Au Bin Kam was a married student of 21 when he decided to flee Vietnam with his wife and sister by boat. His father and older brother had been jailed for refusing to fight in the Vietnamese forces sent to Cambodia, and Au was worried that he was next on the list.
When he arrived here, Au said he expected hardship as a refugee, but not three years in one of Hong Kong's "closed" refugee camps, completely separated from his wife until recently.
But, like other refugees who landed in Hong Kong after July 1982, Au was caught in a clash of international policy over refugee resettlement. By mid-1982, it was clear that the number of refugees resettled by the United States and other countries was starting to decline. U.S. immigration authorities tightened U.S. resettlement procedures. The move coincided with a growing suspicion in the West that the resettlement programs were a "pull factor" attracting more refugees out of Vietnam.
At the same time, Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries began using "closed camps" in an attempt to stem the continuing high flow of arrivals from Vietnam when resettlement opportunities in other countries were sharply diminishing. Refugees who arrived before mid-1982 were encouraged to find temporary employment in Hong Kong, or to study or train outside the camp while awaiting resettlement.
But those like Au, who arrived after the cutoff date of July 1982, were restricted within the boundaries of the camp at all times and not allowed any outside visitors without permission from camp authorities. Half of Hong Kong's 11,144 Vietnamese refugees, the largest remaining group of "boat people" left in the region, now live in four centers that critics in both the United States and Hong Kong have described as being like prisons.
Au, who was reunited with his wife two months ago, is unable to work outside the barbed wire perimeters of the Bowring camp. He idles away his day in pajamas and rubber sandals, while his sister teaches music to the children of the camp. His wife is sick and spends her day on a 5-by-6-foot plywood platform that is their bedroom, living room and storage room.
Refugees in closed camps in Hong Kong have a slim basis on which to apply through normal channels to major resettlement countries. After his application to emigrate to Canada was turned down, Au applied recently for resettlement in the United States, where his aunt lives.
Officials say the closed camps have not been a key deterrent to more arrivals. Instead, Poul Hartling, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, has credited the U.N.-sponsored Orderly Departure Program, set up in 1979, with stemming the flow. Under the program, the Vietnamese government now allows about 500 persons to exit legally each week.
The question of Hong Kong's further obligations is highly sensitive here, where there has been a constant flow of legal and illegal Chinese mainland refugees for 34 years. Even children smuggled into Hong Kong to join parents here, or the mainland wives of fishermen who ply their trade between Hong Kong and the mainland coast, routinely have been refused entry if they have left China illegally.
At the same time, Hong Kong has accepted 14,500 Indochinese refugees since April 1975, after the fall of Saigon, and has acted as a transit center for 104,000 others. Since 1970, Hong Kong's government has spent more than $80 million on the refugee program. Major volunteer agencies have spent another $9 million, and the United Nations refugee program has spent $40 million in Hong Kong alone.