Interviewee: Gordon Leung (GL)
9:15am, Saturday 5 January 2013, Business Centre of the T-Hotel, Hong Kong
I: Could you please state your full name?
GL: My full name, in Chinese, is Leung Chong Tai, Gordon.
I: When and where were you born?
GL: I was born in Hong Kong, in 1962.
I: Thank you very much. I’d like to get to understand your experience with the Vietnamese boat people. Could you please start by telling me when and how you got involved with the Vietnamese boat people?
GL: Actually, I’m a civil servant of the Hong Kong Government. I worked in the Security Branch from the year 1994, from April ’94, to about September 1996. I think that was the time I was working there. I was at the time holding the position of Principal Assistant Secretary for Security, working on the subject of the Vietnamese boat people. My boss at the time was Mr Brian Bresnehan, who was the Refugee Coordinator. And we both worked [under] the Secretary for Security, who was initially Mr Alistair Asprey, then later, Mr Peter Lai. So that was my during my period. So that was my official dealing with the Vietnamese boat people.
I: What were your main duties?
GL: At that time, the duty of the Security Branch was to have overall policy responsibility for the whole subject. What that means, actually was, in Government structure, a policy branch looks after the policy aspect and oversees the implementation of those policies, which are carried out by implementation agents including Government Departments. For example the Police [Department], the Correctional Services Department, the Immigration Department as well as a host of NGO’s [that are] in support. Including for example, Caritas, YMCA etc. And of course, with the International Community – the UNHCR in particular – which has an office in Hong Kong. And of course, working in close collaboration with, at that time, with the FCO – Foreign Commonwealth Office – at that time. Because the subject itself was not totally Hong Kong, but also had an international dimension.
I: Did your duties change in that role, or were they the same as before?
GL: Being an Administrative Officer in the Hong Kong Government, we changed jobs every two or three years. So, as I mentioned, I worked from ’94-’96 in the Security Branch, and before and afterwards I was moved to different positions.
I: How different was your position in this one compared to the others?
GL: Very different. This was, I would say, the first position that was not actually purely policymaking. In the sense of writing papers and analysing subjects. Whereas in the Security Branch, it was more of policy-making as well as some sort of implementation being done in the Security Branch. The reason I say that is in my previous job, before coming to the Security Branch, I was dealing with – say, the shipping matter. Then we had the Marine Department doing all the implementation and daily operations. Whereas in the Economic Services Branch – as it was known at that time – we dealt mainly with ‘paper’, and policy analysis and policymaking. Whereas in the Security Branch, in our Division at that time, we actually had quite a few Immigration Officers working in the Branch as well. Because a lot of actions, not only took place at the Departmental level, but also at a Branch level. We had to monitor the arrivals every day. And in terms of the repatriation, the Branch took some action ourselves. Because, apart from actions occurring ‘on the ground’, we did a lot of actual coordination work at the Branch level. So, for example, the organisation for the involuntary repatriation flights was done in the Branch. Not only in the Immigration Department.
I: When you first started, what was it like? Did you get involved in a particular project or assignment?
GL: When I first arrived, I was actually quite astonished by the wide range of issues. Because under the title of ‘Vietnamese boat people’, I thought it was like any other policy coordination work. But it was much more than that, and much more complex than that. There were so many aspects that I hadn’t really touched on before. When I first arrived, the first assignment I was given was the follow-up on an enquiry by, I think, three Justice of Peace (JP’s), into the riots that took place in Section 8 of Whitehead [detention camp]. Which took place, I think in 1994, or the end of 1993 – I can’t quite remember the dates. The background to that was, because the Government at that time had to implement the involuntary repatriation of ‘so-called’ screened outs. Meaning those who had gone through the screening process and were determined to be non-refugees. So they had to be sent back to Vietnam, as simple as that. And at that time, there were two channels for them to do so. First was the voluntary channel, which was run by the UNHCR, meaning that they voluntarily go onto the plane and go back to Vietnam with some sort of subsidy provided by the UNHCR. But at that time, not too many people chose that route. So there was another route, which was the involuntary repatriation.
This means, the Hong Kong Government at that time would send people back against their wishes, if you put it [bluntly]. And that meant, the Hong Kong Police and Immigration had to pick up a certain number of people, send them back and then that was the so-called repatriation. And the operation itself was pretty complicated. And you can imagine, you had to go into the detention centres, and then bring them out. The returnees would be brought out. And sometimes, you can imagine there would be clashes or conflicts. People would not like to go, because, it was involuntary. And there were reports that sometimes, force had to be used. And actually, when I arrived in the Security Branch, the background to Section 8 was that there were riots, because there was a so-called, what we called ‘ORP’ – Orderly Repatriation Program Operation – at that time. And it was strongly resisted by the detainees. That is, the Section 8 detainees at that time. And the police at that time had to use tear gas to put out the riots. And that became a major incident, and I think the Governor at that time was Chris Patten. He [the Governor] ordered an enquiry into the whole incident, to make sure there was no wrong-doing, as well as to look into ways to improve future operations.
