HONG KONG — When Bui Thi Minh and her husband stealthily left Vietnam in a rickety boat eight years ago in search of a brighter future away from the oppression of communism, they knew their quest would be far from easy.
But never did the couple imagine that years after being swept onto Hong Kong's shores, they would still be languishing in a refugee camp here--and facing the likelihood of a forced return to the country they risked their lives to flee.
Barring an eleventh-hour miracle, that return certainly will happen. Such a miracle seems unlikely--Malaysia announced Tuesday that it has closed its last camp housing Vietnamese refugees. Even Minh has accepted that the same thing will occur in Hong Kong.
"I know that any day now--tomorrow, next week, next month--we could be rounded up and forced to go back to Vietnam," the 31-year-old woman said as she sat in a visiting shack at High Island detention center, her every word monitored by a uniformed guard. "But I risked everything to escape. If I must go back, they'd have to force me back."
Twenty-one years after the end of the Vietnam War, which resulted in the exodus of about 1.5 million Southeast Asians, the saga of the exiles is coming to an anticlimactic end. Under a 1989 international program known as the Comprehensive Plan of Action, refugee camps across Southeast Asia are scheduled to close by Sunday, when the United Nations, which has been running the camps, phases out such programs.
Hong Kong, because of its sheer volume of asylum-seekers--18,000 of the 31,000 who still have not been resettled--has until June 1997 to clear its three detention centers. China has demanded that all the migrants be returned to Vietnam before Beijing resumes control of the territory then.
The United Nations, which deems the detainees economic migrants and not political refugees, wants to direct its resources and attention to other refugee problems. And the host countries no longer have the funding, time or goodwill to continue being the benefactors to people who have overstayed their welcome.
In the last few years, the United Nations, Hong Kong and the other host countries--Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines--have encouraged the migrants to voluntarily return home, with the U.N. offering $240 per person as an inducement. Since 1989, about 80,000 migrants have returned to their country.
But because the number of takers has tapered off, the host countries have stepped up efforts to forcibly repatriate the migrants, some of whom have responded by launching riots in the camps and even committing suicide.
"Twenty years after all this began, those remaining in the camps are not one of our concerns any longer," said Jean-Noel Wetterwald, who heads the Hong Kong branch of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that oversees camp operations and expenses. "The story started with a tragedy, but all wars bring tragedies. It's time to close the chapter. The story has gone on long enough."
Too long, even the asylum-seekers agree. And with too many dramatic--and, at times, violent--twists and turns.
They came to the camps in makeshift or worn-out boats. Many died en route on the pirate-filled, treacherous South China Sea.
But unlike the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled before them, from countries such as Laos and Cambodia as well as Vietnam, those who arrived after June 1988 in Hong Kong and June 1989 in other camps did not automatically receive political asylum. Tens of thousand were screened out as economic migrants and have since been living in limbo.
They have been living on borrowed time, whiling away years of their lives--and those of their children, many of whom were born in the camps--in virtual prison compounds, ringed by barbed-wire fences.
Ly Hue Minh Duong no longer broods over the fact that she has nothing to show for the seven years she has spent in a detention center. It's the seven lost years of her 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son that bring tears to her eyes.
"They didn't ask for this, to live behind a fence and not know what's beyond it, to not be able to go to school, to stand in line and ask for food. They didn't ask for any of it," Duong said quietly, sitting in an interviewing room at a compound on Tai A Chau Island. The government recently announced that the compound will be closed in September. Duong and the other 5,600 migrants will be moved to Whitehead detention center in preparation for their repatriation.
"I made the decision for them, for all of us, because I thought we could have a better future if we left Vietnam," Duong said. "I still believe that."
Duong and her two children escaped Vietnam in 1989 to flee, she said, a husband who physically abused her and who worked for Vietnamese local officials. She had high hopes of joining her parents and eight siblings, who resettled in Canada in 1979.