Foreign rescue teams refused visas in HK

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am

Two international disaster response teams that flew to Hong Kong and tried to join the Sichuan earthquake rescue effort have been refused permission to enter the mainland.

The Scotland-based International Rescue Corps, which specialises in earthquakes, was set to fly back to the United Kingdom last night. A Canadian rescue team from Red Deer, Alberta, is planning to leave tomorrow after they were told yesterday that they were not required.

The two volunteer teams, run by independent charities, brought state-of-the-art location and rescue equipment, for which Beijing last week issued an international appeal.

The 10-member British team, which arrived on Tuesday, had an ultrasonic location device, a carbon dioxide probe that tracks the living by their breath and two tiny, flexible cameras that can be inserted through holes in rubble. The eight Canadians, who arrived on Thursday, brought a special search camera and an acoustic searching device. Neither team was aware the other was coming.

'We are very frustrated that we have been unable to get to the disaster zone and help those people still trapped,' corps team leader Willie McMartin said. 'This equipment can make the difference between somebody being located alive or dying. The official reason that we have been given is that the Chinese government cannot co-ordinate the foreign teams on the ground.'

Mr McMartin said they had learned from the United Nations website before leaving that no official request had been made by the central government for help from foreign rescue teams, but had been advised by a travel agent in Hong Kong that mainland visas could be obtained in the city.

'We would normally have a verbal indication from the embassy of the affected country that they want us to come before we leave,' he said.

'We offered our help to the Chinese embassies in London and Edinburgh and initially received no reply. But the scale of the earthquake appeared to justify a decision to travel.

'We were stalled because of the visa problem. We were asked to provide return tickets and hotel vouchers in advance. But in a disaster, we are in tented accommodation.'

He said the group had spent at least GBP30,000 (HK$456,000) on the trip. Marcel Schur, the leader of the Canadian team, said it had spent US$30,000.

Lu Xinhua, commissioner of the Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, said China had adopted an open attitude to overseas assistance for the quake victims.

He said rescue teams from Japan and Taiwan had already been allowed to get to the quake-stricken area.

A range of new restrictions on mainland visas, including a requirement that applicants obtain a return ticket and hotel voucher in advance, were confirmed last month by the ministry.