A NEW United Nations program aimed at persuading Vietnamese boat people to return home has run aground, raising the possibility that the Hong Kong government could again resort to its widely criticized policy of forced repatriation. Only 23 boat people have gone back to Vietnam under the three-month-old plan in which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) attempts to identify migrants who do not object to returning. Another 86 Vietnamese who had agreed to join the program dropped out shortly before their flight departed Dec. 1.
A joint statement by the governments of Hong Kong, Britain, and Vietnam that launched the pilot program in September said that if the scheme failed to accelerate the return of boat people, ``further measures'' would be taken to meet that objective.
``The threat of mandatory repatriation remains,'' says Robert Van Leeuwen, Chief of Mission of the UNHCR in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government denied reports it has set an end-of-December deadline by which the new program must show results. Paul Brown, the government spokesman for refugee affairs, says the administration will review the program early next year after giving it ``a chance to work.'' It will consider the inflow of new boat people as well as views of Hong Kong residents and foreign countries before forcing more Vietnamese to leave, he says.
Hong Kong's heavy-handed repatriation of 51 Vietnamese in a surprise, predawn raid last December sparked international condemnation and was criticized as a major policy blunder by residents concerned about the British colony's image.
The forced repatriation followed Hong Kong's adoption of a screening policy in June 1988, under which only boat people whom the government believes face political persecution in Vietnam win refugee status. The rest are held in cramped, closed detention centers pending voluntary or mandatory repatriation.
Of the nearly 53,000 boat people who have landed in Hong Kong since June 1988, only 2,573 have been granted refugee status. Of the remainder, 13,700 have been denied asylum, 30,320 await screening, 5,900 have returned to Vietnam voluntarily, and 51 were sent back by force.
The drive by the UNHCR since September to seek out Vietnamese who might be persuaded to return home without protest - so called ``nonobjectors'' - is designed to supplement the voluntary return program while forestalling mandatory repatriation, which the UNHCR opposes.
UNHCR counselors advise the boat people that they have no hope of resettlement abroad and warn them of the possibility of forced repatriation.
``Their option is to return to Vietnam - the question is only when and how,'' Mr. Van Leeuwen says.
Like boat people who return voluntarily, the nonobjectors are allowed to return to their original homes, receive financial assistance from the UNHCR of $360 per person for one year, and are monitored by the UNHCR to guard against persecution by Vietnamese authorities.
But the lack of enthusiasm for the program is threatening its viability. UNHCR officials say the main reason for the ``wait-and-see'' attitude toward the new program is a high-profile court case that began in November in which nine Vietnamese boat people are challenging the government's screening procedures.
The nine migrants contend that poor interpretation during screening interviews and a lack of basic knowledge about Vietnam among Hong Kong immigration officers made the process unjust. If the court rules in favor of the migrants, the government would face pressure to re-screen the 13,700 denied asylum, says Hong Kong University law expert Nihal Jayawickrama, who adds that the migrants have a ``strong case.''
Many boat people are awaiting the outcome of the judicial review before considering a return home, Van Leeuwen says, noting that applications for voluntary repatriation has plummeted in the past month. Adding to the reluctance was a statement made by Vietnam's Immigration Department chief, Nguyen Can, upon the arrival in Hanoi of the first group of 23 nonobjectors.
Mr. Can said that Vietnamese, including the returnees, could face ``reeducation'' for showing the wrong attitude, fueling rumors in the camps that returnees have been tortured. The Hong Kong government says it has no evidence of any such abuses.
Finally, a high number of births in the camp, some 2,340 this year, may also be leading some families of boat people to delay a return, says Mr. Brown. As a result, the UNHCR is not optimistic about sending a second flight of nonobjectors back this month.
``I don't think the new program will have a tremendous impact,'' says John Torgrimson, director of Community and Family Services International, an aid organization operating in the camps. But Mr. Torgrimson warned that a return to mandatory repatriation could create violent resistance in the already tense camp environment.
``With the first sign of mandatory repatriation, the camps adopt a siege mentality,'' he says.