When the boat people from Vietnam started pouring in again in recent months, the prospects for resolving a problem that had haunted this territory for years seemed grim. But a more accommodating attitude by the United States has now given Hong Kong hope that it will not always be burdened by unwanted refugees.
The U.S. government has agreed to back the non-voluntary return of boat people to special camps in Vietnam, as long as the camps are managed by an international organization like the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.
That was a breakthrough because the United States has always opposed forcible repatriation of the boat people.
Partly because of the U.S. view, Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong normally have not been returned to Vietnam against their will.
The number of refugees is rising daily, and many have no realistic hope of resettlement in the West. Many people in Hong Kong favor forcing the boat people to go home just as illegal immigrants in China are forced to return.
American officials still say the proposal does not violate their position, mainly because they contend the centers in Vietnam, as envisioned, would be distinct from the Vietnam government. Nonetheless, the new backing could mean that Hong Kong's more than 50,000 asylum seekers, who are unlikely to be given refugee status, could be returned to Vietnam.
"We welcome this as a positive step toward resolving this very difficult problem we've faced for 16 years," said Clinton E. Leeks, refugee coordinator for the Hong Kong government.
The proposal, jointly sponsored by the United States, Great Britain and Hong Kong, must be presented to the Vietnam government.
Vietnam has consistently maintained that it will not accept Vietnamese people who are returned against their will. But it also has hinted it might be responsive to the idea of being host to internationally run camps, a refugee official said.
So far this year, 9,345 Vietnamese have sailed illegally into Hong Kong, nearly a third more than the number that arrived in all of last year. In May, 5,116 Vietnamese escaped to Hong Kong, and, so far, 748 new asylum seekers have arrived in June.