Boat people head for north Australia

BOAT people who fled China for Hong Kong and were repatriated are now turning up on the northern shores of Australia in an almost unprecedented wave of arrivals that has prompted Canberra to open urgent talks with Beijing.

The boat people are mostly ethnic-Chinese Vietnamese who were living in the seaside shanty town of Beihai in Guangxi province but were forced out when authorities bulldozed their homes for redevelopments.

Hong Kong was hit with thousands of arrivals from Beihai last year and is still struggling to persuade China to verify the 317 people remaining in detention.

Sources in Canberra confirmed yesterday that there was a Hong Kong link with some of the 735 people who had arrived in Australia since mid-November.

'Some of these arrivals almost certainly left China for Hong Kong some time ago and were repatriated and have now decided to come to Australia,' one Immigration Department source said.

A spokesman for Australian Immigration Minister Senator Nick Bolkus said yesterday that China had not said it would reject any of the boat people from Australia and that negotiations with Beijing were ongoing.

'The minister is keeping all his options open at the moment, obviously this is a very serious issue which we hope can be dealt with expeditiously,' she said.

She added that she understood that China had moved this week to stop the flow of people from Beihai by arresting people trying to leave.

An official report from Beijing yesterday said police in southern China had arrested 330 would-be boat people and confiscated four vessels.

The Legal Daily said illegal emigration from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region had increased in recent years, particularly during the autumn and winter months when seas were calm.

Earlier this week, Mr Bolkus said there was no doubt that people were profiteering from the exodus.

A Hong Kong government spokesman said yesterday that China had not said there would be any delays in verifying the return of the remaining 317 ex-China Vietnamese, despite the fact that it would now also have to process the Australian boat people.

Asked if Hong Kong would provide advice to Australia on the issue, the spokesman said the two governments maintained 'frequent contact'.