So when I first arrived in the Security Branch that was the background. And the JP’s had more or less finished their reports. And then there were some recommendations made. In the Security Branch, we had to take those recommendations forward. One which I think I personally dealt with was, how to ensure that although we had to continue implementing the ORP, how we ensured that it was done in the most humane manner to minimise the risk of causing harm to these returnees. And one of the recommendations at that time was that we should invite NGO’s to observe the process. And that was quite difficult, because the NGO’s – some of them -were reluctant to take part in that, because they felt that this was a Government action and why should they take part in that. And maybe seen by the detainees as siding with the Government. Which would make their daily services in the detention centres difficult. Because, psychologically, the detainees might not believe in the NGO staff anymore, if they were seen to be the ‘friend’ or spy of the Government.
So there were a lot of misgivings and suspicions, so eventually we managed to persuade a few NGO’s to help us play this role. Because honestly, we never meant to harm anyone. We just needed to make sure the [operation] was done in the most proper way possible. And eventually we managed to do that. And of course, internally, we had to persuade the implementation departments, for example the Police and the Correctional Services people to accept that arrangement as well. Because to them, they were also being very sceptical, if they are being ‘watched over their shoulder’ during their operations, they felt very uneasy as well even for the smallest thing. But eventually that was done, and I think that helped to create the transparency of the whole thing. And the NGO’s, eventually their comments were also fair. That the Hong Kong operational departments tried to do their job with the minimal force required. And tried their very best to respect the human rights of the detainees during the operation. Although we know that the whole operation to them was a difficult one.
I: You mentioned the camp [Whitehead] was burned down?
GL: That was before my arrival in the Security Branch. I remember it was burned down, not sure whether it was totally burned down at that time, or it may have been partly, or so badly damaged that eventually the Government had to tear the whole thing down. I remember when I joined the Security Branch, it was all flat there. And so probably, if I remember correctly, it was quite seriously damaged during the riots. And eventually, the Government had to tear the whole thing down.
I: Was the fire an intentional incident?
GL: I think it arose from the conflicts. Maybe it was part of the resistance, put up by the detainees at that time.
I: So they didn’t set out to set fire to the buildings, but it just happened during the rioting?
GL: That’s my understanding from my recollections.
I: Was there any casualties from those riots?
GL: Can’t remember now. I think there were. Not to the extent… I don’t think so. But obviously there were casualties in terms of injuries.
I: You mentioned Section 8. Was that the name or did it have any specific meaning?
GL: For the details, you may have to ask the Correctional Services Department. My recollection was that during that time, actually I think throughout the whole history of Hong Kong receiving Vietnamese boat people, it depends on the origin of the people coming. Roughly, we divided them into Northerners and Southerners. Because from our experience, they were quite different people. And sometimes they had conflicts amongst themselves. For example, Northerners versus Southerners; because of the historical happenings in Vietnam. So I think the Correctional Services people, when they managed the detention centres, they were very cautious that Southerners be put into one section and Northerners into another section.
And within a camp, usually they divided them into sections so that it was more manageable. Otherwise if you had a whole camp under one section with thousands of people, obviously it will be difficult to manage. So usually within a camp, they would divide them into different sections. And within the sections, they might have a mix of Southerners from different villages or provinces, but they would definitely try to avoid putting Northerners and Southerners together. Actually, I think in the late 1970’s, or in the ‘80’s, there had been one incident that happened in Sai Kung in Hong Kong. Where the Northerners and Southerners fought amongst themselves. And that caused one or two deaths. And that was a very bitter experience for the Hong Kong Government as well, so since then, we were very cautious in maintaining different sections. But within one section, usually it was because of the size that we wanted to maintain within a certain section there wouldn’t be too many [refugees]. Which could make the management [of the camp] very difficult.
I: During your time, after the incident at Whitehead, were there any more riots that you know of or were involved?
GL: Oh yes. Actually, I think the Section 8 incident at Whitehead was the first big-scale resistance to the ORP. And since then, the ORP slowed down quite a bit. Obviously, because there was the Report that needed to be compiled, and secondly, during that time, since the report was being compiled, the ORP slowed down to almost a halt. Because everyone wanted to wait and see what would happen after that. And then, the Government at the time had great difficulty in persuading the so-called screened out people to go back to Vietnam. Because you don’t have a ‘stick’, you only have a ‘carrot’ offered by the UNHCR. And even so, the ‘carrot’ begins to lose its magic, because people felt that if the Hong Kong Government was unable to implement the ORP, that means that if a Vietnamese person came to Hong Kong, underwent the screening but eventually couldn’t be repatriated, then at least he or she would have a chance to stay in Hong Kong forever. And that may be something in their mind that [this] would be better than staying in Vietnam.
