Rights campaigner faces cancer battle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 12:00am

Battling Hong Kong human rights campaigner Pam Baker is now locked in her own personal fight against lung cancer.

The 71-year-old lawyer, known for her campaigns fighting for the rights of Hong Kong's disenfranchised - including Vietnamese refugees, battered women and right-of-abode seekers - has returned home to England to be with her six children.

Her decision came after she collapsed in Sai Kung in August and was taken to hospital, where she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Speaking from her Cheshire home, Ms Baker, a heavy smoker, dismissed the cancer as 'just one of those things', adding: 'Cigarettes keep me going. I have been smoking for 50 years and think people who give up when they are 70 are just silly. How many cigarettes a day? I don't know, I don't want to know.'

Ms Baker came to Hong Kong to start a new life in 1982, when she and her husband divorced after 27 years. She joined the Legal Aid Department, began working with battered wives and quickly became known for representing Vietnamese boat people.

'My most memorable case was Boat 101 - a boatload of Vietnamese people who arrived in Hong Kong on May 1, 1989,' she said. 'They were sailing to Japan, where they had an [automatic] refugee policy. But the Hong Kong government said it would refurbish their boat and look after them if they agreed to stop.

'Instead, the government intentionally tricked them and took their boat off them. It was outrageous, but thankfully we got a judgment in their favour.'

Branded a troublemaker and accused of giving asylum seekers false hope, she resigned from the department in 1991 when she claims she was banned from detention centres for informing boat people of their rights.

She later set out on her own, launching Pam Baker and Company and operating out of a one-room office above a Mongkok fruit market. Her idea was to give boat people a better understanding of the screening system classifying them as refugees. She was also known to charge just a quarter of most lawyers' fees.

Attempts to win last-minute reprieves for boat people had her thrown out of court more times than she could remember. 'By the time I had set up my own firm I felt responsible for the boat people; someone had to represent them. What kept me motivated was fury, a righteous indignation. It was an honour to be branded a troublemaker,' she said.

Ms Baker came out of retirement in 1999 at the behest of Legal Aid and concentrated on right-of-abode cases.

Although she holds a return ticket to Hong Kong, which she still regards as home, she intends to close her law company at the end of the year.