Pressure from China to remove the Vietnamese boat people from Hong Kong before July 1, 1997 is endangering the basic rights of asylum seekers, according to a report published today by Human Rights Watch/Asia, a New York-based human rights monitoring group. The report was released as Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), arrived in Hong Kong to help resolve outstanding issues related to the boat people.
The report, Abuses Against Vietnamese Asylum Seekers in the Final Days of the Comprehensive Plan of Action, charges that determination of both the Hong Kong government and the UNHCR to respond to Chinese pressure has led to a single-minded focus on repatriation efforts and an effort to "push" the Vietnamese out of Hong Kong by making conditions in the camps where they are detained increasingly intolerable. Those conditions, including overcrowding and even reports of hunger, fall well below standards set by the UNHCR itself.
The emphasis on repatriation, according to the report, is particularly troubling given both flaws in the screening procedures to determine refugee status and a number of cases involving Vietnamese who have been harassed or who have otherwise encountered difficulties upon return to Vietnam. Human Rights Watch/Asia calls on the UNHCR to review the cases of Vietnamese asylum seekers with compelling refugee claims and to establish an independent evaluation team to assess the performance of its monitors in Vietnam. The UNHCR should also be more transparent about its monitoring of returnees by publishing periodic reports and making the policies and methodologies which guide its monitoring activities in Vietnam available to the public, the report says.
The report notes with concern the possibility that some of the more than 2,000 Vietnamese in Hong Kong whom the Vietnamese government has refused to take back on the grounds that they are not Vietnamese citizens would still be in Hong Kong by July 1. It calls on the Hong Kong government to immediately end their detention and make provision either for their resettlement in other countries or for their immediate integration into Hong Kong on the basis of permanent residence.
In Hong Kong, the report notes, the challenge of dealing with refugees is not an issue which is unique to the Vietnamese. The report notes that a significant proportion of Hong Kong's native population are refugees or descendants of refugees who fled political oppression, social turmoil or natural disasters in China and elsewhere to seek haven in the territory. On the eve of Hong Kong's return to China, the saga of abuses against the Vietnamese boat people will remain a troubling legacy for both the Hong Kong government and the UNHCR unless concrete steps are taken to ensure that Hong Kong is a place where basic rights are protected and enjoyed by all people in the territory both today as well as after July 1.