So that was a great pressure on the Hong Kong Government, to try to restart the ORP after the Section 8 incident. And the JP Report gave us the recommendations, and that was why at that time, we had to make sure the recommendations were carried out so the ORP could be restarted. And that took place, I think, about roughly 1 year after my arrival in the Security Branch, when we had everything in place in carrying out the JP’s report’s recommendations, as well as re-establishing the relationship with Vietnamese authorities. And then we went back to the ORP, and then riots continued to be mounted by the detainees. I remember every time we had to go to the camp, or the detention centres, for ORP, it was like a military operation.
Sadly, it was a very tense operation because a lot of the Vietnamese screen-outs harboured hopes that somehow, some time, [someone] would come to their rescue. Or that they would like to hang out as long as possible to wait for something – I don’t know what they were waiting for. Sometimes the Correctional Services colleagues told us, that in their context with the Vietnamese screen-outs, [they would ask] ‘what are you actually waiting for?’ And they would reply, ‘I don’t know. I just want to wait’. So that is the mentality at that time. But that is something that the Hong Kong community cannot sustain without any limits. So we had to carry out the ORP, and every time it was like a war zone. Especially when it was at the start of the revival of the operations. The first few times, if I remember correctly, was pretty tense. [It was] pretty difficult as well.
I: Could you describe one of them?
GL: I was not on site, because usually the Correctional Services [team] were on the ground. A brief description of what happened was that, usually when we planned for an ORP, we would select – not myself, but the Correctional Services and the Police – would join a certain section. At that time, we had different camps or detention centres. We had Whitehead, we had High Island [and] we had another one or two as well. Usually, we would look at the demographics as well as… of course we have to know, because we are only talking about those that have been screened-out, because only those would be repatriated. So we would look at the distribution of the people among the different sections. And then, after identifying one section, the operational departments would do their planning on the actual operation. Staff deployment, etc. And then they would just do it. And then of course in the camp, there would be a lot of rumours that certain dates, the police would come in and grab some people away. And usually, what we understood was that they would be thinking of their defence strategy already.
In the detention centres, theoretically there would be no weapons or whatever. But Correctional Services had shown me so many home-made weapons from, maybe bars, tubes or whatever. Even masks – gas masks – made from plastic bottles or whatever they could find in the camp, whatever materials they could find in the camps to put up resistance. So this was the kind of operation you can imagine. And then as I mentioned earlier on, one of the JP’s recommendations was having NGO staff to observe the operation. That, I think, helped in making the operation more transparent. Because you can imagine that this kind of operation was done in the detention centres without public knowledge, no press. So there could be accusations of abuse of power, abuse and violence. But with the NGO staff there, eventually they also came out to say that the enforcement agents in Hong Kong used the minimal force required to accomplish the job.
I: You mentioned about the presence of the NGO creating transparency in the operations. But does that mean their presence, because of transparency, helps to make the reinforcement people change their behaviour? Or to prevent accusation from the detainees?
GL: I think it’s mainly to prevent accusations. At least, if we have a so-called third party there, in terms of prevention of accusation I think it’s useful. At that time, I heard some stories. I don’t know how much, because I was not there having first-hand information. I have heard stories from the Police and Correctional Services that sometimes, the Vietnamese ‘screen-outs’; they put children and women as shields. As human shields against being repatriated. I suspect there might have been such cases. But I’m not trying to blame it on anyone, because anyone who has gone through such a long way coming to Hong Kong, going through screening and being disappointed in not being screened in and having to face repatriation against their wishes – I can fully understand the mentality there. But I think that no matter on the side of the Vietnamese screen-outs, or the side of the Hong Kong enforcement agencies, I think we were just trying to do whatever was required in the most humane manner as possible. And so, in coming back to your question, initially I think there was quite strong resistance against the repatriation. But we kept on the momentum – although we understood it was a difficult thing to do, a difficult job to accomplish – we kept on with that and gradually the momentum came back. And actually, the resistance level – as I recall – gradually reduced.
Probably because in the minds of the ‘screen-outs’, they knew that the new Hong Kong Government would come in and do their job no matter what. And so they felt that resistance up to a certain point was futile. So they didn’t put up such a strong resistance later on – if I remember correctly. And actually, that fed back to the voluntary repatriation channel quite heavily, because they felt like, ‘ok, if I had to go through the voluntary repatriation sometime, somehow, why don’t I just go voluntarily [back to Vietnam] and get a small subsidy from the UNHCR and start making a small business back home, rather than waiting here?’ And waiting for whatever in the past was not there? So I think eventually the people changed their minds, and I think that’s a healthy sign to them, as well as to us, that they were actually wasting their time there.
I: Did you have any feedback from those who were returned to Vietnam?
