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Final U.N. flight returns Vietnamese boat people

Saga continues with 3,000 refugees in Hong Kong

May 28, 1997
Web posted at: 5:03 p.m. EDT (2103 GMT)

HONG KONG (CNN) -- They left hoping for new opportunities, washing up on the shores of countries like Hong Kong seeking freedom from a repressive government and the chance to participate in a stronger economy.

Wednesday, the last of Vietnam's boat people to voluntarily return home from Hong Kong refugee camps boarded a United Nations flight and came back to the land they fled following the communist victory in Vietnam.

Fewer than 100 people were aboard the United Nations-chartered flight as it carried them from Hong Kong to Vietnam. The refugees' return was a milestone in a drama dating back more than 20 years to the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

A massive exodus from Vietnam began with the change in government; eventually, 2 million people tried to escape. Many braved typhoon-lashed seas only to languish in detention camps throughout Southeast Asia.

Hong Kong took in many refugees. But by the mid-1980s, Asia and the rest of the world was suffering from what was dubbed "compassion fatigue." Hong Kong started trying to force Vietnamese to repatriate, efforts that produced regular riots in the camps.

But as economic conditions in Vietnam improved, a U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees program of voluntary repatriation took hold, running for almost a decade. With Wednesday's final flight, 57,000 people have voluntarily returned to Vietnam.

"We should not forget the situation we were faced with six or seven years ago with asylum crumbling in the region, people dying at sea and being raped, and with a seemingly impossible situation to solve. So yes, we have reason to be satisfied that this saga is being closed," said the UNHCR's Jean-Noel Wetterwald.

Often, those who have returned have trouble reintegrating into society. Vietnam's communist government officially welcomes them home, but former neighbors and potential employers often discriminate against the boat people when they return.

Vu Thi Van, who came from a Hong Kong refugee holding center, said she was scared about what her homecoming would hold.

"We are the people who have nothing to come back to, and that's why we stayed there for so long," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "If I only had a home or a family to come back to, I would have done that a long time ago."

While the saga is over for the voluntary returnees, the story continues for nearly 3,000 boat people remaining in Hong Kong. Some are there because Hanoi won't take them back, and others because they can't find a third country to accept them.

China, which takes control of Hong Kong on July 1, has said it wants all the Vietnamese gone by the handover, a feat that seems unlikely to happen. But with the last voluntary repatriations, this long and sad chapter is finally nearing an end.

Hong Kong Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.

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