A SAGA that has spanned almost 20 years of persecution and life in detention camps is set to end shortly. Eighty Cambodian boat people who fled Pol Pot's ''Killing Fields'' and ended up behind barbed wire in Hong Kong will shortly re-gain their freedom. According to a refugee lawyer involved with the case, the group is due to be ''screened in'' by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and then resettled overseas. The 74 boat people were caught in limbo in Hong Kong's predominantly Vietnamese detention centres since arriving here between 1989 and 1991 after escaping from a ''labour camp'' in Vietnam where they were classed as refugees. Lawyer Rob Brook said he hoped the UNHCR would start to ''recognise'' the first of the Cambodians as refugees by the end of the month although no details were confirmed by the aid agency. He said while the group was in Vietnam, they were all recognised by the UNHCR as refugees before escaping. ''It now appears the UNHCR has had a change of heart and will screen the people in as a group.'' Mr Brook said the UNHCR stated it was working towards the ''early release from detention'' of the people refused approval to return to Cambodia or Vietnam. UNHCR acting chief of mission in Hong Kong Aziz Ahammed was unavailable for comment. Two UNHCR representatives who went to Phnom Penh last month to meet their Cambodian counterparts to discuss the issue, were also unavailable. The delegation discussed repatriating the group or members of it, although previously the Cambodian Government was unwilling to approve the boat people's return as they had lived out of the country for so long. Mr Brook felt this was unlikely because of potential racial repercussions in Cambodia as the group had spent such a long time in Vietnam where they had become ''Vietnamised''. Mr Brook said it was more likely they would be resettled overseas with relatives. ''Everyone has been screened out by the Immigration Department but they were accepted as refugees by the UNHCR [in Vietnam],'' Mr Brook said. ''Most of them were in a UN-sponsored refugee camp in Song Be. Some were there for 10 years. ''From what I understand work has been done by the UNHCR on these cases. ''They haven't dealt with them before because they were concerned that if they screened them in, it would cause an influx of people.'' He said the first breakthrough came last month, when nine of the group originally screened out by the Immigration Department, were determined to be refugees by the UNHCR. One of those, Luu Kim Chi, was held in Hong Kong for four years and put forward for voluntary repatriation on three occasions but rejected each time. Of those still awaiting a decision, Mr Brook said about 40 were in Tai A Chau, 30 in High Island, while four were in Whitehead. A report on the Cambodians by Refugee Concern states they were ''illegally detained in Hong Kong'', in some cases for up to six years. ''These people are not criminals, rather they are victims of persecution. Ironically, they continue to suffer ill-treatment at the hands of their 'protectors'.''