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Even with China-Hong Kong merger close, border still splits families

April 19, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ Chung Yuet-lam was born illegal under Chinese law. So her mother smuggled her to Hong Kong. Now, the 9-year-old is illegal under Hong Kong law.

Her story _ she could be deported back to China at any moment _ highlights an irony in this unique stage of Hong Kong’s history. The British colony is about to return to its Chinese motherland, yet for many people like Yuet-lam, the border looms larger than ever.

The main reason her mother smuggled her into Hong Kong is that as a third child, her birth violated the limit imposed on rural families under China’s population laws and would have condemned her to second-class citizenship.

There are thousands of families like little Yuet-lam’s, trapped between the millstones of bureaucracy and the immigrant-trafficking underworld.

Under Chinese sovereignty, which takes effect July 1, the semiautonomous Hong Kong government will still retain control of immigration and will impose a strict quota system for admitting children with at least one Hong Kong parent, like Yuet-lam.

But many parents aren’t waiting in line. Misled to believe that illegal immigrants will be amnestied when Hong Kong and China merge, they have been pouring their children into the British colony.

The reason: They don’t trust their own officials to run the quota system fairly.

Hong Kong legislator Law Chi-kwong says it takes a bribe worth $1,900 to get an exit permit from China. So the smugglers, at just $600, are an attractive option.

The number of children arriving illegally has jumped from 754 in 1996 to more than 1,300 so far this year, and the government is hoping that by rounding up the kids and busing them back, it will send a message to those contemplating the smuggling route.

But, deepening the government’s dilemma, Yuet-lam’s case has made headlines, with touching front-page photos of the sad-faced child.

Her father, Chung Man-kwan, who is a legal resident of Hong Kong, says deportation will ruin her life by plunging her into a foreign culture where her language is not even spoken.

Chung and his wife, Zhou Zuyin, are among thousands of couples who sustain their marriage with frequent visits across the frontier.

Yuet-lam was 3 months old when she and her mother were smuggled in by boat in 1989. She grew up as a typical Hong Kong child, acquiring a taste for McDonald’s hamburgers and Japanese TV cartoons, going to school and speaking Cantonese, the Hong Kong dialect.

Only when her second brother was born, two years ago, was Yuet-lam’s illegal status revealed. Her mother, believing that the newborn would be given legal status if she reported his birth to immigration officials, did so. But when authorities found out about Yuet-lam, they gave her and her mother permits to remain in Hong Kong temporarily. Those permits have since expired.

Meanwhile, Chung and Zhou have become nervous wrecks. Zhou is jumpy and constantly in tears. Chung churns out pleading letters to everyone with authority, right up to Gov. Chris Patten.

Yuet-lam says she is frightened and bewildered. ``My mom hasn’t explained clearly to me. I cry every night,″ she says.

Hong Kong officials say that if deporting children seems callous, it’s the fault of the ``snakeheads″ _ the immigrant smugglers who spread the amnesty rumors to attract new clients.

They say their quota of 150 immigrants a day from China, including 45 children per batch, will clear the backlog of some 35,000 children _ those who have at least one Hong Kong parent _ by the end of 1998.

The China Daily, a Beijing-run newspaper, reported Friday that Hong Kong will continue to send home illegal Chinese migrants after the British colony reverts to Chinese rule.

The Hong Kong government says it makes exceptions on humanitarian grounds, but last year, only 65 out of thousands of illegals were spared deportation.

In Yuet-lam’s case, says chief immigration officer Leung Ping-kwan, ``the reasons are not strong enough.″

Update hourly