Out they came. The Secretary for Security Peter Lai Hing-ling, flanked by Brian Bresnihan - the man with the job, Refugee Co-ordinator, that no one wants - and Crown Solicitor Ian Wingfield. The wing-men stared into space as Mr Lai read the brief homily that had taken a week to write. From the point of view of the Vietnamese in the camps it led with the best and finished with the worst. Yes, 214 Vietnamese were being released, but the sting in the tail was that legislation was being urgently drafted to prevent similar 'problems' coming back to haunt the Government. The questions to Mr Lai followed: 'Do you feel any remorse, any sorrow?' 'Are you going to say sorry to these people for keeping them locked up illegally?' These from the foreign news agency correspondents. 'How much will it cost to keep these people?' 'How many more will you have to release?' These from the local, mostly Chinese-language media. The Government had long known it faced potential legal problems. It had taken advice several years ago, well before the Privy Council confirmed that advice in a landmark ruling. Once before it had been lucky; the Court of Appeal let it off the hook by overturning a decision by Mr Justice Brian Keith, who ruled in favour of the boat people in January 1995. Now, the pressure has effectively been transferred in a clever piece of politicking. Hong Kong has done what it had to do, now the British Minister with special responsibility for Hong Kong, Jeremy Hanley, will enter the fray with a high-profile visit to Vietnam next week. He will ask Vietnam to take back those released. It is a big thing to ask. Mr Hanley requires Vietnam to concede it was wrong in not acknowledging the group as Vietnamese nationals. On the positive side for him, seven of the 214 were accepted by Vietnam before they could even be released. On the negative, Vietnam is notoriously zealous in guarding its sovereignty and even more notorious for dragging out even the simplest of negotiations. And with 260,000 Vietnamese in China that Hanoi would prefer not to have back on the basis they are non-nationals, the politics become even more complicated. If they start accepting so-called non-nationals from Hong Kong, Beijing will raise the pressure on the 260,000 inside China's borders. It is easy to forget the Privy Council battle was not about issues of ethnicity or nationality; it focused only on the thorny issue of detention. Was it legal to continue detaining people who believed if they applied to return to Vietnam they would be rejected? The Privy Council thought it was not. The Government immediately moved to draft legislation that would not allow people to be released on the basis of the Privy Council ruling in the future. The new law, if passed, requires Vietnam to issue a firm rejection of a person before they can be released - something it rarely does. However, Mr Bresnihan said those who volunteered and were not cleared for return in a 'reasonable period' could still apply to the courts for release. In its simplest terms, the controversial legislation generally means a person can be held until a firm 'no' is delivered. If they do not volunteer for return and are not cleared in a reasonable period, their detention becomes indefinite until that 'no' comes along. Mr Bresnihan challenges the term indefinite detention but the fact is the majority of the 19,000 boat people are not volunteering for repatriation. The majority have been cleared for repatriation; yet 7,000 have not. Those 7,000 require rejections from Vietnam before they can follow the path trodden by those released into the Hong Kong community last week. In fairness, Hong Kong's Vietnamese population has been cleared by the Hanoi authorities at a faster rate than elsewhere in the region. Even so, the number left to be cleared is in excess of the entire boat people population in any other country. One of the Government's concerns is that some in the camps are making themselves 'rejectable' - by gathering together documents Vietnam is likely to find unacceptable or presenting themselves as less than model citizens for the communist state they fled years before. Exactly where these documents come from is debatable. It is also unlikely that documents 'forgotten' for as long as seven years will be taken seriously. Nevertheless, the Security Branch believes documents claiming links with Taiwan especially are being produced in the camps or being sent in by mail from relatives in Vietnam. Stranger things have happened. And this is where the issue of detention crosses those of ethnicity and nationality. If people can use false documents, concoct an argument or somehow convince Vietnam they are non-nationals then Vietnam, like any other country in the world, is bound to reject them. Let us not forget there is no urgency from Vietnam's perspective. It is Hong Kong which has the deadline. China is adamant it will not tolerate Vietnamese boat people being left in the territory and for that not to happen would be the stuff of diplomatic miracles. Zheng Guoxiong , a deputy director of the local branch of Xinhua, the de facto Chinese embassy in Hong Kong, said last week's release would be an extra burden for Hong Kong people and increase the complexity of the boat people problem. He also called on the Government to take more positive and effective measures to solve the problem before the transfer of sovereignty next year. Interestingly, the response came within hours of the announcement, without the usual extended period of consideration. China's position is crystal clear. Juxtaposed are the refugee lawyers and human rights observers who claim the steps to toughen legislation in the wake of the Privy Council victory are a bad precedent for other personal freedoms. Lawyer Rob Brook says Hong Kong people should not be surprised when the future Special Administrative Region Government in Hong Kong introduces tough laws of indefinite detention. 'The SAR Government or the provisional legislature will be able to point to the time when three men, the Secretary for Security, the Refugee Co-ordinator and the Crown Solicitor revealed plans to toughen laws of detention after a court decision that did not go their way,' Mr Brook said. Human Rights Watch Asia also condemned the move, saying the Government was determined to flout the rule of law. Oddly, legislators who will be required to pass the proposed legislation seem nonplussed or perhaps a little short-sighted. The Liberal Party's spokesman on security matters Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee was more concerned that boat people were being released than that tougher laws of detention were being drafted. 'Mrs Selina Chow regrets that as a result of the Privy Council ruling, the Hong Kong Government had to release a further 214 Vietnamese migrants,' a statement released by her office said. Meanwhile, what few in authority seem to be acknowledging is that these people are stateless. Hong Kong dare not allow them to settle locally and if Vietnam rejects them, no one else looks likely to offer a home.