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, they knew their quest would be far from easy. But the couple never imagined that years after being swept onto Hong Kong's shores, they would still be in a refugee camp -- and 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 last week 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 says as she sat with a visitor at High Island detention center, her conversation monitored by a uniformed guard. "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 were scheduled to close a week ago, the deadline the United Nations set for ending its programs.
Hong Kong is still full
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. China has demanded that all the migrants be returned to Vietnam before it resumes control of the territory then.
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 money or sentiment to continue acting as benefactors to people who find themselves without allies.
In the last few years, the United Nations, Hong Kong and the other host countries -- Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines -- have encouraged the migrants to return home voluntarily, with the United Nations offering $240 per person as an inducement. Since 1989, about 80,000 migrants have returned to their country.
But because the number of takers has tapered off, the host countries have stepped up efforts to forcibly repatriate the migrants. Some of them have responded by launching riots in the camps -- and others by committing suicide.
"Twenty years after all this began, those remaining in the camps are not one of our concerns any longer," says Jean-Noel Wetterwald, who heads the Hong Kong branch of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that oversees camp operations and expenses. "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 twists and turns.
The refugees came to the camps in makeshift 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.
They have been living on borrowed time, whiling away years of their lives -- and those of their children, many of whom were born in the camps -- in virtual prison compounds, ringed by barbed-wire fences.
Ly Hue Minh Duong no longer broods over the fact that she has nothing to show for the seven years she has spent in a detention center. It is the seven lost years for her 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son that bring tears.
"They didn't ask for this, to live behind a fence and not know what's beyond it, to not be able to go to school, to stand in line and ask for food. They didn't ask for any of it," Ly says, sitting in an interviewing room at a compound on Tai A Chau Island, which the government says it will close in September. Duong and the other 5,600 migrants will be moved to Whitehead detention center in preparation for their repatriation.
"I made the decision for them, for all of us, because I thought we could have a better future if we left Vietnam," Ly says. "I still believe that."
Ly and her two children escaped Vietnam in 1989, to flee a husband who physically abused her and who worked for Vietnamese local officials, she says. 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 submit their applications for resettlement.