Predicament for colony as boat people are released


MORE than 200 detained people wept and walked free in Hong Kong yesterday. However, the colony said it feared the order that released them could wreck pans to send home thousands of Vietnamese illegal immigrants.

Sobbing with joy and bitter over, years of confinement 214 detainees were freed from a camp and transferred to an open accommodation, centre: Many of the group said they did not want to return to Vietnam.

Mr Brian Bresnihan, head of the colony's refugee control authority, said that up to 7,000 Vietnamese not yet cleared by Hanoi for repatriation might exploit the court ruling.

The predicament arose at a sensitive time, with Hong Kong due to be handed back to China in 454 days, and with Beijing adamant that Britain must empty the refugee camps and get all the Vietnamese boat people out of the territory by that time.

But Hong Kong walked into a legal and human rights minefield after it promised on Tuesday to strengthen powers to detain the boat people in order to beat last week's ruling of Britain's Privy Council, the colony's final court of appeal. Sealing a case brought by human rights lawyers, the Privy Coiincil ruled that 15 boat people who had no prospect of being taken back by Hanoi were illegally held in "an affront" to civilised society.

Then the government decided on Tuesday to release a further 214 people after lawyers for the detainees threatened to launch an embarrassing court battle.

The government was caught in crossfire from China, humane rights groups, and the local press: after saying it would bring in a law to thwart copycat court challenges.

"Legislators and, lawyers will hopefully back us in saying that this sort of legislation is unacceptable in a democratic society," Mr Rob Brook of the advocacy group Refugee Conceit declared.