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, worse still, “orderly return.” What such bland phrases still mean is loading unwilling people at gunpoint onto ships or planes and forcing them to return to a country which they fear.

Many of the Vietnamese have been interviewed by British authorities and found not to be genuine political refugees. What is a political refugee? Well, under the 1951 UN definition, a refugee is a person who is unwilling to return home because of a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, or social group.

Such persecution certainly exists in Vietnam, where the Communist victors proved abominably unforgiving after the war. One woman on the outlying Hong Kong island complained to me that she had left because her father had fought the Communists and so her children could not be properly educated. Altogether, about 15 percent of the boat people in Hong Kong have been found by the British and Hong Kong authorities to be genuine refugees. Most of the rest, they say, are poor North Vietnamese farmers who are seeking a better life. These estimates have been accepted by the office of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, which took part in the screening process.

The principal responsibility for the continuing flood of boat people lies with Vietnam, which continues to create conditions from which so many of its people wish to flee. It is a corrupt dictatorship. However, even Vietnam is changing.

Ten years ago, the United States led the rest of the world in imposing sanctions on Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia. Now, under pressure from Gorbachev, Vietnam has left Cambodia and hopes to be received back into the world community and be given substantial development and commercial aid.

There are those who object to rewarding a Stalinist regime. But many of the world’s regimes are dictatorships, yet they benefit from United Nations development schemes, among others. It makes no sense at all for Vietnam, almost alone, to be excluded. The normalization of relations between the US and Vietnam is long overdue.


People are fleeing poverty as well as persecution in Vietnam. If we want to discourage them, we should do what we can to make life more tolerable at home, even though the primary responsibility for that lies with Hanoi. Britain should be encouraging the United States at last to take Vietnam off the enemies’ list; the war ended fourteen years ago.

Hanoi has so far refused to accept refugees forcibly repatriated from Hong Kong by the British. The United States has condemned the proposal to return them to Vietnam. The UN high commissioner for refugees agrees that most of the boat people now in Hong Kong are “economic migrants” who should go home; but it has refused to cooperate in the forced repatriation scheme. The UN body has asked Britain to show more patience, and of course the British should do so.

About five hundred people have voluntarily agreed to go home from Hong Kong this year and another one thousand have applied to do so. Not large numbers yet, but growing. Boat people have been watching to see what happens to the early volunteers who have returned. So far, according to both the boat people and the British authorities I talked to, there is no evidence that they are being persecuted, and so more are daring to go home.

Against these pleas for patience, there is now an ugly hysteria about the boat people among the Hong Kong Chinese. The Vietnamese and Chinese rarely like each other. Add to that the fact that relatives of the Hong Kong Chinese are every day forced by the British to return to China. People in Hong Kong ask why the Vietnamese should be favored over them.

And beyond that is the general feeling of terror after the Tiananmen Square repression. Millions of people want to get out before Hong Kong is handed over to China in 1997. Britain has so far refused to honor its obligations to its Hong Kong citizens. It will not give them passports entitling them to live in Great Britain and it is not insisting that they be guaranteed democratic rights either now or under future Chinese sovereignty. Threatening to force the Vietnamese to go home is merely playing to the gallery in Hong Kong; it is an appeasement of Hong Kong opinion which has been aroused by its own deep fears of the future.

Unless China changes, and unless Britain is prepared to stand up more for the rights of its own people in Hong Kong, there will be far, far more boat people in seven years’ time. They will be in the gleaming junks I saw and they will be leaving Hong Kong clutching British passports that won’t be valid for emigration to England. The Vietnamese boat people are a warning; they must not be treated as a curse.

This Issue

November 23, 1989