Hope for end to Viet crisis

A RADICAL change in the repatriation policy for the tens of thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers detained in camps throughout Asia will be introduced at a crucial meeting in Geneva this month.

Officials attending the meeting convened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on February 14 hope the change in direction will see an end to the Vietnamese boat people problem within two years.

The new policy to be announced is a non-objectors programme whereby asylum seekers who will not volunteer to return to Vietnam will have the option of not objecting to being repatriated.

The move is aimed at overcoming opposition to the UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme brought about because many Vietnamese believe it is a loss of face to volunteer to return.

Many of them would have to return to their villages where relatives once made huge sacrifices to enable them to escape Vietnam and seek a new life.

Highly-placed sources within the Vietnamese return programme were able to confirm yesterday that the non-objectors programme would be introduced but would probably be officially referred to as an ''additional arrangement'' to the voluntary repatriation programme.

''In recent years there has been a lot of talk that many of the people would be happy to return to Vietnam, but did not want to lose face by volunteering,'' the source said.

''Hopefully this intelligence will be right and people return under the programme by the thousands rather than by the hundreds.'' Representing the Hong Kong Government at the Geneva meeting will be Secretary for Security Alistair Asprey. He will co-ordinate with a representative of the British Foreign Office because Hong Kong is not a member of the United Nations.

It is understood that the main mission for Mr Asprey will be to receive a guarantee that Hong Kong will be repaid the approximately $1 billion it is owed by the UNHCR.

The costs are related to the detention and care of the Vietnamese detainees in Hong Kong.

The meeting will also be attended by representatives of most of the countries which were signatories to the Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement signed in 1989 to deal with the Vietnamese asylum seekers arriving in destinations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

On the agenda for the meeting will be the important issue of resettling the remaining people given refugee status.

In Hong Kong, Immigration Department officials screen all asylum seekers to determine their status. The majority are screened out and placed in detention centres.

At present about 27,000 people are in detention centres in Hong Kong. In recent months, people have been leaving on the voluntary repatriation programme at the rate of about 2,000 a month.

The new non-objectors programme is likely to fast-track the return rate if Vietnam is able to streamline its reception facilities for returnees.

However, Vietnam has unofficially expressed concerns that it could not process many more than the present rate.