Southeast Asia's spreading confrontation over Vietnamese refugees has descended on this British territory, where 2,700 ship passengers already have been refused entry and many more are reported on the way.
The Taiwanese-owned freighter Huey Fong, which government and relief officials here insist was specially chartered to pick up refugees, ended its fifth day at anchor just outside Hong Kong's territorial waters-refusing to sail on to its designated Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung, but denied entry here.
The ship's captain told radio telephone callers that one of the refugees on board had threatened to kill him if he continued on to Taiwan, which has been far less hospitable to refugees than Hong Kong. Refugees on board said conditions were crowded and unsanitary, with babies constantly crying in the cold air. Hong Kong authorities have provided food, water and medical supplies, but are refusing to let the ship land because Hong Kong is not its designated port of call.
The ship reportedly left Bangkok and then Singapore two weeks ago without any general cargo. It picked up the refugees from nine small boats about 200 miles off Vietnam, according to a government spokesman. Officials said today there was no way such a pickup could be made without prior arrangement. But they added that they did not know who was responsible for this or other similar freighter schemes, or how much money such syndicates might be making from the refugees.
Hong Kong has given temporary shelter to thousands of refugees who have arrived, mostly in small boats, since the end of the Vietnamese war. According to one relief official, about 98 percent have been resettled in the United States after waiting here about four months. Word of this relatively rapid resettlement has reached Vietnam, and there were unconfirmed reports tonight that as many as 14 vessels, including at least one more freighter, were on their way here with thousands more refugees.
One freighter with more than 2,000 refugees reportedly bound for Hong Kong arrived instead in the Philippines today. The ship, indentified as the Tung An, was reported turned back last week when it tried to dock at Brunei after picking up the refugees in or near Vietnam about Dec. 10. It is anchored outside Manila and authorities there are considering how to resettle the refugees, according to news reports from the Philippines.
A government spokesman said when and if such ships arrive "the status of the passengers and the general situation on board will have to be established before any decision can be made about their future."
About 4,000 refugees are living in hotels and special camps here and about 1,000 more are in the neighboring Portuguese enclave of Macao. Relief officials said they are working on facilities that would allow 4,000 more to be housed here at one time, but at present their camps are jammed.
One relief official said he understands some Hong Kong government officials have made informal inquiries about the capacity of Hong Kong's refugees camps, indicating a willingness to accept the Huey Fong passengers if nothing else can be done. Besides providing the ship with rice, vegetables, brandy and cigarettes, the government has airlifted nine refugees in need of emergency medical care to hospitals in Hong Kong. One woman was taken to a hospital after giving birth to a baby girl on Christmas Eve.
Most of the boat-borne refugees from Communist Vietnam in recent months have been ethnic Chinese, as are most of those on the Huey Fong. But Taiwan has shut its door to even temporary resettlement of most of the people reaching its shores. In October, when 346 refugees were rescued by the British vessel Wellpark and taken to Taiwan, the Taipei government refused to let them land. International relief officials finally negotiated an agreement under which the refugees were allowed to disembark just long enough to board airplanes bound for Britain.
A Reuter news agency dispatch from Taiwan indicated that officials there are no more willing to accept the Huey Fong passengers than they were earlier freighter-borne refugees. The ship's captain, Shu Wen-shin, said he had received a message from the ship's owner in Taiwan yesterday directing him to leave the refugees in Hong Kong "for the time being."
One Huey Fong refugee said he had pooled his money with others to buy small escape boats and bribe Vietnamese officials to look the other way. He denied, however, having paid any money to an organized syndicate so that a freighter would pick his group up.
"We are just seeking freedom," he said.
Hong Kong marine petrol boats have surrounded the ship to prevent it from slipping closer to Hong Kong in the dark of fog, and to stop other refugee boats that may be on their way here. Hong Kong authorities also have kept reporters from approaching the Huey Fong in chartered boats by telling them they would be classed as illegal immigrants if they tried to reenter Hong Kong waters.
There were reports that the Huey Fong, like the freighter Hai Hong that was stranded off Malaysia last month, may have been part of a scheme by a boat seller to pick up extra cash by rescuing refugees while delivering an old boat to a new owner.
A Hong Kong small businessman, T. C. Wei, said he was the apparent victim of such a scheme with the Hai Hong. He said he bought the ship from a Singapore firm, Seng Vee Shipping, in early October. "I would pay $120,000 for the vessel and bring it to Hong Kong, or pay anextra $20,000 for them to sail it here," he told the South China Morning Post last month.
After agreeing to let the seller deliver the vessel, he heard nothing more of it until news reports reached him that it had picked up 2,500 refugees and had been denied permission to land in Malaysia. Only intervention by the United States, Canada and other Western nations persuaded the Malaysian government to let the refugees off the ship for immediate settlement abroad.
Officials here said they had heard the Huey Fong also had been recently sold, but said they did not known if Hong Kong businessmen were involved in the scheme.