GL: Oh yes. Because the UNHCR actually maintained a program of visiting the voluntary returnees. They didn’t visit the involuntary repatriation returnees, but I think they kept a constant program of visitors who had gone back voluntarily. Actually I had a visit together with Mr Peter Lai, I think soon after he took up the Secretary post to Vietnam. I remember I accompanied him to visit the Vietnamese Government in Hanoi in 1994, I think. Or maybe 1995? I can’t remember exactly. And we actually went to some of the returnees who had gone back under the UNHCR program.
We visited one of them – I still can remember. He opened a shop for repairing motorbikes. I think he had a mechanics background. And then he took the money from UNHCR, set up a small shop and we went to visit his shop. And he told us that his business had been quite good, and he had been doing quite well – not a very rich lifestyle – but leading a reasonably happy life since then. And then, in terms of the so-called involuntary repatriation returnees, they were visited – if I remember correctly – by the British Embassy there. Because that was under the bilateral arrangement between the UK, Hong Kong and Vietnam. So they visited some of the returnees there. And the reports we received were that they didn’t face and persecution, however some of them went back to their villages and took up their previous professions again. Maybe farming, maybe doing other work. But generally, they were ok.
I: On the policy-making level, working in the Government, could you give me an overall picture of what the whole Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong was like? And how it affected the people and the Government, being that it was a long stretch – 20-25 years [of dealing with the issue]?
GL: I just mentioned that my close involvement was only in the years, 1994-1996. But the long history was, I think, speaking as just a Hong Kong citizen, I think the Hong Kong community, generally are very tolerant in terms of receiving refugees. Because we know that, actually, even Hong Kong ourselves, we are also a refugee community – so to speak. Most of the Hong Kong people nowadays, their earlier generations came to Hong Kong in the 20’s and 40’s. So in terms of so-called providing refuge for people in dire situations, Hong Kong people would generally not have any problems. But the problem is, given Hong Kong’s size, and population pressure, we can’t be the final destination for most people, unfortunately. So we don’t mind playing the role of the ‘Facilitator’ in the whole process.
But if there is the risk of Hong Kong becoming the final destination for a large number of people, then that would be a totally different story, firstly. And secondly, of course even during transition, so to speak, how we managed those in transit and those in the community would be something we would need to deal with in the Government. Because, obviously if you have a large number of people, even in transit, you have to deal with their accommodation, social services, medical etc. And all these inevitably would be drawing on the resources of the local community. And if these people are stuck here during a long period of time, these people would need to find employment, or some other means of sustaining their lives. And that would mean everyone would be chasing after jobs. So these are the conflicts we need to manage very carefully. So I think during the long stretch of some twenty years, in initially years, I think Hong Kong people had no measured problems, in the sense that those people were quite obviously refugees. And there were stories about them being refused by other countries. Even towing out their boats to the open sea.
So [in] all these stories, the Hong Kong people wouldn’t agree to, so providing a place for them to be a ‘transit’ for eventual resettlement elsewhere, most other people wouldn’t have too much of a problem. And the facts were also the same. In the early years of the Vietnamese refugee situation, the resettlement wasn’t too slow, if I remember correctly. Up to the early ‘80’s, the resettlement figures were able to catch up with the arrival figures quite closely. So people stayed in Hong Kong as a transit for not too long – usually I think for less than a year. Then they would be able to move on. So Hong Kong people, I think generally, wouldn’t mind too much in providing such a so-called facilitation. Actually before my years in 1994-96, actually during my secondary school year in early 1980’s, I had done some voluntary work in some refugee camp in Kai Tak at that time. That was with my friends. We worked for Caritas, for bringing some paid groups for children at that time. So generally we didn’t have any problems. We found that those people needed help and they were eventually helped by the Western World. And we had provided them with temporary refuge and some sort of social services, so that they can move on.
Generally, [there were] no problems. But when it came to later on, when the Western World’s resettlement efforts slowed down because of various reasons, then the burden on Hong Kong became heavier and heavier. And I think in 1989, the Hong Kong Government had to implement a comprehensive plan of action, which entailed a few elements which included setting up detention centres. Previously when the refugees came to Hong Kong they were not under detention centres. They were accommodated under so-called refugee centres, but they kept their freedom of movement. And I think at that time, we even allowed them to work in Hong Kong while in transit, if they really wanted to. But since the number kept growing, firstly, accommodation-wise we couldn’t afford them to go anywhere they liked. So we had to find and set up detention centres. We had to restrict their freedom of movement. And by doing so, not diluting the labour market, so to speak. And then there was the screening policy.
So this was a whole package – detention, screening in. Once they [were determined as] refugees they are resettled with the help of UNHCR. Once screened-out, they would be repatriated, as I mentioned either voluntarily with the help of the UNHCR, or involuntarily under the ORP (Ordinary Repatriation Program). So that is why it is called comprehensive, so as to help handle the situation in Hong Kong, that the Hong Kong community can accept that this is something that there is an end game to, and Hong Kong wouldn’t be unduly burdened. Although we were the point of first asylum to provide refuge to the general cases. So that was the theory behind it.
