EFFORTS to reunite mainland mothers and their children with Hong Kong husbands could be fuelling crisis situations, social workers say. 'Reunification in many cases created more marital problems for couples as many of them married without taking the time to get to know each other,' said Caritas social worker Tsang Kan-ha. Many other social workers agree, admitting that while they advocated family reunions, they had seen explosive problems surface once couples were back together. Efforts to bring families together have seen the number of mainland immigrants allowed into Hong Kong rise from 27,976 in 1990 to 61,179 in 1996. An estimated 30 per cent of new arrivals in 1996 were wives. About 41 per cent were children aged under 15. 'When you see each other once a month in the mainland, where homes are more spacious, you avoid many problems,' Ms Tsang said. 'But when the couple sees each other every day in a tiny, cramped flat in Hong Kong, many problems that they didn't realise were there begin to surface.' Marital foundations are often brittle. Men who go in search of mainland wives are largely low-wage earners aged in their 40s to 60s who cannot afford to marry Hong Kong women. The men are normally two to three decades older than their new wives, who are attracted to their potential Hong Kong husbands because of their relatively high status and financial capacity when compared with mainland residents. The age gap and long period of separation before a wife can gain a one-way permit add pressure to the marriage. When the women arrive, many discover their husbands gamble, drink and have a mistress and children on the side. Financial problems also arise. 'The $2,000 monthly income the husband gives the wife went a long way in the mainland, but in Hong Kong it's not enough,' Ms Tsang said. Housing is another obstacle. Newly arrived families tend to live in the husband's old home - typically a 50-square-foot windowless room, one of about five partitioned in an average-size flat. Society for Community Organisation director Ho Hei-wah says there is little privacy and children have no play or study space. Mr Ho and other social workers believe the Government could ease the stress of housing needs by relaxing its public housing policy to make it easier for couples to apply for a low-cost flat. The current system - which requires both the husband and wife to have lived in Hong Kong for at least seven years - makes it impossible for newly united families to qualify for a flat. In 1996, there were 169,319 mainland immigrants who had lived here less than seven years. Social workers say women need more counselling and social services to defuse crisis situations involving the family. Newly arrived wives live isolated lives without support networks. They often cannot find work as they have to take care of children and many do not develop friendships or know how to get around Hong Kong even after living here for several years. Some end up chronically depressed, disillusioned and helpless. Their emotional state could greatly affect the children, social workers say. The wives lose mainland social and health care benefits once given permission to move to Hong Kong. 'In the end, they choose to stay because they think there are more opportunities for their children here,' Ms Tsang said.