Formerly the champion of refugees all over the world, a change of rules in 1989 has given the UNHCR the role of judge and jury over the lives of boat people in Hong Kong. RON GLUCKMAN reports on why aid workers are now asking who will protect the refugees from their all-powerful guardian. AS THE repatriation of Vietnamese boat people reaches a critical phase, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is bristling from a renewed wave of criticism. Propelled back on to the front pages by alleged mishandling of a case involving a Vietnamese teenager, the UNHCR has also been condemned for heavy-handed methods that have seen newlyweds split apart, and resisters dragged bound and gagged on to repatriation flights. ''They have gone from protector to tormentor,'' one bitter critic said. ''You have to ask, what in the hell is the UNHCR doing? They're a human rights organisation. They're supposed to be protecting these people.'' Another added: ''They have become the worst nightmare of the very people they are supposed to be watching over. The UNHCR is acting without even a shred of humanity. History will show this operation to be a complete failure.'' Despite the vitriol, the charges are hardly novel. In the past, such accusations have been flung with alarming regularity at the UNHCR, which, with its camps largely closed to outside scrutiny except during repeated outbreaks of violence, has continued with its own agenda. However, the human rights organisation has reached a most critical juncture that has left it again squirming in a media hot seat - it must speed up repatriation to meet a goal of closing its longest refugee operation by the end of next year. ''Must we retry every single case in public?'' one senior UNHCR official laments. While the renewed attention is annoying to the agency, it also reveals an unusual fault in the system. The UNHCR, as the name implies, has for four decades served as the highest authority for refugees, ensuring their rights, well-being and safety. Now, though, the UNHCR finds itself sitting in judgement on the freedom and future of every boat person, and has come under fire from a public that is increasingly sceptical of its methods and humanity. ''It's quite a scary situation,'' says Dr Leonard Davis, reader in applied social studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic and author of Hong Kong And The Asylum Seekers From Vietnam. Dr Davis feared civil unrest could result from the increased pace of repatriation. ''How else can the people in the camps tell the world that they are desperate people in a desperate situation?'' The answer cannot be easy to swallow at the UNHCR. Three weeks ago, the agency relented in the face of enormous public pressure and allowed 16-year-old orphan Ngo Van Ha to join relatives in the United States. Earlier, the UNHCR had insisted he be forced back to Vietnam and relations who did not want him. Local lawyers continue to battle the UNHCR over the plight of the ''Group of 39''. The Commission rejected pleas that they would face reprisal for membership in an anti-communist organisation and ordered them to be returned to Vietnam. Three have alreadybeen sent home against their will, one bound and gagged. Despite this, UNHCR Chief of Mission, Jahanshah Assadi, notes his agency ''has never been and never will be involved in anything but voluntary repatriation''. Still, the controversy over the latter case and increasing concerns about human rights in the closing stages of the Hong Kong operation illuminate what may be the last, sad chapter in the Commission's story here. The turnaround in the UNHCR, from benefactor to judge of the downtrodden, can be traced to 1989, with the passage of the Comprehensive Plan for Action. Mr Assadi calls it a compromise. Critics say it is a sellout. In any case, it was a dramatic change of rules. The process of screening was created, resulting in the invention of the term ''economic migrant''. This was meant to distinguish a person seeking better opportunities outside his or her native land from someone fleeing persecution. The distinction was critical. Previously, refugees could count upon the protection of the UNHCR, which, through four decades of charters, amendments and conventions, was held as guardian of one of the highest human tenants - the right of safety from persecution without regard to race, religion or political belief. The mandate was far-reaching and unwavering. Millions in Afghanistan became refugees the moment the Russians moved in. Millions more in Sudan and Angola resorted to refugee status during the civil war. Even when the act of extending actual protection was precarious at best, or the notion of a safety net seemed absurd, as in the former Yugoslavia, the UNHCR remained courageously committed to the terms of its 1951 charter. That all changed five years agowith the passage of the CPA. Whether the UNHCR brokered a landmark deal between Hong Kong and Vietnam, as Mr Assadi said, or whether growing financial burdens over the camp and a frustrating inability to deter the flood of new arrivals prompted the agency to dump its principles, as many critics charged, the message was clear: the tide had turned against the Vietnamese asylum seekers. ''The critical date was 1989,'' says lawyer Michael Darwyne, an outspoken champion of the boat people. ''The UNHCR, for whatever reason, surrendered. They simply gave up their ability to protect. In that moment, they changed from the protector of the Vietnamese, to the betrayer.'' ''That was the turning point,'' Dr Davis agreed. ''I'd say the UNHCR had a good record in Hong Kong until they accepted the notion of screening. The morality was all wrong.'' He speculated the agency wrongly bowed to political pressures in Britain and Hong Kong. ''They went along too easily instead of protesting more strongly for resettlement of the Vietnamese. The UNHCR didn't stand beside these refugees.'' Mr Assadi said the UNHCR did nothing more than respond to the mood of public sentiment. ''The Vietnamese had received a great deal of attention for so long,'' he said. ''But the numbers here are really so small. Sixty thousand people is one corner of Bosnia.'' The process of screening each applicant for asylum required a battery of lawyers. When the