I: And how did the Hong Kong people react towards the ORP?
GL: I think [the] Hong Kong people generally, at that time with the CPA, accepted that. Although there were some people who didn’t, who felt that this wasn’t good enough – that we should have repatriated everyone without screening them, [that was what some people felt] – I think that no matter the difference in opinion, the CPA was eventually implemented. At that time, I remember since we had to setup the detention centres, there was quite a lot of resistance from the districts where we had chosen to set up the detention centres as well. Obviously, which district would want to have a detention centre in its own district! But eventually, we managed to do so.
And, if you ask me, generally the Hong Kong people, they accepted that as a practical or pragmatic approach. Because, otherwise what other options do you have? The only other option I can think of, which was also advocated at that time by some people in Hong Kong was, why don’t we scrap the first asylum policy? It was imposed by the British and why should Hong Kong carry on with that, like other countries? Just tow the boats, because 99% of them aren’t refugees, just economic migrants? Why don’t we just stop it? But we cannot be 100% [sure]. And the facts eventually also show that, no matter how small a percentage, there were still such cases. But of course that figure gradually dropped. Because I think the real cases had already surfaced. Or eventually settled. And because of the change in the situation in Vietnam as well, how can you call, ‘maybe persecution’, still ongoing in a large scale in those places?
So I think with the numbers still coming [to Hong Kong] we are also convinced that the vast majority are economic migrants. So that’s the reason for CPA. And Hong Kong people generally felt that, if that’s the case, do it in a comprehensive manner, as long as you screen the people – the resettled ones – Western countries should do their job. They [Western countries] should take those refugees that have been screened in away. And for those that have been screened out, [the] Hong Kong Government should send them away. So that is what the Hong Kong people generally felt. And that continued, until 1997 I think.
I: While you were trying to send people back to Vietnam, there were still people coming out though?
GL: Yes. I remember that we had a net gain every month at that time. We sent back, in the so-called ‘bad’ days of repatriation, I remember sometimes we had less than 1000 departures, but thousands of arrivals. So at that time, we were under tremendous pressure from Hong Kong people, saying that ‘your CPA isn’t working’.
I: You mentioned earlier that there was a conspiracy that the Government was trying to sink Hong Kong, because of the boat people arrivals?
GL: Some commentators felt that the British Government imposed the first asylum policy on Hong Kong, because of course its own international relations reasons. Whereas the Hong Kong people had to pay the bill. There was quite a strong sense of this nature amongst some people in Hong Kong. Because my days in the Security Branch were 1994-96, it was actually in the latter stage of the so-called preparation of the handover of Hong Kong from the British, back to the Chinese Government. So there were also some conspiracy theories at that time, that whether the British Government was determined in the so-called ‘clean-up’ of the refugee problem before 1997, or whether the British Government was actually half-hearted in doing things, and eventually maybe thousands, or tens of thousands of refugees were stranded in Hong Kong. And they wouldn’t care, and would leave the problem with the Chinese Government to deal with.
So there were some doubts at that time about that. So you can imagine, at that time, the psychological pressure on the Hong Kong Government was both from the Chinese Government’s side, the local community and we were under tremendous pressure that the ORP actually works. Because that is a very important element in the whole scheme of things. Because if this doesn’t work, even voluntary repatriation would not really work. Because they would say that, ‘since you can’t really push me away, why should I volunteer?’ And then people in Hong Kong wouldn’t move. And even worse, how about the other people in Vietnam? If they feel that the Hong Kong Government has no way in actually moving them back, you would attract a continuous out-vote to Hong Kong. So that was the situation we faced, between ’94-96. When Whitehead Section 6 riot took place, which is why we were so very worried. And we tried so hard to revive the ORP. Because otherwise, the whole scheme would collapse.
I: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t realise how complicated the whole Vietnamese refugee situation was until you actually took on the role. You explained about the riots, you explained about the difficulties to find the land to build the detention centres for them. And also to carry out the comprehensive plan of action. What are some other key issues that make this whole thing complicated that you can think of?
GL: I think if you need to deal with it in a 360 degree manner, because we are in the Security Branch, we need to deal with almost all aspects of that. As you just mentioned, when we need to find land, we need to convince the local community where we have chosen the site, to agree to that. Hong Kong is, well, more or less a very open society. We are subject to criticism every day. So if the local community really resists so much, then we will be in great difficulty. And actually, we have in Hong Kong, a political setup in that we have district councils. So we have to convince district councils to accept, and then the district councils would of course give you many conditions – i.e. we would have to do ‘A-G’ before they would agree to that. So this would be a very tedious, long exercise to convince them.
