Fairness to Boat People

IT'S easy to understand the frustration of Hong Kong authorities struggling to cope with thousands of Vietnamese boat people on their already crowded shores. The problems of nutrition, sanitation, and public order have been relentless. To alleviate these problems - and perhaps send a sharp message to other would-be refugees - the British government intends to begin a policy of forced repatriation from Hong Kong in the months ahead. This means that people who fail to prove they are genuine refugees - with a well-founded fear of persecution - will be sent back. Backers of the policy can point out that this, after all, is exactly what the United States does with thousands of Mexicans, Haitians, and others each year.

But that doesn't make it fair. If places like Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand move from the current policy of voluntary repatriation toward forced repatriation, many legitimate refugees may find the doors to asylum growing narrower. Various countries of ``first asylum'' in the region could begin to perceive that the international agreement on treatment of boat people is unraveling. An everyman-for-himself approach to treating bedraggled asylum seekers could reassert itself. At present, boat people are at least assured of safe arrival, though few of them may ultimately be granted legal asylum.

The process agreed to last June in Geneva should be given a chance to work. Screening of boat people is under way. A small number have voluntarily returned and have not met with abuse back in Vietnam, according to groups that monitor refugee movement.

It's a slow process, with multiple bottlenecks. Additional resources - such as translators to help in the screening process - are badly needed.

And continued international cooperation is crucial - which means that Britain shouldn't be too quick to unilaterally implement a policy of forced repatriation, and the US shouldn't be too dogmatic about resisting the notion of sending anyone back to Vietnam.

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