additional attorneys swelled the ranks of the UNHCR to embarrassing levels, the agency turned to Attorney Volunteer Services (AVS). The name might be misleading, since the lawyers were all paid - very well paid, according to one. The terms include exemption from local taxes, a standard perk for UNHCR employees. However, morale has always been miserable. ''There are so many cases and so few lawyers. We really don't have the time to spend with everyone,'' one AVS attorney said. ''People will complain about the pay, or how much we're paid, but you really can't be in this for the money. That's the frustrating part. You really want to help, but our hands are tied. The screening ensures nearly everyone will be sent home.'' Another lawyer says morale is reaching new lows in the approach to the end of screening, in May or June. ''It's a difficult situation that has become worse in the last few months. We're seeing more hunger strikes. Things seem more desperate.'' el10 MR DARWYNE says the screening system is not only inhumane, but designed to spread legal considerations too thin for fair or efficient representation. He says two dozen lawyers could not have served tens of thousands of refugees. ''They were severely understaffed from the start,'' he said. ''They could only get involved in maybe 25 per cent of the cases. ''They have been clearing the deck, and it's bound to get worse with screening ending in a few weeks.'' Field workers on the front lines also decry the shift away from camp services and an erratic system of programme management. ''The biggest problem throughout has been the field officers,'' one long-time camp worker said. ''We'd have a different person each week for months at a time. ''I always felt the UNHCR was too distant, not there enough, up on a pedestal.'' The UNHCR has also taken flak for its decision to curtail services as part of a plan to encourage voluntary repatriation. ''The UNHCR cracked the whip at all the wrong times,'' says the local director of an international aid group. ''Instead of cuts, they need more carrot and less stick.'' Some of the measures have been attacked as unusually draconian. For instance, an independently funded publication with news about Vietnam, plus poetry and pictures from camp residents, was banned after less than two years. ''The UNHCR had a stranglehold on the camps,'' a source said. ''They never saw the Vietnamese in the camps as people, only numbers. There was always a great barrier between the camps and the Car Park Building people.'' CAR Park Building is the local headquarters of the UNHCR, but, at least on charges of luxurious living, the agency is innocent. The dingy building in Yau Ma Tei has all the charm of a high school of the 1960s. Yet, from these simple offices, about 10 per cent of the UNHCR's entire worldwide payroll of 2,100 employees devote themselves to the problems of fewer than one-third of one per cent of the world's 15 million to 20 million asylum seekers. Mr Assadi rides a ricketty elevator nine floors to the hot seat he inherited five months ago from Robert Van Leeuwen, described as ''the man the aid workers loved to hate''. Where Mr Van Leeuwen had legions of outspoken detractors, Mr Assadi is instantly likable. ''Mr Assadi has done an awful lot in a very short time to retrieve the UNHCR reputation and to re-establish relationships with the non-governmental agencies,'' saysPhillip Barker, China and Hong Kong director of Save the Children. Mr Assadi, 41, an Iranian-born American, has already proved his mettle, most recently by overseeing the return of 370,000 Cambodian refugees from the Thai border. All but a few hundred returned willingly with the UNHCR. He declines to speculate if he can repeat his success in Hong Kong, but is committed to curtailing operation by the end of next year, although he terms the date more a target than a deadline. ''We have our work cut out for us, no question about that,'' he said. ''But let's put this in simple terms. What we're being asked to do in 1994 and 1995 is basically repeat what we did in 1992 and 1993. We moved about 25,000 people in those years and wehave to do about the same now.'' Mr Assadi bristles at questions of UNHCR humanity or commitment to the Vietnamese, noting that the agency has worked with the boat people for two decades. While he distances himself from some of the stern measures of his predecessor, Mr Assadi maintains that strong incentives will be needed to clean out the camps. ''Persuasion, not punishment,'' he said. ''Our job is clear; we must get these people home. ''The rules changed in 1988-89,'' he said. ''People are supposed to go home. That's the reality. It's a different role for the UNHCR, but the Vietnamese are better off going home with us than later on.'' Mr Assadi says the UNHCR debt to Hong Kong continues to increase daily, now around $800 million, but denies any dirty deal. ''This is a tragic situation, a human tragedy. In some ways, we don't like the position we're in,'' he said to criticism that the UNHCR had become the enemy of asylum seekers. ''How can we not get involved? It's a heavy responsibility, but what can we say? That we don't want to play the role of God. The alternative is to just wash our hands of the situation, since these people aren't refugees. That would be the real cop-out.'' However, local human rights advocates question whether the UNHCR is doing anything but cleaning up and clearing out. They point to the lack of field monitors in Vietnam; critics say only seven in a country of 60 million people, but Mr Assadi says two dozen UNHCR personnel in Vietnam all help with the work. Even more worrisome is the lack of monitoring of the treatment of the Vietnamese. ''With the camps closed, we only hear about events if there is a big fuss in the press,'' one human rights advocate said. ''We need someone to be watching. ''That someone is supposed to be UNHCR. But, now that they control everything, who protects the Vietnamese from the UNHCR?'' Mr Darwyne said: ''The UNHCR has become compromised. It's supposed to serve as a safety net. But now it controls all access to the camps, all information, and makes all the decisions. ''The UNHCR is supposed to be a watchdog,'' he added. ''At best, it has become a watchdog without any teeth.''