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Exodus of Vietnamese Boat People Ends - But Legacy Still Troubles Hong Kong

November 23, 1992

HONG KONG (AP) _ The harrowing image of emaciated Vietnamese asylum seekers crammed on rickety vessels in the South China Sea is fading for officer Ivan Ho of the Marine Police. He hasn’t seen any boats in almost a year.

″One or two years ago, we intercepted many boats, sometimes several a day. But the last time a boat arrived was December 1991,″ Ho said. ″Things have quieted down enormously.″

Vietnamese have stopped fleeing their Communist-run homeland. Officials say tougher refugee policies in Hong Kong and an improving economy in Vietnam have stemmed the human flood.

Only 12 Vietnamese have arrived in Hong Kong this year - all by land through China - compared to 20,150 for the same period last year. The numbers are also dwindling elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

But Hong Kong remains saddled with the legacy of the exodus that began 17 years ago when Communist forces overran South Vietnam. Half the region’s 94,000 Vietnamese refugees are packed into squalid detention centers in the British colony - and it could be years before the centers are emptied.

The camps have been wracked by dissent and violence, most recently the fatal stabbing this month of a Vietnamese man in an argument over a chess game. Large-scale demonstrations against deportation broke out last year, and a fire in one center in February claimed the lives of 24 Vietnamese.

An estimated 1.5 million Vietnamese have fled their country since April 1975, with more than 218,000 landing in Hong Kong.

All Vietnamese were accepted as political refugees at first. But the camps in Hong Kong became overcrowded - and strained public coffers - and officials in 1988 instituted a screening process.

Only those boat people who could prove they faced political persecution at home were granted refugee status and a chance to resettle in third countries. The rest were labeled economic migrants and faced expulsion.

After years of delay, Britain and Vietnam signed agreements in October 1991 and May 1992 to force the so-called migrants back to Vietnam in accordance with the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action.

That international agreement, signed by 51 nations, sanctioned the deportations.

So far 339 Vietnamese have been deported from Hong Kong, and none is known to have been jailed for political reasons upon return to Vietnam. Initially, some deportees resisted when they were taken from the camps and put on planes home. But recent deportations have gone smoothly.

Many return to Vietnam voluntarily with cash subsidies.

″Increasingly, non-refugees realize that their future lies back in Vietnam, where they can rebuild their lives with financial assistance from the European Community and other aid schemes,″ said Brian Bresnihan, Hong Kong’s refugee coordinator.

The European Community has allocated $32 million for the next two years to provide start-up loans, jobs and training courses for returning boat people.

Despite Washington’s continuing trade embargo against Hanoi, many boat people now believe their country is opening its markets and improving economically.

More Vietnamese have been volunteering to go home under a program run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, officials say. More than 1,000 return each month.

To encourage even more participation, the agency offers an initial cash handout of $50 for each returning boat person, and $30 a month for up to 12 months upon their arrival in Vietnam.

However, boat people who arrived after Sept. 27, 1991, are ineligible for the EC’s financial program or for the U.N. cash allowance.

″The message is getting through to the Vietnamese that if you leave (Vietnam), you won’t be resettled overseas,″ said Lorna Workman, external information coordinator of the EC program.

″There’s also been a great attitude change in the camps. They accept that they won’t be resettled, but there’s a mood of resignation,″ she said.

Hong Kong can now expel 26,414 Vietnamese who have failed to qualify as political refugees. Another 18,107 are waiting to be screened, and only 10 percent are expected to pass the test.

At the present pace of voluntary and forced repatriation, Hong Kong should empty its seven remaining camps in three years.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any more problems. Bresnihan said there still are fears that some boat people will violently resist deportation.

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