And secondly of course, you have to properly resource them and give them the proper support in order for them to carry out their duties. The international community of course, we have to maintain very good relations with them because they are eventually the ones who agree to take back those people in any way..[if] they have hesitations, we will have great problems. So that is very difficult. And we have to be very careful about that. With the help of the FCO – the UK Government at the time – we had to do that internationally. The UNHCR of course was our very close partner. We are in a ‘love-hate’ situation. As usual, it was quite common for the UNHCR with the host Governments; of course the UNHCR is a humanitarian organisation that looks over our shoulder to make sure that we do things properly. And on the other hand, we also would urge them to do this and that, and to expedite all the processes. But generally, we worked with them in a very cordial and pleasant manner.
And of course, on the other side, Hong Kong being a place under the rule of law, we were subject to so many court cases. Because under the detention policy, as I just mentioned, we have the detention policy, we have the screening policy. All these are actually Government Acts. And all of these [Acts] are subject to legal scrutiny. So anyone who feels aggrieved can go to the Hong Kong judiciary system and challenge the decisions. And during my time, I can’t tell how many cases I have dealt with. There were – I don’t know whether you have heard the name Pam Baker? Pam Baker is a lawyer in Hong Kong. I think the history was, she was recruited to work in the Legal Aid Department in Hong Kong. And eventually, she went out to set up her own office and she specialises in boat people cases, challenging Government decisions. And eventually I think, there were some… initially, she [Pam Baker] worked on her own. Then a few other Human Rights lawyers joined her firm and they claimed that they were working pro bono, without fees. Challenging cases here and there. Decisions of screenings, etc. So I think during my two years I dealt with her, I can’t remember how many cases of legal challenges.
So another thing is, we worked very closely with the legal department of the Hong Kong Government in defending our cases. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. Sometimes it’s really horrible, because they are talking about thousands of people in certain groups that we may have systemically, wrongly screened them out, or whatever. And that became a major issue, because if you are talking ‘big numbers’, and if the so-called legal arguments for further detaining them is lost in court, we have no choice but to release them. They would be applying for so-called ‘hapus corpus’, which means you have to release them. The Government has no right to detain them. And we actually faced one or two cases of that sort, towards the end of my time in the Security Branch that they had identified certain groups of people that the argument was that these groups of people would have no prospect of returning to Vietnam.
We fought all the way up the Courts. I think some cases were actually granted by the Courts and we had to release them. And you can imagine the backlash from the local community, [who would state], ‘you said [the Hong Kong Government] would be locking them up!’ But to avoid any implications to the community, now even with detention policy it is leaking. So those were very difficult days. But having said that, we of course respected the Court’s judgement, the rights of whoever, who feels that they have a right to the Courts for their [human] rights. So at least we handled it all in a civilised manner. But sometimes we really had a difficult time managing that.
I: What were the terms you used that these people would release under?
GL: ‘Habeas Corpus’. This is a legal term.
I: I wonder if I can find Pam Baker?
GL: Pam passed away a few years ago. Actually, yesterday when I discussed with PT and Peter, actually were thinking whether some of her colleagues were working in Hong Kong? Because even today, we have quite a few Human Rights lawyers in Hong Kong. Of course they are dealing with other cases, no more Vietnamese cases to deal with. I remember one [of Pam’s colleagues] was called Bob Brook. But I don’t know if he is still in Hong Kong. Another called Mark Daly. Mark Daly might still be in Hong Kong. He might still have contacts with others, who might still be in Hong Kong.
I: I’ll look into it. It will be interesting to get their point of view.
GL: They would have a lot of ‘real’ cases to tell you, because we are a little bit removed from the scenario. But at that time, we were very worried. Brian usually deals with Pam directly, because Brian was also having a legal background. Another person we worked with very closely was called Bill Marshall. Bill Marshall at that time worked in the legal department. He specialises in Immigration, as well as Vietnamese issues. He was out representative in Court. He was actually a Queens Counsel himself. Every day when we received a fax from Pam Baker, usually she would start with, ‘this is a letter before action’. And she would state, ‘please release so-and-so by this time, otherwise you will see us in Court’. [Laughs].
I: Where can I get some of these documents?
GL: I really don’t know. Because we are official, we move around offices, we are not allowed to bring documents away. So I don’t know whether the Security Branch or Immigration Department still have such documents. You asked me about the complexities. All these are the complexities, because it is a 360 degree job. Because is other jobs, usually you can focus on certain aspects, but you don’t have to focus on all aspects. Whereas in the Security Branch, you have to look at policy, from theory, from International politics, from local politics to actual implementation. And another thing, perhaps worth mentioning is for the ORP. It is a joint effort by the Security Branch in conjunction with the Police and Civil Service and Correctional Services Department. In terms of hierarchy, the Branch is the so-called ‘boss’ of all the Departments. So they all look to the Branch to take the lead in the operation. And so in all the ORP flights, the so-called Commander is from SB, from the Security Branch. And I had the privilege to fly to Vietnam 17 times as the so-called Commander for the flights. And what the flights means, is that after we put all the people on the flights – I think the police would [be able] to give you a much more accurate description – but usually, we book the flights, and then on the flights we usually have either two or three rows. It’s not fully seated. It’s usually in a row of three. One returnee, one empty seat and then one police officer. So it was one-on-one, very heavily guarded security.
