HONGKONG; Powerful magnet for Asian refugees

The barracks -style huts of Sham Shui Po refugee camp, a former Army base overlooking Kowloon harbon, stand uncomfortably hot in the late morning southern China sun. Few people, apart from some slumbering elderly, say inside during the day.

Most of the adult refugees have found temporary jobs in Hong Kong factories, dockyards, or on construction sites and return to camp only in the evening.

But there is still a great deal of bustle. Groups of chattering women cook midday meals of rice, vegetables, and chicken in front of the huts. Small boys scamper madly up and down the concrete waterfront, dragging jerky white paper kites in their noisy wake. On the other side of camp elder brothers and sisters learn English at school.

For the visitor wandering through the aisles of a nearly deserted building, however, the two-and three-tier wooden bunks jammed with suitcases, cardboard boxes, clothes, and even television sets bear witness to the lingering hopes for a new future cherished by the British territory's thousands of remaining boat people from Vietnam.

Perhaps more than any other area in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong has become a haven for the region's homeless, who hope to forge new futures and forget the often wrenching past. Lured by the prospects of new jobs and a link to the West , the "boat people" from Vietnam and "illegals" from China continue to cast up on Hong Kong shores. The influx is producing a host of housing and population-related problems for the crown territory.

Resettlement is not the most appropriate solution to every refugee problem. Ideally, say international relief officials, it would be better to eventually repatriate everyone.

But under present circumstances this is not possible. Not only do the boat people refuse to return to Vietnam, but the Hanoi government has made it clear that they are not welcome. Seeking new homes for the refugees has therefore become Hong Kong's first and last option.

In recent years, Hong Kong's prime problem has been people. With a present population of more than 5 million, the 404-square-mile British territory is the most densely populated in the world. Most of its territory is unproductive hillside and barren islands.

As a result, some parts of Kowloon, where all of Hong Kong's refugee camps are situated have 144,000 inhabitans in less than a half-square-mile area. "that's like sticking a bunch of refugee camps into the middle of Manhattan," noted one relief official.

apart from coping with the more than 38,000 boat people still in camps run by the government and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Hong Kong has been forced to absord an estimated 280,000 legal and illegal immigrants from China in 1978 and 1979.

Facing a serious housing shortage for its more than 750,000 squatters, the Hong Kong government is reluctant to take any more refugees. "To many refugees, " said one government official, "dould provoke severe resentment, as has already been the case on a number of occasions among the general populaton."

Depiste its concern about the illegal immigrants, or "II'" as they are referred to in officials jargon, the hong Kong government prides itself on the fact that it has never turned away any of the "authentic" boat people whose leaking, dilapidated vessels have limped into Hong Kong.

In 1979 Hong Kong spent $14 million to establish refugee camps and to provide food and transportation before handing over much of the responsibility to the UNHCR. It has furnished the boat people with very civilized conditions compared with some of the miserable camps visited by this reporter in other parts of Asia and Africa.

But the government strongly feels it is being penalized for treating the boat people humanely. Although more than 50,000 out of a total of 87,392 refugees have been resettled (mainly in the United States, Canada, and Britain), present figures indicate that the resettlement rate is dropping dramatically.

Only 29 percent of the combined total of this year's arrivals and those remaining in camps after Jan. 1, 1980, are to be resettled abroad, compared with the 52 percent that other asylum countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia plan to take in. This means that roughly 34,000 refugees in Hong Kong have already spent more than six months in camp. Another 5,000 have been here for more than a year.

Hong Kong received its first load of boat people shortly after the fall of Saigon in May 1975, when the Danish container ship Clara Maersk sailed into the harbor with 3,743 Vietnamese plucked from the South China Sea. It took authorities until mid-1978 to resettle them.

Between 1976 and 1977 a trickle of less than 1,200 boat people arrived. At the same time, however, Hong Kong resettled some 9,000 displaced persons and refugees from Indo-China. In addition, 5,000 ethnic Chinese from Vietnam with close relatives in Hong Kong were flown in.

In 1978 the number of boat people swelled to 6,609. Refugee testimony indicated that Vietnam, which had reduced its ethnic Chinese people to second-class citizens, was encouraging, if not deliberately forcing, them to leave. In return, the refugees were obliged to pay up to $3,000 worth of gold in bribes to Vietnamese officials and boat captains for passage.

As a result, shipping syndicates in search of quick profits began transporting fugitives under atrocious conditions to neighboring countries with the connivance of Vietnam authorities. The ships then dumped their wretched human cargoes in countries of first asylum, under the pretext of having rescued them at sea.

One such ship, the Huey Fong, arrived in Hong Kong on Dec. 23, 1978, claiming to have rescued its refugees off the Vietnamese coast.Skeptical Hong Kong authorities provided food and water supplies as well as basic medical care for the refugees, but tried to persuade the captain to journey on to Taiwan, his original destination.

On Jan. 19, the ship entered Hong Kong Harbor without permission and the refugees disembarked. Police searched the ship and found $6.5 million worth of gold leaf in the engine room. The captains and 10 other people, including three Hong Kong businessmen, were arrested and charged with conspiracy. They were sentenced to a total of more than 50 years imprisonment. It was later discovered that the ship's logs were forged and that the whole operation had been launched with Vietnamese cooperation.

In the first half of 1979, boat people bagan pouring in at an alarming rate. More than 19,000 arrived in June alone -- an average of 650 a day. Following the July 1979 Geneva conference on boat people, Vietnam declared a moratorium.

Hanoi appears to have stuck by it. Most refugees now arriving in Hong Kong escaped clandestinely in small, overladen craft. But the ethnic Chinese from Vietnam still complain about losing their jobs and businesses. Rather than be sent off to hardship "new economic zones" in distant parts of the country, which haven't recovered from the Vietnam war, many choose to leave.

