WITH THE DEPARTURE of the colourful Father Franco Mella, the dogged band of abode seekers who have been fighting for the right to live in Hong Kong has lost a charismatic, if controversial, spokesman. But a more serious blow was the mobbing of Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee's car, and the unruly scenes that followed outside the Legco building. Public opinion has never been sympathetic to the 5,000-odd mainlanders who have lost legal appeals to live in Hong Kong, and the incidents last week will have eroded public support even further. This lack of sympathy has been one factor that has allowed the Government to take such a tough stand against the abode seekers. It could have allowed them to stay without setting a precedent and opening the floodgates for a rush of immigrants across the border. The question now is how this drama is going to play out. On the one hand, you have several thousand increasingly desperate mainlanders who feel they have nothing to lose by toughing it out and playing a cat-and-mouse game with police. On the other hand is a government which feels it has the upper hand in public sympathy and staying power. Sympathisers have decided to petition a United Nations committee in Geneva and foreign governments to court international support. This is a strategy that will lead nowhere. If there is a subject Western governments are unenthusiastic about it is refugees and abode seekers. To support the claims of those in Hong Kong will, if nothing else, raise questions about how open they are to abode seekers in their own countries. And as for the United Nations, at best the abode seekers' representatives will get a hearing among the numerous committees and subcommittees that discuss economic, social and cultural rights. If they are lucky, their cause will merit a paragraph or two in some lengthy report, sometime. In terms of action, nothing will result, as Hong Kong has not breached any international conventions. The Government has the upper hand, and the abode seekers' cause, though far from over, does appear to be running out of steam. This is unfortunate, because there are important principles which Hong Kong ought to have taken the chance to uphold. One, of course, is the right of families to live together. It is true these families can still remain together, in the mainland. But is a choice between uprooting a family and splitting it a real choice? In many parts of the world families are forced to uproot themselves and flee, or are split by conflict. But in peaceful, prosperous Hong Kong, what excuse can there be for dividing families? The abode seekers' campaign raises questions that lie at the heart of determining what kind of society Hong Kong wishes to be. On the one hand, it clearly wishes to be a law-abiding society, and so the unruly protests and confrontations with police have done them no good. But Hong Kong should also aspire to be a city with a heart, implying a certain compassion towards those less fortunate. To be a world city, Hong Kong will also have to be open and tolerant, a mark of all great urban civilisations. In a sense, both the abode seekers and the Government face a dilemma. The abode seekers, having gone this far, find it difficult to give up without getting anything in return. The Government, having said it is determined to see that the law is upheld and the abode seekers expelled, cannot now compromise. The solution appears to be for the SAR to work with mainland authorities to ensure that those who go back voluntarily are given speedy re-entry permits. As the case of the reunited twin sisters shows, it is possible to work out this kind of arrangement.