Weighing the cost of boat people against world's woes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2001, 12:00am

Hong Kong's last refugee crisis left the Government with an IOU of $1.16 billion - and it still has not been paid.

The money was given to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees by Hong Kong to deal with the huge influx of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon.

Despite only a slim chance of recovering the SAR's money, the Security Bureau said last week it would try 'to secure repayment'.

But UNHCR sub-office head Daniela Cicchella said it was impossible to pay the debt as problems around the world required immediate financial help. 'We would like the money to be written off,' she said.

'It was recognised as an advance in principle, so we don't consider it a debt.

'If the Hong Kong Government wants the money back it should appeal to other governments for the money.' Globally, the UNHCR has an annual shortfall of US$150 million (HK$1.1 billion). It takes care of 22 million refugees around the world on an annual budget of less than US$900 million.

Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai criticised the Government's attitude. 'It's very cruel to say, 'Forget about those people in need and pay us the money' when the money could be put to better use,' he said.

'It's a good idea to recognise the reality that the UNHCR cannot afford to pay it back. If we ask for the repayment, we make the work of the UNHCR more difficult.'

The world's last Vietnamese refugee camp - Pillar Point - was closed at Tuen Mun in July last year after the remaining 1,400 boat people were allowed to resettle in the SAR permanently.

By then Hong Kong had spent $8.7 billion - including the $1.16 billion direct aid - looking after more than 230,000 Vietnamese people.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, thousands of Vietnamese risked their lives on cramped cargo ships and sinking fishing boats.

For many who landed in Hong Kong, dreams of freedom became a nightmare of crowded and diseased camps.

A meeting of foreign ministers in Geneva in 1979 ruled anyone fleeing Vietnam would get automatic refugee status and be eligible for resettlement in the West. Asian countries, including Hong Kong, became ports of first asylum.

Locals complained of Vietnamese taking jobs and police were injured quelling disturbances.

In May 1996 an armed breakout from Whitehead Detention Centre saw 120 people escape while 46 Vietnamese and officers were injured and 21 buildings and 43 vehicles torched.

To deter boat people, the Government renounced the Geneva pact in 1982 and started treating all new arrivals as illegal immigrants until refugee status was proved.

The number of Vietnamese peaked in October 1991, when 14 camps housed 64,300 people.

About 143,000 Vietnamese refugees were settled overseas, mostly in the United States and Australia. A repatriation programme from December 1989 saw the remainder leave Hong Kong.