Writing off an irrecoverable debt

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

We report today that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has formally asked the Hong Kong government to nullify a $1.16 billion debt owed by the agency. The money was advanced to the UNHCR from the 1970s to the 1990s when thousands of Vietnamese immigrants passed through detention centres here, on their way to third countries or awaited repatriation back to Vietnam. The sum includes food, accommodation and other upkeep, and is a small fraction of the money - almost $9 billion - Hong Kong spent on the refugees during this period.

The request is in line with what the agency has been saying for years: the debt cannot be paid when the UNHCR faces longstanding refugee crises all over the world and when it often has a hard time meeting even its annual expenditure of around US$900 million. At the latest count, the agency was monitoring the living conditions of about 20 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world. Brewing conflicts and displacements in West Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Middle East, as well as the return of one million refugees from Afghanistan, assure that its commitments will not diminish anytime soon.

By one estimate, the UNHCR's annual budget shortfall is US$150 million, or nearly equal to the $1.16 billion that the Hong Kong government has pledged to continue pursuing. The government faces a mounting fiscal deficit, but it also enjoys reserves amounting to $311 billion. The UN agency has protested for years, saying there is no way it can raise the owed funds, and that donors are unwilling to contribute any money to repaying a city as rich as Hong Kong obviously is. By contrast, the UNHCR is struggling to pay basic allowances to the 300 to 400 refugees and asylum seekers who are still living in Hong Kong.

In taking in the Vietnamese boatpeople, Hong Kong did indeed shoulder more than its fair share of the burden. But given the circumstances, including advice from legal experts to the effect that an agreement on the debt signed by the two parties in 1988 is not legally binding, it would be impractical for Hong Kong to pursue the matter any further.

The refugee influx over nearly three decades imposed a heavy burden on the city, financially and in other ways. At the peak, in October 1991, there were 64,300 living in 14 camps. In all, more than 220,000 passed through Hong Kong; 143,000 were resettled in other countries, and most of the rest were sent back to Vietnam, in co-operation with the UNHCR.

The mere existence of these camps and the controversy over how the refugees were treated pitted human rights activists, government officials and the public against each other. Some detainees who were rejected by Vietnam as 'Chinese nationals' could not be returned, and often these people spent years in the camps, living in limbo. Drugs, crime, demonstrations and general unrest at some of the camps made them a blight upon the Hong Kong landscape.

The saga in one sense came to an end when the last camp, Pillar Point in Tuen Mun, was closed and about 1,400 of the detainees were allowed to settle here. Resolving this dispute with the UNHCR would give the community a final way of closing that chapter of its history.

Whatever our current economic troubles, Hong Kong has for decades been among the world's richest cities, and it will remain so for a long time to come. More than that, we aspire to portray ourselves as a modern, forward-thinking society that blends the best of the eastern and western cultures. Here is our chance to enhance that image: all we have to do is give up our claim to money we are never going to receive anyway.