UNITED Nations officials are stepping up their efforts to persuade 45,000 ``boat people'' in Hong Kong voluntarily to return to Vietnam rather than face the prospect of forced repatriation by Britain. The new approach is part of a recent agreement between Britain, Vietnam, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to identify ``boat people'' who have not volunteered to return home but would not object to doing so soon, says UNHCR official Robert Van Leeuwen.
British officials have increasingly expressed an eagerness to repatriate ``boat people'' who are deemed ineligible for asylum abroad and to clear out the colony's crowded, squalid, and restive refugee camps. An average of 700 ``boat people'' landed in Hong Kong each day last month.
Only 4,470 Vietnamese have agreed to return home since Britain began a policy of voluntary repatriation in March. Britain forcibly repatriated 51 Vietnamese in a predawn police operation last December, but halted the practice amid denunciations by human rights groups and the Washington.
Under new, ``more individualized'' counseling, UNHCR is advising either single families or groups of families of their options under the Sept. 22 agreement in Hanoi, says Mr. Van Leeuwen, the chief of UNHCR's Hong Kong mission. He declined to outline exactly what UN officials are advising the ``boat people,'' saying some details of the counseling had not been completed.
``We have to be as sensitive but as clear and firm as possible in presenting the options,'' Van Leeuwen says. Of the 54,000 ``boat people'' in Hong Kong, 9,000 have been classified as ``refugees'' and will be resettled in the West.
The Hong Kong government is screening the remaining 45,000 ``boat people'' to determine whether they would face political persecution back home and should receive asylum abroad or whether they are ``economic migrants'' and should be sent home.
So far, about 15,000 Vietnamese have been classified as ``economic migrants.'' Van Leeuwen says he does not know how many of them are ``acquiescent nonvolunteers:'' those who have not volunteered to return to Vietnam but would not object to being sent back.
Sir David Wilson, the British governor of Hong Kong, said on Sept. 22 that he favored the mandatory repatriation of Vietnamese ``as soon as possible.''
Van Leeuwen does not rule out the possibility that Britain would resort to such a program, if a enough ``boat people'' declined to leave voluntarily.
Vietnam and Britain would meet at an unspecified time in an ``urgent review'' if significant numbers of ``boat people'' do not agree to go home, according to a statement that accompanied their Sept. 22 agreement with UN refugee officials.
UNHCR objects to forcible repatriation and would not join such a meeting. In counseling Vietnamese, UN officials do not use the threat of mandatory repatriation but clearly present the political circumstances, says Van Leeuwen.
``There is no element of compulsion whatsoever; that is the first thing that must be said,'' Van Leeuwen says.