And so every time, in a flight of say, a capacity of 200, you can only return 50 or 60 people because of such an operation. And then, we have to be there. Of course, not for escorting purposes, but we have to be representing the Hong Kong Government in handing over the returnees to the Vietnamese Immigration Officials and signing whatever documents with them. Sometimes, even on arrival, some of the boat people refuse to disembark. And that would be a major problem. We had to use all means and purposes to get them to go down, and so as to complete the whole handover arrangement. Sometimes this process might take hours, until late evening. And there were International flights and restrictions beyond certain hours, the pilot couldn’t fly back because of the duration. And then we had to do a lot of contingency planning on that. But luckily, I am still in one piece. I came back every time. I think we, generally speaking, the Hong Kong Government had been trying to deal with the whole problem or the whole situation in the most humane way we could manage.
I: What was the worst incident you witnessed from one of these flights?
GL: Not really too difficult during my time. I remember one time, well, one time when we arrived, there were a few – I think a family of three – who refused to disembark. And we tried all the ways to persuade him or her that this is all ready. There is no point in resisting, and actually we told them that all the previous returnees, even under this program, there is no fear at all. The Vietnamese Government kept their word, and that these people just went back to their villages and resumed their normal lives. At that time, I think some of the police officers had a lot of tricks. They had a lot of toys, watches to give away to these people as a gift. After they had been there in Hong Kong for a long time, they [the police officers] tried to convince the refugees that they were friends. I think that eventually worked as well, and after a few hours the family went back home.
I: For that particular family, how long were they on the flight until they got off?
GL: I think two or three hours after arrival.
I: How was it to get them on the plane in the first place?
GL: In the first place of course, some of them were actually, well of course I would say they wouldn’t be very happily going off the plane. You’d have to guide them onto the plane, in most cases. In some isolated cases, they were still struggling. Kicking our colleagues, or shouting etc. But generally I think it was manageable in a sense that they were not too guarded. They somehow wanted to ventilate their disappointment. The way I see it is that it is a disappointment to them, because they had made such a long way to Hong Kong, hoping for a better future. But having gone through all these procedures, being picked and returned – in their minds – in not a voluntary manner, they wanted to ventilate.
I: So, what did these two years working with the Vietnamese refugee situation mean to you?
GL: Well for me professionally, I think I have grown a lot. Because I think, even now, looking back after that, I am now in the civil service for over 25 years. I think this was still one of the most memorable posts I have worked in. As I said, it was a 360 degree post, that you don’t have the chance to experience in other positions of the same rank. So professionally, I think it is a great exposure for me and a great opportunity for me to train up myself. In terms of the subject matter itself, I actually, at that time and afterwards, I was very affected. Whether what we had been doing was the right thing or not. I think up to now, I still feel that we have done the right thing, despite, as I said, there were criticisms and conspiracy theories that this is something the British Government imposed on Hong Kong. Because the Hong Kong people suffered deliberately, or otherwise. I don’t think that there is such a plan at all. Just like history unfolded itself in such a way, that Hong Kong, being geographically located here, and these people need help, they just came here.
And we tried to help them to the extent we could. And when it came to the stage that Hong Kong, feeling difficult in our dealings, we tried to uphold in whatever way we could to deal with it in a most humane manner. I think at the end of the day, it’s a humanitarian consideration that prevails. That I believe is right. It’s not easy. We had to undergo such a lot of pressure, both within the legislature and local community. It’s not easy, not only for me at the so-called policy-making level. In the front line situation, you can imagine it’s even more difficult. When you can imagine one of the police officers having to carry out their duties in the detention centres, face-to-face with returnees who are resisting in the most [confronting] way with weapons in hand. You can imagine, it was such a difficult situation. But no matter how, I think we have coped with that. I think this is something that is the right thing to do.
I: When people mention the words ‘Vietnamese boat people’, what comes to your mind?
GL: Actually I feel that Vietnamese people are very friendly. The first time, I haven’t had the chance to visit Vietnam after the visit I went to with Peter [mentioned earlier]. The first time I went, or that time I went to Vietnam, the first impression I had was, ‘where was the airport?’ Because I saw jungle and greenery everywhere and wondered where we were going to land. And secondly, between the airport and Hanoi city centre, I think we took a ride of almost an hour. And it was all greenery. I thought this was such a beautiful place. But, if you don’t mind me saying so, very under-developed at that time. But when we went to town, I felt that this is no different to any other place. And we had the chance of going to the city for a short walk, or whatever.
