Tackling the two-bullet tourists

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 October, 2004, 12:00am

Hong Kong has gone to great lengths to attract foreign visitors to our shores. But package trips of the kind revealed in a court case yesterday are most unwelcome.

This rather unusual form of tourism was described by the judge as the 'two-bullet tour'. And the 'travel agents' are snakehead gangs in Vietnam.

It works like this: A poor villager in Vietnam pays the gang to organise his trip to Hong Kong. He will travel via the mainland. And the visitor will carry two bullets and a knife in his luggage. The 'tourist' will be sneaked into our city and his accommodation will, in the eyes of the traveller at least, be considered first-class. He is hoping to stay in one of our prisons.

The idea is that the illegal immigrant will, if caught, be guaranteed a long prison term because of his possession of weapons. And this is what he wants. It gives him food, shelter and what he considers to be a decent wage for the work he does in jail.

This new line in organised crime is becoming prevalent. Yesterday's case was the fourth in less than two months. And it creates a dilemma for our courts.

It is easy to understand why Judge Fergal Sweeney was tempted to send the immigrant straight back to Vietnam. This was the obvious step to take as it would frustrate the aim of the 'tour' and deter other economic migrants who are planning similar trips.

But as the judge no doubt realised, the problem is not as simple as that. Our system works on the assumption that prison is a punishment and that it acts as a deterrent. The possession of a knife and bullets is a serious offence for which tough penalties are required.

The problem is that in these particular cases, that is precisely what the offenders want. But difficulties will arise if judges avoid imposing prison terms so that the immigrants can be sent straight back to where they came from.

How, for example, is the judge to decide when a defendant genuinely wants to go to prison? There is a danger that criminals from outside Hong Kong - perhaps from the mainland - will start falsely making such claims in order to avoid jail. The deterrent effect of prison terms could be undermined.

The answer must lie in seeking to establish an agreement that will allow prisoners of this kind to serve their sentence in their own country. Hong Kong already has a number of such arrangements in place - but, unfortunately, not with Vietnam.

Efforts should also be stepped up in a bid to stop the immigrants sneaking in through the mainland. And perhaps diplomatic efforts could be made to encourage the Vietnamese authorities to tackle the problem at its root - by going after the snakeheads.

The 'two-bullet tours' must be stopped - but this cannot easily be achieved by simply sending the travellers back home.