ON a starless night in April, Bui Hoan Bao and his family set sail for Hong Kong on a 24-foot wooden fishing boat, fleeing a life of poverty and forced migration in north Vietnam. Mr. Bao piloted the single-masted sailboat along China's coast, anchoring at the port of Beihai for supplies of food and water, bought with gold.
After a 27-day ordeal at sea, the family of 18 sighted the jutting skyline of Hong Kong, longed for by tens of thousands of hopeful boat people as the first sanctuary on their passage to a Western democracy.
Bao is one of more than 12,000 Vietnamese to land in Hong Kong this year in the largest influx of boat people from Vietnam since 1979. Like many, Bao left a homeland where 10 million people are experiencing famine to secure his family's livelihood.
``The communist government ordered everyone in our village to move to another province to farm,'' Bao said. ``They destroyed my house. I could not fish in the sea anymore. ... I wanted to take my children and grandchildren and find a life of freedom.''
Yet far from winning freedom, Bao and others like him are battling frustration and despair. Crammed together with thousands of countrymen, Bao now lives in a prisonlike Hong Kong refugee camp encircled by high walls and barbed wire. He has become, in Hong Kong parlance, one of the ``forgotten people.''
The new wave of boat people, which shows no signs of subsiding, has filled the colony's closed camps to the bursting point, compelling the government to open factory buildings, warehouses, Army barracks, and ferries as emergency housing.
But according to Hong Kong officials, the vast majority of arrivals, 70 percent of whom are poor fishermen and farmers from north Vietnam like Bao, have virtually no hope for resettlement in the West.
The United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia, the main resettlement countries, increasingly reject these Vietnamese, on the grounds that they are economic migrants seeking prosperity rather than political refugees fleeing persecution.
When the number of boat people landing in Hong Kong and other first-asylum countries surged 44 percent in the last year, the rate of resettlement in the West continued dropping steadily, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A total of 28,000 refugees fled Vietnam, but only 21,000 won resettlement, as arrivals outnumbered departures for the first time in eight years.
Confronted with the daily arrival of scores of boat people who lack prospects for resettlement, Hong Kong on June 16 adopted a new hard-line policy under which the bulk of incoming Vietnamese will face eventual deportation to Vietnam.
Hong Kong's policy reflects a growing concensus among Southeast Asian countries harboring refugees, as well as resettlement nations such as the US, that most of the boat people belong back home.
The new policy ends nearly a decade during which Hong Kong automatically granted refugee status to all Vietnamese boat people under a 1979 Geneva accord. Instead, Hong Kong now screens all boat people in order to separate economic migrants from political refugees.
According to government estimates, 90 percent of the boat people who have reached Hong Kong since June 16 - more than 4,500 - are economic migrants. As such, they will be treated as ``illegal immigrants'' and confined to detention centers to await repatriation.
Hong Kong's refugee coordinator, Nigel French, says the screening policy is necessary to discourage Vietnam's economic migrants from coming to the British colony, already one of the world's most densely populated territories.
``We just could not allow this situation to continue, with an apparently unlimited supply of boat people coming from Vietnam whom the West simply did not want anything to do with,'' Mr. French said in an interview.
``Hong Kong is no longer a gateway for such people to a future life in the West,'' he added. ``We hope that the message will get through and that in the not-too-distant future we will see a significant dropping off in the number of arrivals.''
Critics are concerned that Hong Kong's tougher policy may prove inhumane.
Fazhul Karim, charg'e de mission of the UNHCR in Hong Kong, worries that the colony's officials are ``already predetermined to adopt a very restrictive approach'' to the screening. For example, he asserts that north Vietnamese like Bao should not be dismissed as economic migrants, since Hanoi's forced relocation campaign ``amounts to very, very serious discrimination'' against them. ``It amounts to persecution,'' he said.
Ethnic Chinese and refugees linked to the former US-backed south Vietnamese regime have been favored for resettlement, because they have suffered systematic persecution since the Vietnam war ended in 1975.
``We have to ensure that any measures they take are not to the detriment of the asylum seekers,'' Mr. Karim stressed.
Yet in contrast, the majority of Hong Kong's residents believe the new policy is too lenient. According to an April poll, 65 percent of Hong Kong's population favors pushing all incoming boat people back to sea, as Thailand and Taiwan have done.
While seeking a solution that is both humanitarian and pragmatic, Hong Kong officials have upheld one fundamental conviction: namely, that ``the future for all of these people lies only in one place, and that place is Vietnam,'' French said.
Yet the prospects for repatriation, while improving, remain uncertain. This month, Vietnam bowed to pressure and offered for the first time to hold talks on the refugee problem, including repatriation, with Hong Kong and Thailand. The talks are expected to convene soon.
Observers, however, say the discussions may achieve little if, as expected, Vietnam demands aid from the West as a condition for taking its citizens back. Western governments are unlikely to provide such aid before 1990, when Vietnam has pledged to withdraw its troops from neighboring Cambodia, Hong Kong officials say.
The Hong Kong government estimates that a mass repatriation would be unlikely before 1993. Meanwhile, more than 20,500 ``forgotten people'' wait in confinement. Some are angry over Hong Kong's new policy. Others say they are afraid of returning to Vietnam.
``Why, after some people struggle in the sea to come here, does the Hong Kong government have to send them back to Vietnam?'' asked Do Manh Hao, a north Vietnamese farmer.
Squatting on a cramped wooden bunk in Hong Kong's Shamshuipo closed camp, Mr. Hao described how Vietnamese soldiers opened fire as he fled the country in a stolen boat with his wife and three children. ``If we had been caught, they would have jailed me,'' he said.
Hao and his family are relatively fortunate. They need not fear forced repatriation, since they are among the 16,000 Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the colony before Hong Kong's change of policy. Although they are unlikely candidates for resettlement, they may now have the option of remaining in Hong Kong indefinitely.
Within a year, the government plans to start opening the closed camps housing these people, 20 percent of whom have been confined for more than five years. Hao and others will be allowed to find jobs in the city and obtain schooling for their offspring. About 1,300 refugee children have spent their entire life in Hong Kong camps.
But as refugees like Hao gain a modicum of freedom, thousands of new arrivals are facing years of detention in closed, heavily guarded camps as they anxiously await repatriation.
``If we are sent back to Vietnam, the government will kill us,'' said one north Vietnamese, expressing perhaps an exaggerated fear - but one that is nonetheless real to some boat people. Others say they are afraid they will be jailed back home.
Prior to repatriation, Hong Kong officials say, they will seek guarantees from Hanoi that the boat people will not be ``persecuted or unduly punished.''
But ensuring a smooth return for the boat people is ultimately ``a problem which is beyond Hong Kong,'' according to Rita Fan, head of the Vietnamese refugee group under Hong Kong's Legislative Council.
``We believe that the long-term solution is one in which the international community, especially the West, must be cooperating with Vietnam,'' she said.
``It is time now, after 13 years of teaching Vietnam a lesson, that we should gradually turn around and try to help Vietnam build up its economy. Then I think we will have a chance of the ... government being prepared to take these people back and put them into useful work.''