THE United Nations could help repatriate 500 Chinese caught trying to sail illegally to Hawaii and who are now languishing in the Marshall Islands after Hongkong authorities refused to intervene. A lawyer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Canberra is waiting for instructions from Geneva before flying to the US base in the Western Pacific where the illegal immigrants are being held. The human cargo was discovered on board the East Wood on January 27 when the US Coastguard responded to a distress call saying the ship had been hijacked after leaving Hongkong. The nearby Marshall Islands refused to accept the ship, which was then towed to the base at Kwajalein Atoll, which the US leases from the Marshall Islands Government. Coastguard staff now believe the emergency call was bogus, having been made to protect crew involved in the smuggling run, which cost the migrants up to US$20,000 (HK$147,400) each. ''It's a very complex situation and responsibility for them could be in several countries' hands,'' a UNHCR spokesman said yesterday. Many of the 527 migrants are suffering from infections, diarrhoea, dehydration and heat exhaustion after being confined to the hold of the stricken cargo ship for 47 days. They were found squatting on bunks, crammed in among their own filth, supported by oil drums in two cargo holds. One woman said yesterday that the crew had preyed on the 54 women on board for sex. ''When they collected us they told us that life on the ship would be beautiful, but it was a lie,'' said the 38-year-old woman, who had left China with her son. ''They didn't treat us well. They wanted us to have sex with them.'' The US Government has said it has fulfilled its rescue duties and is now seeking to pass on responsibility for the migrants to Panama, where the ship is registered, following an unsuccessful attempt to involve Hongkong. The chief of the Hongkong UNHCR mission, Mr Robert Van Leeuwen, said yesterday he had advised the US Consulate to find out how many of the migrants were seeking asylum as a first step. ''Other than that, I told them to go to Geneva; it's outside my area of accreditation'' he said. ''We have our hands full already with the Vietnamese.'' Mr Van Leeuwen warned that the situation of Chinese migrants fleeing in ships could pose a problem for the region. The Hongkong Government has strictly avoided having anything to do with the repatriation. A senior government official said yesterday that even to allow the migrants to pass through Hongkong in any repatriation to China, as suggested by the US State Department seeking a rapid solution, would be dangerous for the territory. ''We'd have no legal standing whatsoever, so we could end up holding them for a lot longer than it would first appear,'' one source said. ''And there's nothing to guarantee that China would have to take them back from us. So rather than risk creating any dangerous precedents, we don't want to become involved in any way.'' A US Consulate spokesman in Hongkong said Panama had already committed itself to repatriation, but had not yet said how it would be done. The Marshall Islands were also involved as the port of first asylum, with the US only leasing the land for the base, which it could not administer as US territory.