In all, 72,000 arrived in 1979, although numbers began tailing off toward the end the year. Only 100 new boat people sailed in during January of this year. But improved weather conditions have helped prompt another upsurge.

Hong Kong authorities say an increasing number of the boat people now coming in are not in fact refugees, but Chinese immigrants who were originally from Vietnam. During the China-Vietnam conflict early last year Peking absorbed between 150,000 and 200,000 ethnic Chinese from across the border. Resettled on state farms they came to dislike, many have come to Hong Konng in search of a better life.

The Hong Kong government treats them as illegal immigrants and repatriates them as such.The UNHCR, however, maintains they should still be considered refugees. Of the 2,500 boat people who arrived in June this year, just over 1, 000 have been officially classified as refugees and permitted to stay.

Hong Kong's present boat people population makes up a little more than one-third of Southeast Asia's refugee total, excluding those in Thailand who came overland from Laos and Cambodia (Kampuchea). Overall, more than three-quarters of the territory's influx have been ethnic Chinese migrating directly from Vietnam. But figures show that since the Geneva conference, there has been a shapr 32 to 92 percent rise in the proportion of ethnic Vietnamese from southern and central Vietnam.

Only a small percentage of ethnic Vietnamese are from the north, but many southern refugees surreptitiously trek northward to buy places aboard fishing vessels for passage to what they hope is freedom. So great has the exodus become that Hanoi is reportedly being forced to rebuild much of its fishing fleet in the north.

From Vietnam, the refugees coast-hop along the Chinese shores toward Hong Kong. The Chinese tend to give them free fod and water but charge for gasoline. Most of the craft coming from the north are sailing ships and take up to six weeks to arrive. Boats plying from the south, a much rarer occurrence, are more likely to be motorized and can make the journey in one to two weeks. Once in Hong Kong, the refugees are escorted by police to the "go down" (government dockyards), where they are interrogated, registered, and then sent to camps. It's only recently that the authorities have begun to screen them medically.

On the whole, apart from sheer exhaustion, the refugees tend to arrive in relatively healthy condition, although there is a degree of malnutrition. Once government processing has been completed, the refugees are sent to one of the UNHCR's five transit camps, such as Sham Shui Po, or one the territory's accommodation centers.

In Sham Shui Po the refugees are reregistered by the UNHCR, housed, and issued a week's supply of food. "We always try to keep families together," said camp director James Reid, retired army officer and former hospital administrator."Rarely do we come across orhpaned children or abandoned old people. Both tend to be taken in by families. Everyone each other."

Some 80 percent of Hong Kong's refugee camps are open. Refugees can come and go as they please, except for a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew. Only when refugees are about to be resettled does the government house them in temporarily closed quarters.

A feature of the refugees hold outside jobs. Most manage to find work within their first week in the territory, although the ethnic Vietnamese find it more difficult to obtain employment. "If they can't find a job, then we will help them," said a refugee administrator.

Both government and UNHCR officials try to prevent refugees from being abused by unscrupulous employers. "It's obvious that some employers are reluctant to go through witht he expense of training a new worker only to find him leaving after a few months," noted a member of the International Rescue Committee, which runs nearby Jubilee Camp in Hong Kong. "As a result, many tend to be paid lower wages."

The government has urged relief organizations not to treat the refugees any better than local residents, to avoid inciting resentment. But the fact is, conditions in the camps are often better than in some of the squatter areas outside. Not only do the refugees receive free lodging but also free electricity and medical coverage. Child day-care centers are cheaper and not oversubscribed as they are in Hong Kong.

Many Hong Kong Chinese are noticeably irked by what they consider to be preferential treatment given the refugees. But most of all, Hong Kong residents who have been waiting seven years to emigrate to the United States to join relatives are bitterly angerd to discover refugees being accepted for immigration after less than one year, or even three months is some cases.

I don't think resentment will get worse for the moment, unless we start feeling the recession pinch here in Hong Kong," said one British relief worker. "People will only start letting the refugees have it if they start finding themselves out of a job while the Vietnamese continue to work."

With anger bubbling beneath the surface, Hong Kong would like to rid itself of the refugee problem as soon as possible. some relief officials fear that the territory might find itself mired with the boat people for up to five more years , particularly if they keep coming.

On the average, 3,000 refugees are being resettled every month. Almost 9,000 have gone to the United States, 5,200 to Canada, and 3,500 to Britain. More boat people are pouring in, however, and the resettlement possibilities are beginning to dry up. At present, the United States has a quota of 14,000 refugees from all Southeast Asia. Relief officials gloomly forecast this might be cut in half after Congress meets in the fall.

US officials do not hide the fact the Hong Kong is on the bottom of the priority list even though it is sheltering the region's largest number of people. The UNHCR also feels that refugees housed under the most desperate conditions should be helped first.

"It's sadly ironic that Hong Kong is being thumbed at for being the most conscientious in providing healthy living conditions," said one relief official.

In addition, some relief officials feel that Hong Kong is economically capable of absorbing its boat people while many other countries are not. At the same time, however, it is also felt that some countries such as Taiwan and Japan should be shamed into accepting a greater share of the burden. By the end of June the two countries had resetled only four and 28 refugees, respectively

Hong Kong claims that the great majority of its refugees have no wish to remain in the territory. Most have relatives in the West and yearn to go there. It is also pointed out that once world gets out that Hong Kong has adopted an open-door policy, the area will again be deluged with boat people from Vietnam as well as illegal immigrants from China.

Next: mainland Chinese steal into Hong kong

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