$10 billion - what the boat people saga cost taxpayers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2003, 12:00am

Hong Kong's Vietnamese refugee problem began almost immediately after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Tens of thousands of asylum seekers arrived in the city and tens of thousands more died at sea on the way. According to the government, no Vietnamese asylum seekers were turned away at the time.

By 1997, up to 223,000 Vietnamese had arrived in Hong Kong, which became home to about 16,000 of them. The rest either resettled overseas or were repatriated to Vietnam until the port of first asylum policy for Vietnamese was ended in January, 1998.

The handling and repatriation of the Vietnamese over the decades cost taxpayers an estimated $8.71 billion plus a further $1.16 billion that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is said to owe the government.

In 1988, the UNHCR signed a Statement of Understanding with the Hong Kong government, undertaking to 'continue to meet the costs of the care, maintenance and social services required by all asylum seekers ... subject to the availability of funds for this purpose'.

The Hong Kong government agreed to make 'advance payments' on behalf of the UNHCR to cover the cost of accommodation and basic daily needs of refugees.

In 1995, the UNHCR returned $19.5 million of the money and paid another $23 million the following year. The last payment made was $3.9 million five years ago, since when the body has repeatedly told the Hong Kong government it cannot afford to repay the entire sum.

Throughout the 1990s, the director of audit urged the government to stop paying for the cost of supporting the asylum seekers. In a report in November 1995, the director found that the advances paid might not be recoverable. The attorney-general added that the Statement of Understanding was not legally binding.

In a 1996 report, the director said the administration should seek funding approval from the Legislative Council's Finance Committee for the expenditure, but the suggestion was rejected.

The same year, the mainland demanded Britain wipe off the debt incurred before the handover. At the time, the UNHCR had said it would reimburse the government.

A 1998 Audit Commission report highlighted the situation for the third time, noting it would take 300 years for the UNHCR to pay the money back at the rate it was going.

The government has since made regular demands to the body for repayment. This resulted in the UNHCR indicating that it may never repay the funds. This year is the first time the UNHCR has asked for the sum to be written off.

Hong Kong today houses 226 Vietnamese illegal immigrants and spent $13 million in the 2002-2003 financial year on Vietnamese migrants.