HONG KONG'S effort to repatriate tens of thousands of Vietnamese ``boat people'' has been complicated with the court victory of a Vietnamese man who challenged the government's refugee screening procedure as ``flawed'' and ``unfair.'' The court judgment marks the latest example of a new legal activism in Hong Kong aimed at protecting the rights of individual Vietnamese asylum seekers in the face of what critics call ``morally indefensible'' government policies.
``The courts see themselves very much as protectors of the liberties of the individual, and they have been given an opportunity to do so in these recent cases,'' says Patrick Moss, director of Hong Kong's Legal Aid Department. Department lawyers have been involved in successful Vietnamese challenges against the government.
In the first decision of its kind, Hong Kong's High Court ordered last week that a Vietnamese man, Do Giao, be re-screened after finding that an immigration officer made a serious and decisive mistake in recording an interview with him.
The officer, who had inadequate knowledge of Vietnamese, noted erroneously that Mr. Do once worked for a state-owned factory in Vietnam, a ``fact'' at odds with the young man's claims of persecution.
Do's case was the first of nine brought to court by Vietnamese accusing the government of unfairness in the screening process. The government ended its policy of automatically granting boat people refugee status and instituted screening in June 1988 in an effort to deter the biggest influx of Vietnamese to the British colony since 1979.
Human rights groups and lawyers have accused the government recently of trying to pressure Vietnamese boat people to leave Hong Kong through intimidation, inadequate crime control, and harsh living conditions in the crowded detention camps.
The government has responded to the legal criticism in part by accusing lawyers and other advisers of giving the Vietnamese ``counter-counseling'' and false hopes for resettlement as refugees.
The government's chief concern is that activism by the courts could hamper its drive to repatriate the Vietnamese, analysts say.
``Success in these cases will lead to fewer Vietnamese submitting to repatriation, and it is therefore felt in the government that human rights lawyers are a nuisance,'' says one Hong Kong lawyer on condition of anonymity.
The Feb. 18 ruling on Do could quite possibly embolden some of the 15,000 Vietnamese boat people already denied refugee status under the 1988 scheme to try to take legal action against the government, says Hong Kong spokesman for refugee affairs Paul Brown.
Another 30,000 Vietnamese await screening. All are detained in closed camps.