SCMP Thursday, June 1, 2000

Dreams of a free life turned to nightmare


The 25-year boat people saga started with the fall of Saigon, when thousands of terrified Vietnamese first risked their lives aboard filthy, ramshackle boats to pursue dreams of freedom and a future for their children.

For some, the gamble with the elements paid off: they were accepted as refugees of the communist regime and resettled in the West. But for many, their dream became a nightmare: cramped, diseased conditions in Hong Kong camps, where they were haunted by drugs, violence and despair.

The first refugees arrived four days after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, aboard a Danish cargo ship which picked up 3,743 Vietnamese in Hong Kong waters. Most were ethnic Chinese, fleeing in fear after the Viet Cong victory. Many were rich and highly skilled, and were taken to open camps where they mixed freely with the local community. "After 14 days afloat on the sea we saw high buildings and I thought this must be Hong Kong. We shouted 'eureka' and I threw my slippers into the sea because I wouldn't need them anymore. I was laughing and we were so happy that we had finally arrived in a free country," one refugee later recalled.

The first arrivals were quickly followed by thousands of others, on everything from cramped and filthy cargo ships to sinking fishing boats. "You can't imagine it," a government official said after another cargo ship - the Huey Fong, built for 800 people - arrived with close to 3,000 Vietnamese just before Christmas 1978.

Foreign ministers meeting in Geneva the next year ruled that anyone fleeing Vietnam in a small boat would get automatic refugee status and be made eligible for resettlement in the West. Asian countries, however, would be the ports of first asylum.

Hong Kong - trying to cope with a flood of illegal immigrants from the mainland at the same time - was soon overwhelmed and the Vietnamese fast wore out their welcome. Locals complained of Vietnamese taking their jobs, and police were injured quelling disturbances at the Kai Tak camp. Western countries, which initially resettled 38,000 refugees, tired of taking them and concern mounted at the growing number of Vietnamese in Hong Kong.

To try to deter the boat people - many of whom were by then fleeing poverty in the north rather than persecution in the south - the government in 1982 ordered that the camps be closed and that arrivals would, in effect, be imprisoned.

The policy failed to act as a deterrent and a steady stream of boats kept coming, until a flood of 26,000 arrivals in 1988. Hong Kong was overwhelmed. Families were held in disused pigsties, on ferries and in warehouses, with a square metre of space per person. Disease was rife and there was frequent violence.

In June that year, the government renounced the Geneva pact and started treating all new arrivals as illegal immigrants until refugee status was proved. The number of Vietnamese peaked in October 1991, when 14 camps housed 64,300 boat people. The influx gradually tapered off, but the problems did not go away.

Camp life was punctuated by stabbings, murders and riots. In July 1989, a man died and women and children were injured when police settled a disturbance at Shek Kong. A month later, police were forced out of Tai A Chau camp for 20 hours. By the time order was restored, the water supply had been tainted and a cholera outbreak followed.

A voluntary repatriation programme from December 1989 saw thousands of Vietnamese leave Hong Kong and the camps have gradually closed. In its final years, Pillar Point's rows of two and three-storey blocks ran between streets filled with children, washing, food stalls and the odd syringe. Surrounded by a razor wire fence guarded by Gurkhas to stop outsiders getting in, the camp was a breeding ground for desperation.

Despite the violence and intimidation, for many of those remaining, camp life was all they knew. "I got my friends here, I can play football, I can play basketball," said a 15-year-old boy who lived at the camp a few years ago with his mother. "This is my home. I don't ever want to leave Pillar Point."