Refugees' hunger strike snowballs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 1994, 12:00am

A HUNGER strike at Tai A Chau detention camp swelled to include almost 200 resolute protesters last night as medical teams braced to treat more casualties.

Six Vietnamese - three men and three women - were receiving medical treatment in the camp's clinic after refusing food. Three women, admitted to Queen Mary Hospital on Wednesday, have been discharged and returned to the camp.

Thousands of Tai A Chau inmates, joined by Vietnamese at Whitehead and High Island camps, are staging a peaceful protest against last week's international agreement to hasten the repatriation of Vietnamese asylum-seekers.

Tai A Chau community heads said the relay hunger strike was snowballing, with 1,000 detainees having registered to take part.

Camp sources said Vietnamese leaders were trying to restrict the numbers refusing food, but warned they ''couldn't stop the hunger strike now if they wanted''.

Protests also heightened at Whitehead detention camp, where detainees braved rain, wind and chilly conditions to stage a sit-in from about 4 pm to 5 pm yesterday.

More than 2,000 inmates chanted slogans and 35 people - 33 men and two women - continued a hunger strike.

Police stationed at Tai A Chau said all seemed quiet last night as inmates returned peacefully to their dormitories after the 12th day of protests.

''But the clinic is preparing to receive further detainees who are still on hunger strike,'' a police spokesman said.

Hong Kong head of mission for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Jahanshah Assadi, last night urged the detainees to give up their protests.

''We have heard their message, so they need not persist,'' Mr Assadi said.

''We always listen to the camp population, but I'm not so sure if [their action] will change things one way or another.

''I urge them to stop their hunger strikes and demonstrations and go back to their normal lives.'' Tai A Chau inmates began their rolling hunger strikes on February 8 in anticipation of a pact to speed up repatriation policies at the international conference on Indochinese refugees in Geneva last Monday.

The agreement, which means 25,600 Vietnamese in Hong Kong camps will be returned to Vietnam by the end of 1995, has met with fierce opposition.

Vietnamese orphan Ngo Van Ha will learn this week whether he will grow up in California or Vietnam.

UNHCR Hong Kong head of mission Jahanshah Assadi said his office would decide by Tuesday whether to return Ha to Vietnam against his will or allow him to join family members in Los Angeles.

Ha was taken from Tai A Chau detention camp to Whitehead camp five weeks ago, from where authorities planned to repatriate him to Vietnam.