Families Released from Detention after Long WaitTen families of Vietnamese asylum seekers were finally released from detention on 28 and 30 December 1997, after having been detained in Hong Kong for between 6 to more than 9 years, one family since June 1988. Each had a family member who is chronically sick such that if they were returned to Vietnam, they would almost certainly die.
The release from detention of the families (53 individuals in total) was the result of the combined efforts of a range of NGOs, including the Monitor, who have been pressuring the Government to release them since 1996. Their eventual release followed the threat of legal action challenging the detention of the families.
One family, for example, includes a boy who has severe congenital heart disease and will need several further operations in the future. Doctors are of the view that he, and others in the group, would not live for more than a few days if returned to Vietnam, where medical facilities and access thereto are very limited.
The families had been held in conditions of prolonged detention in Hong Kong which Sir Stephen Tumim, ex-Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK, severely criticised in a report published by the Monitor and Human Rights Watch in June 1997. The report states; "the sanitary facilities were barely functioning and were filthy, smelly, dark and bug-infested. Worse, because many detainees quite reasonably avoided using these facilities, the showers had become a de facto second toilet." The report also described the High Island Detention Centre as "overcrowded" and the food provided as "poor".
These families faced additional difficulties as a result of their being in detention, such as serious restrictions on their right to attend hospital visits with their sick family member. While the Government has taken a positive step in finally releasing the families on recognizance, there is no good reason for not having released them earlier.
The familiesí problems with authorities did not end, however, upon their release from detention. Each family was assigned a small unfurnished unit at the "open" Pillar Point Refugee Centre in Tuen Mun. Despite their long periods of detention and lack of resources, they were provided with only minimal assistance to get their feet on the ground.
Refugee Concern paid for mattresses for the newly released families, and became aware that they did not have any furniture or household items. Camp management at Pillar Point - at the time International Catholic Migration Commission - was contacted seeking permission to provide the families with linen and basic furniture. Permission was initially denied on the basis that the provision of these items might result in jealousy from others who had been released earlier and not been offered such assistance. When it was pointed out that the medical case families needed assistance because of their chronically ill family members and that their cases could be distinguished from others released earlier on this basis, the ICMC then claimed the medical case families had been contacted and they said they had everything they needed.
Refugee Concern attended Pillar Point with the household items regardless. After a stand-off involving considerable negotiation, the linen and furniture was allowed to be taken into Pillar Point by a particular resident on the basis that it was his furniture. This was done with the assistance of other residents including some of the newly released medical case families (Refugee Concern continued to be denied entry).
One of the fathers of the medical case families who assisted in moving the furniture stated that all he had in his unit was the mattress provided by Refugee Concern and a refrigerator. He, among others, was very pleased with the prospect of having some sheets, pillows and towels, and chairs on which to sit.
The episode, which is by no means isolated, is an example of the need for particular NGOs, as well as Government, to take a less authoritarian approach in the management of Vietnamese asylum seekers.
Rob Brook and Peter Barnes