OVERSEAS returnees and new immigrants have hit back at government officials who say they are partly to blame for record high unemployment. Government economist Tang Kwong-yiu and new labour commissioner Matthew Cheung Kin-chung have claimed the two groups were a factor in the jobless rate rising from 2.5 per cent in 1997 to the current 5.5 per cent. Mr Cheung said recently: 'If you look at the increase in the unemployment rate, one of the underlying reasons is the rate of growth of the labour force in 1998 over 1997 consistently outpaced the growth in job vacancies. 'It's mainly due to overseas returnees and new immigrants from the mainland.' But returnees and immigrant groups said it was irresponsible for officials to blame any particular sector without evidence. 'The present unemployment situation in Hong Kong is due to matters like the economic downturn. It is certainly not to do with returnees coming back to Hong Kong,' said Amy Liu Yuen-king, chairman of the Federation of Australian Alumni Associations in Hong Kong. Michael Wu, president of the Organisation of Chinese Americans Inc, said many returnees he knew had gone back to the United States because the economy was better there. He said returnees generally worked in specialised, highly skilled fields whereas the unemployed were mainly looking for low-skill jobs. 'It seems to me [Mr Cheung] shouldn't be saying that if he doesn't know what he's talking about,' Mr Wu said. 'We resent being scapegoats.' Sze Lai-shan, of the Society for Community Organisation, said new immigrants would not have a big effect on unemployment figures because they were mostly mainland children or women who had to stay at home to look after families. 'The government officials need to back it up with numbers before they make such claims. There's enough discrimination against new immigrants as it is,' she said. Unionists have said that many of the newly unemployed were housewives who had to look for work because their husbands had been laid off or suffered pay cuts. 'We're not trying to apportion blame. If anyone thinks we are, it was totally unintended,' Mr Cheung said.