the 1,417 Vietnamese - 841 refugees and 433 migrants - have applied for identity cards. The remaining 143 will retain their refugee or migrant status pending the outcome of their applications to be settled abroad.

Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said while it was hard to tell if integration of the boat people would be a success, she believed it would be a success for the majority.

Dorothy Lee, the first executive director of the refugee co-ordinating office between 1979 and 1986 who attended yesterday's ceremony, said she was happy to see the final chapter of the boat people saga closed.