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‘Boat People’ Back Home; Mood Mixed : Faced Bleak Future in Hong Kong Camps, No Visas for U.S.

From Reuters

Lung Thanh Thuy is a pretty 21-year-old with an engaging smile, and to this day she is wondering what made her climb into a rickety fishing boat and head across the South China Sea to Hong Kong.

Thuy, one of 75 Vietnamese “boat people” who returned voluntarily to Hanoi on Thursday under a program sponsored by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said in an interview:

“I honestly don’t know why I did it. I was with a group of six friends, and one night they said they were going. I just decided to follow.

“As soon as I got to Hong Kong I realized I made a mistake. I asked right away to go back.”

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Want Others to Return

Officials in Vietnam, Hong Kong and other Asian countries are hoping that thousands of other Vietnamese “boat people” will do what Thuy did and choose to return to their homeland.

Thuy faced a bleak future in Hong Kong. She arrived after a major change in government policy last June 16, and because she could not prove that she was a genuine refugee under U.N. criteria, she was tagged an illegal immigrant and held in a detention center pending repatriation.

Faced with that, she said, she decided to return voluntarily under a plan agreed to last year by Hong Kong, Britain, Vietnam and the UNHCR. The first group of returnees was flown from Hong Kong to Hanoi in a chartered airliner Thursday.

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Vietnam has agreed not to punish those who return as long as they behave, a move seen by officials involved in the program as the key to its success.

No Illusions on Treatment

Thuy said she was under no illusions as to what could have happened on her return.

Sitting next to the boyfriend she met in the Hong Kong camp, she grinned and said, “I thought to myself if the government is generous when I return then I’ll be grateful. But if I was to be punished, well, so be it.”

A lively woman who said she loves movies and dancing, Thuy will be reunited with her family Monday after medical checks in a holding center near Hanoi.

But if teen-agers and young people like Thuy are looking forward to being able to resume their lives, others who were interviewed were less than happy.

Fearful of Meeting Family

Nguyen Thi Tuan, 43, the mother of three, managed the family restaurant in Hanoi until her abrupt decision to flee by boat in hopes of reaching the United States by way of Hong Kong. She was plainly terrified of meeting her family again.

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Throughout the interview she twisted her hands nervously and several times dabbed her tear-filled eyes.

She said she had had an argument with her husband, their first in 19 years of marriage, and had fled with some friends. As they reached the departure point, she tried to back out, she said, but the others forced her to go.

“I suppose I felt that, as I can cook very well, I could go to the United States, set myself up and sponsor my children. But of course it couldn’t work out like that,” she said.

‘I Had to Come Back’

“I did not dare write to my husband. I was worried he would not forgive me. But somebody in the camp in Hong Kong saw me crying all the time and wrote to my husband. He sent me back an eight-page letter. I had to come back for that and my children,” she added.

But she said she is still unsure how her husband will react.

“I am very nervous. My hands won’t stop trembling. This is all my fault, nobody else’s.”

All those interviewed Friday said they prefer to live in Vietnam, although they were clearly uneasy at times when asked why they had left in the first place.

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Officials involved in the repatriation program said there had been a strange sort of mood in northern Vietnam last summer, with many people talking of leaving to make a better life. They said most left without weighing consequences.

Several of those who returned said they had heard of changes in Hong Kong’s policy only at third- or fourth-hand and were still not clear what it involves.


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