Commentary (Sunday Times)

Cold War: "Thatcher stands firm on boat people" (MT & Bush reported clash at Camp David)

Document type: Press
Source: Sunday Times , 26 November 1989
Journalist: David Hughes & John Swain
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 681 words
Themes: Foreign policy (Asia), Foreign policy (USA)

Edition 1*s
SUN 26 NOV 1989

Thatcher stands firm on boat people


MARGARET THATCHER is ready to risk a political breach with President George Bush by ordering the forcible repatriation of 40,000 Vietnamese boat people from camps in Hong Kong, starting as early as next week.

Thatcher and Bush clashed on the issue at their Camp David meeting on Friday when Bush voiced his “profound disagreement” with the policy. Thatcher told him she had no choice but to send the boat people back.

Tension over the issue has been high since last month, when Thatcher accused the United States of “double standards”, pointing out that the American government regularly deported illegal immigrants from Mexico and Haiti.

Ministers are bracing themselves for a backlash from Washington when the first refugees are forced to return to the country they fled, often at great personal peril.

Thatcher said in Washington that those who had already returned voluntarily had been treated well, and the British government would monitor the position of forcibly returned refugees “very, very carefully indeed”. But senior government sources conceded yesterday that the Americans would protest when the forced repatriation started.

“Vietnam is a very emotional business for them,” the sources said. Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary, told MPs on Friday that 40,000 of the 57,000 boat people in Hong Kong camps would not qualify as genuine refugees.

Final details of the transit arrangements are being discussed by the British and Vietnamese governments, but Whitehall sources indicated yesterday that the expulsions from Hong Kong were about to begin. About 3,500 refugees have so far been cleared for repatriation, in a process that will last many months.

Thatcher did not want to start the programme until she had discussed it with Bush. “The United States would prefer we did not do it. But we have to consider the interests of the Hong Kong people,” Thatcher said in Washington yesterday before flying home.

The Hong Kong authorities have already determined who will be the first Vietnamese to go back.

They are 54 boat people who are being held for what the government calls “intensive counselling” in Phoenix House, a home for former convicts near the Lion Rock tunnel, after it was deemed they were not genuine refugees but economic migrants.

Hong Kong now carries out a screening process in accordance with standards agreed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Hong Kong is experienced in difficult deportations and officials believe that in the end persuasion, not force, will prevail. Last year they deported several hundred Vietnamese to China, where they had been living before they arrived illegally in Hong Kong.

The methods used this time to deal with the deportation of the Vietnamese are expected to be broadly similar.

One critical difference is that because Hong Kong has no common land border with Vietnam, the boat people will have to board a plane or ship.

If past experience is anything to go by, the operation to deport the Vietnamese will begin well before dawn.

An aid official who witnessed last year's mandatory repatriation of the Vietnamese to China said the police first cordoned off the streets around Phoenix House, then moved in wire-netted police lorries “like dog vans” which they tried to persuade the detainees to board.

The witness said the detainees had barricaded themselves into their rooms but in the end no physical force was used to move them.

“The police were very clever. They told one group that the other group had consented to get on the lorries.

“And when one group had got on they told the other group that everybody was on the lorries so they might as well get on as well.”

Hong Kong is determined to press ahead with the mandatory repatriation without American approval. It wants the issue dealt with well before March, when the prevailing winds could bring a new wave of boat people.

Sir David Wilson, the governor, has publicly stated the process must start before the end of the year to prevent a further influx.