The Boat Children in Hong Kong

THERE are 57,000 Vietnamese boat people now in Hong Kong; 34 percent are children. They are victims of a British governmental policy that is cruel, bewildering, and cynical. Cruel because of the inhumane conditions in the camps. Bewildering because the British have heretofore been defenders of human rights and fairness. Cynical because their treatment is premeditated, and meant to send a signal to would-be refugees in Vietnam not to come.

Concerned for their well-being, a delegation of women recently visited these camps on behalf of the International Rescue Committee. We found their treatment to be incomprehensible.

Like prison inmates, the Vietnamese are addressed by numbers. They are in fact guarded by police and correctional staff. Families are separated. Pregnant women are taken to a prison hospital at their 36th week, where they labor in solitude. Children requiring hospitalization are similarly isolated.

One chronically ill four-year-old was allowed to see his parents only once a month for three hours. He eventually spoke Chinese rather than Vietnamese and lost his ability to communicate with his parents. The mother of a newborn was returned to the camp before the infant could be discharged. Because of the numbers-for-names system, the child became lost from the mother.

Whatever the motives, this British policy creates fear, anxiety, and desperation. What is more distressing, however, is that its principal victims are children. As one who works on children's issues, I noted parallels between the conditions in these camps and among the homeless and destitute in America.

Families are broken; education, be it by instruction or example, is fragmentary. Values are lost and insecurity prevails. There is violence. Both environments are wastelands with respect to a child's growth and development. And the personal losses, in terms of children who age but fail to mature, are likely to be irrevocable. The major difference, of course, is the forced confinement of the Vietnamese. Some families have been in Hong Kong for over 10 years. Children live devoid of toys, grass, trees - and most of all, a self-image.

The future of the boat people has been addressed at a recent intergovernmental conference in Geneva. But any legal resolution will be an abstraction and of little meaning to children who are losing their youth. Simple justice demands that people whose only crime was to seek freedom be treated with simple decency. The role of the United Nations could easily be expanded to include child protection. Voluntary agencies like the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and M'ed'ecins Sans Fronti`eres are ready to provide additional care in Hong Kong, if they can just be given fuller access to the camps.

Families ought to remain together. Those who have already volunteered to return to Vietnam should be allowed to do so before others are forcibly repatriated. None of these measures would cost the local government. If action is not taken, time and indifference will continue to exact an unforgiving toll - particularly upon the children.

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