The announcement closes the last of Asia's doors through which 900,000 boat people passed to escape Vietnam over the past 24 years. From the exodus of refugees across the South China Sea - among the largest seen - 750,000 were given homes in other countries. Until today, Hong Kong was the last of five destinations in the region obliged under an international agreement to accept the asylum-seekers. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines officially lost their status as first-asylum countries in mid-1996, ending a status established in 1979. Vietnam's joining of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1995 meant the region was now likely to react differently to any further exodus, said diplomats. Diplomatic pressure could now be applied to force Hanoi to take back any exiles, they said. Hong Kong's burden since the communists' 1975 victory over South Vietnam has been huge - 214,000 boat people, among them enemies of the North, racially vilified ethnic Chinese and religious exiles. A Western diplomat said that the SAR's motivation for abolishing the policy was clear - to avoid a wave of ethnic Chinese Vietnamese asylum-seekers flooding across the border from the south of mainland China, where some 285,000 were said to be living. Today, the number of Vietnamese across Asia awaiting return to their homeland or resettlement is small. In addition to the 1,200 remaining in Hong Kong, another 1,600 are in the Philippines and just a handful in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. 'Now the book is closed,' said UN High Commissioner for Refugees chief of mission Jean-Noel Wetterwald.