The Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong are living in appalling conditions. Some are locked in cages in vast hangars. Others have been dumped on islands with no facilities. Most have no hope of resettlement. They know this before they leave Vietnam.
Yet they have still been coming in thousands, complaining of the hateful nature of the regime. There are now 57,000 incarcerated in the colony. When I was last in Hong Kong I went on a launch of the Royal Hong Kong Police to an island where some two thousand Vietnamese were camping. We slid out of Aberdeen harbor past some of the Vietnamese junks which were roped together under the yacht club. They were tiny, fragile boats that looked like broken egg shells or crumpled leaves. All around them were the gleaming motor junks of the Hong Kong Chinese middle classes.
When we got to the island, hundreds more people had just arrived and were sitting under a tarpaulin waiting to be registered. People were living in old pigsties. There was no running water. They ate handouts of tinned meat—rice was denied them as a punishment for coming. These wretched voyagers face a difficult future. The British government is trying to force them to return to Vietnam.
As the world becomes more and more closely entwined by satellites and what is called the information revolution, more and more people from all over the third world will seek to come to the developed world. That is an inevitable consequence of the export of our culture. It is grotesque that, having enticed people, we lock them up and then try to force them home at gunpoint—as we are now threatening the Vietnamese. Moreover, until recently, Vietnamese refugees were welcomed in many Western countries; over 1.2 million have been resettled since 1979. The only offense of the more recent boat people is that they have come too late.
And in the case of Hong Kong, there is a taste of another future. After the massacre in Tiananmen Square, millions of Hong Kong Chinese want an escape route for when China takes over the British colony in 1997. Britain is refusing to give it to them. The Vietnamese boat people are fleeing just the sort of Stalinist regime Hong Kong fears—yet large numbers of Hong Kong Chinese are angrily demanding that they be forced back to it.
Forcible repatriation is one of the cardinal sins in dealing with refugees. It is at the heart of the libel case that Lord Aldington has recently brought in London against Count Nikolai Tolstoy, after Tolstoy said he had a part in the forced repatriation of Cossack and Yugoslav soldiers and civilians at the end of World War II. Yet even while that awful memory has been awakened, the British government is insisting on repeating the experiment.
Of course, it has tried to change the words. Instead of talking about forced repatriation, the government has begun to use such weasel phrases as “obligatory repatriation” or,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.