US politician joins protest at return of boy refugee

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 1994, 12:00am

A UNITED States congressman has stepped into the international struggle to stop United Nations officials in Hong Kong from returning a 16-year-old orphan to Vietnam.

The move follows a 2,000-strong protest at a Hong Kong detention centre, a 24-hour hunger strike by Vietnamese detainees and the filming of a UN video to prove the boy was not being abused at the Whitehead camp.

Los Angeles lawyer Leslie Starr Heimove said legislator Matthew Martinez had written to the US Consul-General in Hong Kong, Richard Mueller, for a briefing and advice on the case of Ngo Van Ha.

The storm erupted over plans to repatriate Ha, whose forced transfer from Tai A Chau Detention Centre to Whitehead camp sparked a 31/2-day protest at Tai A Chau last week.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) head of mission Jahanshah Assadi said his staff had filmed a six-minute video of Ha in his new Whitehead quarters to cool simmering anger at Tai A Chau.

''It was shown to some of the camp representatives on Thursday,'' Mr Assadi said.

''It was to show him walking around so they could be reassured of his physical well-being; there was some concern about his head injury [received during the transfer attempt].

''Then, for a few minutes, he just said some words.'' Tai A Chau's Vietnamese detainees smuggled photographs and a letter to the Sunday Morning Post last night, asking for Ha's case to be thoroughly and thoughtfully reconsidered.

''During the protest, the thousands of people in Tai A Chau camp came together as one, peacefully and with great strength on Ha's behalf,'' the letter said.

''We faced the power of the police, their many boats, people, tear gas and weapons.

''This past week, thousands sat for 24 hours without food, water or sleep.'' The case of Ha, orphaned at 10 when both parents died in a car crash, has inflamed public opinion.

Ha arrived in Hong Kong in 1990, was refused refugee status in March 1992, and was due to be repatriated on Friday.

Mr Assadi said the UNHCR was reviewing the case in the light of reports that Ha's uncle in Vietnam - with whom officials expected him to live - had abused him and thrown his siblings out of the family home.

Another uncle and aunt in Los Angeles, Nguyen Dang Vu and Ho Thi Phouc Tuyet, have pleaded to become the youth's permanent guardians, enlisting the help of Mr Martinez.

Ms Heimove, also a friend of the couple, said Ha's aunt had visited Vietnam at Christmas and found Ha's younger sister and brother had been forced from the uncle's home.

''Those two kids are not being cared for by relatives. They're staying with different families, cleaning and doing housework to earn their keep . . . and they're younger than Ha,'' Ms Heimove said.

Ha's uncle and aunt in Los Angeles have been trying to bring their nephew to California for three years.

''They continually say to me: What can we do - what else can we do to show we want him to come here?'' Ms Heimove said.

Meanwhile, Mr Assadi has pledged to release confidential UNHCR documents on Ha's case - but not until a final decision is made on the youngster's future.

''On the surface, it looks as though we're out of our minds,'' Mr Assadi said.

''Given the publicity that has surrounded this particular case, with the implication that the UNHCR is being hard with this little kid . . . I would propose, when we've taken the decision, to present the information on his case publicly.'' Hong Kong Government Refugee Co-ordinator Brian Bresnihan said he had ''no quarrel with this decision [to return Ha to Vietnam]''.

''It is inconceivable to me that this organisation [the UNHCR] would make a decision that is not in the best interests of the child.''