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H. Kong Scraps Vietnam Haven Policy

January 8, 1998

HONG KONG (AP) _ Hong Kong is ending its 22-year-old policy of giving temporary haven to Vietnamese asylum-seekers and will treat them like other illegal immigrants.

Since shortly after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, all Vietnamese arriving in Hong Kong had the right to be screened for political asylum and appeal in court if rejected.

As of Friday, Vietnamese who arrive illegally will simply be held in detention until arrangements can be made with their government to send them back.

China, which has long opposed Hong Kong’s status as a ``port of first asylum,″ applauded Thursday’s announcement.

``Declaring Hong Kong as a port of first asylum was a decision single-handedly made by the British Hong Kong government,″ Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang said in Beijing.

He said it was wrong ``because it encouraged illegal immigration into Hong Kong, which could cause instability.″

In an unusual move, the Hong Kong government will enforce the change in immigration law as soon as it is published in the government gazette on Friday, even though the legislature will need more time to endorse it.

Peter Lai, the secretary for security, told a news conference such speed was needed to prevent a last-minute flood of arrivals before the amendment can be approved by the legislature.

More than 1 million Vietnamese fled their homeland after communist North Vietnam defeated the U.S.-backed South in 1975. Most arrived penniless on foot or in boats in neighboring countries, and were automatically given refuge in the West.

About 224,000 arrived in Hong Kong and nearly 143,000 of them were resettled in the West.

Since 1989, Western countries have accepted only those able to prove they were victims of political persecution and not merely fleeing economic hardship. The rest have been sent home, often forcibly, and other Asian countries closed down their last Vietnamese refugee camps in 1996.

Hong Kong, the only place with camps still open, has repatriated all Vietnamese who were deemed ineligible for asylum except 200 whose departure has been delayed and 500 whose nationality Hanoi disputes.

It also harbors about 1,200 Vietnamese who were declared political refugees but have not been offered homes abroad. The Hong Kong government refuses to give them permanent residency and they live in a stateless limbo.

Vietnamese continue to trickle in, with about 1,700 arriving last year. Any arriving up to Thursday automatically underwent a political asylum screening, but most were rejected.

Pam Baker, a lawyer for the advocacy group Refugee Concern, said the change in law was ``not a big deal″ because so few Vietnamese were being granted asylum anyway.

But, she said, the refusal to give residency rights to the 1,200 with refugee status was hypocritical.

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