Hong Kong braces for new wave of boat people

The British colony of Hong Kong is girding itself to face a renewed stream of Vietnamese refugees, as summer winds favor a flow of "boat people" from the south.

But United Nations officials expect this year's intake to be far smaller than that of two years ago. A seemingly unending stream of Vietnamese refugees in 1979 inflated Hong Kong's camps to a population of more than 70,000.

Today there are only 19,000 Vietnamese refugees still in camps on Hong Kong. A refugee worker says the American willingness to take up to 1,500 Vietnamese refugees monthly from these camps is one reason so many refugees have moved out so quickly.

Still, Hong Kong harbors the largest number of Vietnamese boat people in Asia and bears the largest burden in proportion to the size of its population.

Except for the United States, few countries are taking many of the Hong Kong refugees. But the problem of refugees from Vietnam pales in comparison with the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from China who sneak or paddle their way from Guangdong.

Vietnamese refugees are cared for by international agencies in special camps, and eventually most of them are resettled in third countries. But the Chinese immigrants blend in with the more than 5 million local population and compete for crowded housing, jobs, and precious space. And there is also a special category of refugee that presents special problems for the unique relationship between Hong Kong and China.

These are the thousands of persecuted ethnic Chinese from Vietnam who first fled to China but now want to escape the hardships of life in China.

Some 250,000 Vietnamese Chinese, mostly city-dwellers, fled to China about the time of the 1979 Vietnam-China border war. They were most often resettled in the farm communes of south China.

Disliking country life, many of them buy boats from Chinese commune leaders, according to a British military source. They make their way along the coast of China and arrive in Hong Kong, claiming they have arrived directly from Vietnam.

If they can prove they are direct refugees from Vietnam, they go into the international camps awaiting resettlement in the United States and other third countries.

But if British authorities conclude they have come from China, they go into special segregated camps awaiting repatriation to China as "illegal immigrants." There are some 3,000 in these camps now, segregated even from the questioning of reporters.

It is here that the game begins between China and Britain. China, says a high British military source, does not want these refugees back. So it insists that the British "prove" that they actually came directly from China, not Vietnam. And the refugees do not want to return to China. Thus they often lie to the British and furnish false information.

British officials painfully dig for proof and -- when they get it -- give it to China. The Chinese bureaucracy slowly and reluctantly verifies the British information.

The refugees, says the military source, sometimes purposely furnish false information to the British so that when the Chinese check it out and find it false, they will have reason to refuse repatriation.

The quarter million Chinese-Vietnamese in China thus pose a potential problem for Hong Kong. But a massive new flow of Chinese from northern Vietnam is not expected. Most have already gone.

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