THE number of boat people opting to return to Vietnam will be close to the birth rate in the camps if the stalemate continues, the outgoing Hong Kong head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has warned. But Jahanshah Assadi, who left the territory last week, denied the voluntary repatriation programme had been a failure. The UNHCR chief also defended criticism of the $1.1 billion owed to the Government saying it was 'a moral, not a legal debt'. When he arrived three years ago he was confident most of the 27,000 boat people would be gone by 1996. But as he prepares for his new post in Australia, there are still 20,217 non-refugees in the territory. Mr Assadi said: 'I was counting on the trend in 1993 continuing, but we're dealing with human beings and not the stock market. 'The UNHCR cannot force people to do things they don't want to. If the figures at the end of the day are low, if the local community expected more to go home, I'm sorry - we did our best, we left no stone unturned. If anyone else could tell me what else we could do I would certainly like to know.' Voluntary repatriation first nosedived in spring last year when there were mass protests in the camps after an international decision that non-refugees would have to go back. This year the programme has been severely hit by US proposals to interview boat people already screened out in Hong Kong. Only 1,600 boat people returned voluntarily this year as opposed to 12,271 in 1993. Mr Assadi predicted next year's figure could be smaller. The numbers joining the programme have fallen off sharply and many have 'de-volunteered'. 'If things stay the way they are the number of people volunteering will hardly keep up with the birth rate.' This year, 572 babies were born in camps - against 755 in 1994. Mr Assadi called on the Government to go into the camps and counsel people individually about returning home. He also blamed rights workers for giving false hope to the Vietnamese still languishing in detention centres. 'After six or seven years in the camps people are very institutionalised and extremely vulnerable and susceptible to unrealistic appraisals of their future prospects.' Mr Assadi said it was 'very cruel' to mislead boat people into thinking they might be resettled when they had already been screened out. Since 1975, 220,000 boat people have arrived in Hong Kong. The UNHCR has resettled 150,000 in the West and 50,000 have volunteered to go home. Mr Assadi said the UNHCR had 'saved' 1,600 Vietnamese screened out by the Government. He added: 'If you look at the broad picture over the two decades I think what we've achieved here has been considerable.' Mr Assadi, 43, is going to Canberra to head the UNHCR's Pacific office. 'I will miss the buzz of the job here. There's never been a dull moment in Hong Kong. It's been very interesting and very rewarding, not to say challenging,' he said. His successor has not been named.