Policy on boat people for review

INTERNATIONAL policy on repatriating Vietnamese boat people is set to be revised at a United Nations meeting later this year.

Hardline measures, including speeding up forced repatriation and further cutting of resettlement grants for those who delay volunteering to return, are likely to be on the agenda as the international community discusses whether to retain the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), sources said yesterday.

A full meeting of the International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees is understood to be planned at the Geneva headquarters of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Hong Kong's Acting Refugee Co-ordinator Eddy Chan Yuk-tak said the Government would accept an invitation to the talks and Security Panel convenor Elsie Tu called for legislators to be allowed to attend.

About 38,000 Vietnamese migrants are still in Hong Kong's detention centres. The UNHCR owes the Government more than $881 million for their upkeep.

Greater international support for the controversial forced repatriation policy and any other measure which would increase the rate of departures from the detention centres would, in time, lead to financial savings for Hong Kong as well as freeing staff and resources to address domestic problems such as chronic prison overcrowding.

A preparatory meeting between heads of UNHCR missions throughout the region including Hong Kong's Robert Van Leeuwen was held last week in Jakarta, fuelling speculation that a broader policy-making forum was to be convened.

A UNHCR official in Geneva yesterday admitted there was pressure from some countries to renew the Vietnamese refugee debate.

The meeting, which sources say will take place before Christmas, would be likely to cover ways to increase the numbers of Vietnamese people volunteering to go home as well as ways to speed up the screening process, he said.

Before the Jakarta meeting, Mr Van Leeuwen said proposals to slash re-integration grants for people who refused to return to Vietnam within a set period could not be ruled out.

In July, the UNHCR said that anyone who did not volunteer to go home from the Hong Kong's detention camps within three months of being finally screened out would lose one-third of a US$360 (HK$2,790) grant.

This led to a quadrupling in would-be returnees.

Mr Chan said: ''There is likely to be a meeting towards the end of the year. If and when such a meeting is held, I'm sure we would be invited and would attend.

''First-instance screening should be completed by the end of the year.

''For our part, we would also try to raise the question of funds. We would want to raise the issues both of returning these people and of the cost to Hong Kong.'' Mrs Tu said legislators should also attend the meeting to ensure the wishes of Hong Kong people were heard.

''We are never told about these meetings in advance but are presented with a fait accompli and results which are not good enough.''