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
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
"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
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
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
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
Hong Kong Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.
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