SINCE its formation in 1988, one small organisation has cost the Hong Kong taxpayer many millions of dollars. It has also caused major ripples of concern among the administration, the security arms of government and political figures. The body is Refugee Concern, a strident and successful advocate, fighting for the legal rights of the Vietnamese held in our camps. As such, what the largely-expatriate group seeks to do flies in the face of overwhelming public opinion; Hong Kongers believe the vast majority of Vietnamese who are here illegally should be promptly sent back to their homeland. Refugee Concern has caused many headlines with its legal moves and public calls for improved treatment of Vietnamese, linked with outspoken criticism of their treatment. But what is Refugee Concern? Who runs it? How many members does it have? Where do the funds come from? What is it trying to achieve? And do members not fear they are causing grievous harm to the very people they are trying to help by raising false hopes among illegal immigrants who have been screened-out and found to be non-refugees? Trying to get answers to these questions is not all that easy. The most high-profile spokesman for Refugee Concern, Ms Pam Baker, refused to discuss the issues with me, claiming she feared being misreported. Later, I got written answers from Robert Brook, a member of the group, and then spoke to Michael Darwyne, a lawyer with a long and distinguished track record of seeing justice done. He has been active in pressing such issues for more than a decade in both Singapore and Hong Kong. Refugee Concern has 'about 35' members, Mr Brook says, who meet once a month. The executive committee members are Pam Baker, Myra Wichorek, Tom Mulvey, Anne Marden, Lynn Butler, Tony Leung, a native-born, American-educated Hong Konger, and his wife Laurie. The group traces its formation back six years to workers in various agencies in our camps. At that stage, people employed by voluntary agencies under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees could be, and were, sacked for making critical statements to the press. So voluntary agency workers and others set up a body which could speak for them. After an initial flurry of activity, the organisation was dormant for years, then came back vigorously to life with legal moves on behalf of detainees. Recent headlines included the release of 125 people after Refugee Concern published a report claiming they had been illegally detained. This caused an uproar among many Hong Kong politicians, the press and public. Ask soft-spoken, convinced campaigner Michael Darwyne if the trouble and cost Refugee Concern has caused the community is justified, and he has no doubts. He thinks it a good investment for all of us. The way we treat Vietnamese today will reflect tomorrow on both the people and government of Hong Kong, he contends. Refugee Concern is no secretive, monolithic conspiracy aiming to swamp the streets of Hong Kong with illegal immigrants, he argues. 'My interest is liberty,' he stresses. It's an interest he pursues with quiet passion; no matter how one disagrees with him (and like many Hong Kongers, I do, and strongly) there is no doubting his genuine commitment. Mr Darwyne's opposition to the way we treat Vietnamese is total, starting with closed camps. Even if he sat on the screening boards and decided under his ultra-liberal views that most Vietnamese were economic migrants and not refugees, he would still permit them out to work in Hong Kong. He refuted my reply that this would cause an instant influx of new boat people. He feels about 60 per cent of all Vietnamese arrivals should be given genuine refugee status and that other countries would accept them, a view that differs sharply from the expensive legal screening body and is at odds with the continued existence in open camps of 'refugees' other countries refuse to take. Mr Darwyne, a disarmingly frank and honest man, took me to lunch with five long-term detainees celebrating their recent release from closed camps and their new refugee status. All five were decent, likable people. But after an hour with them, talking through an interpreter, I remained unconvinced that all of them could be considered genuine refugees, in so far as they would face persecution if sent back to Vietnam. (The Hong Kong Government says there has never been one substantiated case of persecution involving any of the 44,000 Vietnamese sent back since 1989.) The feeling I held most strongly after that meeting was one of grave concern; all five had spent between three and five years in our camps but still, although they know they are not welcome and newcomers stand little chance of resettlement, were adamant Vietnamese had the 'right' to come to Hong Kong. All have relatives living in Canada, Australia or the United States whom they hope ultimately to join. I have no doubt all will make successful new citizens in these countries. But the spectre of Hong Kong still being regarded as a haven by Vietnamese, despite all our efforts to shatter these dreams, is most worrying. I asked the five, who included two young women, one of whom was married in Sek Kong to another refugee at the table, why Hong Kong should not treat illegal immigrants from Vietnam in the same way as, for example, Britain would treat a Bengali who arrived without permission or papers. Why shouldn't Vietnamese be charged, held in jail and deported, as happens to illegal arrivals in almost every other country? Why should they be held in camps (where 640 babies were born last year) instead of in prison? 'It's our human right to come,' insisted Vo Thong, who was a teenage NCO in the old Army of the Republic of Vietnam and who served with American forces. To my mind, he was the only one present who had obvious claims to refugee status. Unsurprisingly, Michael Darwyne and other members of Refugee Concern disagree. They would be far more generous in granting refugee status. Looking back to the foundation of Refugee Concern, he says it was born out of a press gag clause in UNHCR employment contracts by 'concerned human beings working at the coal face in the camps'. His view is legalistic. As long as anyone is in Hong Kong, they are entitled fully to all legal safeguards available to a British citizen. 'You can't have two systems,' he adds. The Cornishman - who has lived in Hong Kong for nine years - is aware of public concerns, but holds that the universal rights of all are paramount. 'It's fair to say there was a mass friendly invasion,' he says, talking of the influx of Vietnamese since the fall of Saigon two decades ago. 'Hong Kong's reaction has been exemplary. It has coped very well. It has given us a chance to show our allegiance to our beliefs.' He contends there is not about to be another exodus from Vietnam. Michael Darwyne holds his hands cupped in front of his chest. 'If you had a tiny bird in your hand, you could either crush it or send it on its way,' he says. 'When you crush it, you crush yourself.' It would have been better if the Vietnamese had never come to Hong Kong, he muses. But they did come. They are here. That's a fact. The 'executive detention' under which 23,000 are still held is simple, easy and cheap. It is also wrong, he argues. 'There is no reason for Hong Kong to be seen as a beastly society,' he adds. One can disagree with Michael Darwyne. But no matter how irate people get at the legal ploys which torpedo the Government's tough policy, there is also no doubt that Refugee Concern is going to be around as long as a Vietnamese remain behind barbed wire.