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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Boat People Bracing for Forced Return

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 be facing the likelihood of a forced return to the country they risked their lives to flee.


Barring an 11th-hour miracle, that return certainly will happen. And such a miracle seems unlikely -- Malaysia announced Tuesday that it has closed its last camp housing Vietnamese refugees. Even Minh has accepted that it will happen 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. "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.


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 outstayed their welcome.


"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 UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "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 thousands were screened out as economic migrants and have since been living in limbo.


Ly Hue Minh Duong and her 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son 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.


Because hers is not a political case, even by her own admission, she and her son and daughter must return to Vietnam to process their applications for resettlement.


Ly has received news that her husband has died. But nothing can convince her that she would not be harassed upon her return to Vietnam. "I have no relatives [in Vietnam], no houses. If I had to go back, where do I go? What do I do?'' she asked.