It is sad to see scores of mainland children crouched on the ground, hands on head in the classic gesture of submission used by illegal immigrants all over the world. Television and newspapers in recent days carry vivid images of those children repatriated to China from Hong Kong. Many people who have watched such unpleasant scenes must have asked: Why should children go through such a dangerous and emotional journey leading them nowhere except back to China? What have they done to deserve the humiliation and stress of being treated like criminals? They are paying the price of adult failure - the failure of the administrations both here and across the border to devise and enforce a sensible policy for ending this long-standing issue; and the failure of their parents to appreciate how dangerous and how futile their attempts are to put their children in the hands of heartless snakeheads. According to government statistics, in the first three months of the year, 1,367 child illegal immigrants from China have landed in Hong Kong, compared with 754 in 1996 and 530 in 1995. Sadly, even with the unpleasant sight of their children being treated like criminals and repeated appeals by the authorities and politicians not to put their children's lives at risk, some parents have no regrets. They are adamant they will have their children doing it again because some say they fear government policy may change after the handover and their children's rights to live here will be taken away. Hong Kong officials have estimated that at present, there are about 35,000 mainland children born of Hong Kong permanent residents living in China. But the Guangdong authorities shocked the community last Monday by revealing they have an application figure of 130,000, almost four times the tally projected by the local administration. That is even though Guangdong officials later clarified that among those 130,000 applicants, 34,700 were already in Hong Kong and 27,528 had already been approved but were waiting to come; and there were still 42,645 more yet to be verified. It is apparent from Guangdong officials' estimates that even if the 42,645 applications are not all approved, the final figure for those eligible to come in the next year or so will still be significantly higher than the Government's projection of 35,000. A real problem confronting the Hong Kong Government now is how to cope with this huge number of potential new immigrants, be it a 'mere' 35,000 or the higher tally suggested by the Guangdong authorities. Can Hong Kong really cope with a massive immigrant population in the next decade as we did in the 1950s and 60s? The harsh reality is that with the enforcement of the Basic Law on July 1, mainland children born of Hong Kong permanent residents will enjoy automatic right of abode here and the problem will never end. The present problem was unforeseen. Back in late 80s when the mini-constitution was being drafted and in 1990 when it was promulgated, cross-border ties were less developed and there were not that many Hong Kong people having to work and live in the mainland, nor many local residents marrying mainlanders. Both the Hong Kong administration and the new immigrants suffer in this process. The Government has to shoulder a much higher social cost in providing housing, education and welfare services to the newcomers. According to an estimate, assuming there are indeed 130,000 mainland children eligible for primary education here, the tally is equal to the total number of primary-schoolers currently in Hong Kong. The drain on resources is too enormous to imagine. Such a situation has put unnecessary pressure on the community and prompted a greater split between the new immigrants and the so-called 'old Hong Kong'. The 'old Hong Kongers' feel they are being deprived of the social services they deserve because the Government has to channel the resources necessary to take care of this batch of newcomers. The new immigrants feel they are being discriminated against. The Special Administrative Region (SAR) Executive Assembly has also been floating all sorts of ideas for an orderly arrival programme for the mainland children. Probably, a new policy direction should be explored. For instance, instead of housing the new immigrants in Hong Kong, one should ask whether it is more worthwhile to study the feasibility of settling them on the mainland but still conferring upon them the status of Hong Kong permanent residents. At first glance, this appears unattractive because the primary goal of the mainlanders must be to get out of China. But in saying that, perhaps it is worth asking why they want to live in Hong Kong. Do they feel freer and more comfortable living in Hong Kong? Or is what they are really after just a Hong Kong resident's status? If it can be established that most of these people are really eyeing Hong Kong residency status, then the idea of building a Hong Kong village in Shenzhen or anywhere near the border to house the new immigrants looks attractive - even feasible. Because of the closer ties across the border, more Hong Kong people have opted to live in the mainland for cheaper living costs. There are also cases of young Hong Kong children living in Shenzhen and crossing the border every day to school. If the Government can offer a choice to the new immigrants and encourage them to settle in neighbouring Shenzhen with some kind of incentive, such as financial subsidies similar to the social assistance they would receive while living in Hong Kong, it may prove to be a far more attractive option for the new immigrants. Wives and children could be relieved of the problems of integrating into a new environment. For the Government, the cost of providing the necessary services would surely be much lower. There may be many more technical issues which have yet to be looked at before such an option can be proved feasible. But examining the option can provide a starting point to have a more sensible and longer-term look at the mainland immigrant issue. The issue has to be tackled urgently; it is a time-bomb that can explode any time.