We found out that it’s no different from other places. The people are very kind, very gentle. And sometimes we also went into the detention centres to take a look. And the people were very friendly. I remember their food was really marvellous. I still love Vietnamese food so much. Every now and then, my family will enjoy a Vietnamese meal. I don’t see any inherent hatred between Hong Kong and Vietnamese people at all. I would say they are no different to any other people. It’s only that history was such that we had to deal with it in a very pragmatic – but I think the underlying is – we had to observe the humanitarian side of things.
I: Thank you very much for the information you have provided…
GL: I think at the end of the day we are all human beings and this is what civilisation is all about.
I: Is there anything else you would like to add?
GL: Not really, I hope you can find more people to give you a more comprehensive picture. Because, as I said, my experience was limited to two and a half years. It was a great experience for me. Not that I am trying to build my own happiness on the sadness of others. But simply, I think, as I said, I myself grew up a lot through that. And I think I learned more through being part – maybe a small part – of the whole process in understanding a lot of the philosophies behind [the situation]. Because I was just an ordinary Hong Kong person living in a district where I was landed with a detention centre next door, I might have a totally different viewpoint. But I think I have the benefit of looking at things in a more comprehensive manner. I realise that this was, although some Hong Kong people might have felt that they have suffered in some way, I think Hong Kong in its totality had done a proper job, [played] a proper role in the process.
GL: I think that is a story that I think the Correctional Services would be able to tell you. I heard that there were cases… some of the refugees went back to Vietnam under the voluntary program and they had all their medication having [run out]. So they came back, in order that they could be committed back into the camps again.
I: You mean they escaped from Vietnam again, just for the medical benefits?
GL: Yes, just for the medical benefits. And the birth rate was so high, that I heard that a lot of them didn’t know, and didn’t trust, the medical services in Vietnam [they were not good enough]. So they preferred to give birth in Hong Kong, they would get another $100 then move back to Vietnam. And so eventually, I think at some stage, the UNHCR also decided that if they are so-called repeated returnees, they would cut down the subsidy. Instead of $100 per head, I think they cut it down to $50 per head. Because they also realised that people kept coming back for different things.
I: But wasn’t it dangerous for them to come out from Vietnam by boat?
GL: I heard it wasn’t so dangerous more or less towards the end. It was organised – not trafficking – illegal, immigration routes.
I: Just a boat trip, knowing that they would stay at the detention centres for a while?
GL: Just a boat trip. What I heard was, initially of course, it was all boat trips. Long boat trips. What I heard towards the end, was actually they moved by land towards Ghuang Zhe, a province nearest to Vietnam. They crossed the land border, moved to the nearest village where they would land onto boats. Of course with the help of the so-called [snake hands] the organisers paying them some money. And then took a very short boat trip to Hong Kong – maybe less than a week? Probably with some supplies on the boats before they threw everything away. And then landed up here. And so, those are, in most cases, you can imagine economic [migrants]. Some of them, just for medical [reasons]. There were some cases where it seems very funny and whatever. Some of them came back for specialist treatments. For example, bone disease, where they couldn’t find specialists in Vietnam.
I: And would they review that eventually, through investigations through the Immigration Department, that they would find out the true motives?
GL: These are the motives you can imagine. But you can’t really find hard evidence on that. But while they were having sickness in Hong Kong, we would just treat them like any person if they needed to go through the medical treatments, we would [take care of them]. Same with the dental services. They like them [the services] here.
I: Now let me have an understanding here. When they arrive, before you can determine if they can be screened in or screened out, they will have to go through a waiting period anyway. And usually how long would that take?
GL: Depends on the case load. The initial stage, where we started with the CPA, of course it took quite a while to get a person screened and going through the screening process. But afterwards, I think in less than six months, I would say.
I: But at least during those six months they would be fed by the Hong Kong Government, so they would be put in camp anyway?
GL: Yes. Throughout the whole process anyway.
I: And after that, being screened out, they would have to wait for a while?
GL: After they had been screened out, they have a choice at any point in time to raise their hands to say they would like to go back through the voluntary program. They can do it any time during or before the screening out process. If they felt they didn’t want to go through the screening process, they could go back at any time.
I: I’m talking about those who returned on purpose. They prolonged their stay.
GL: Of course. In some cases, because they knew the rules to get in, they would claim, ‘I have killed some people. I have a death sentence on my head. So don’t send me back because I will be killed the next day’. They would make such claims as well.
I: Do they change their identities when they return?
GL: To our knowledge, no. The Vietnamese Government has, what they call, household registration systems. So usually, firstly before they receive anything, they would receive from our side, the data of the people. They would do their matching on their side. To make sure that we are not sending people not of Vietnamese origin. Because that was another thing. Because Vietnam and China had a war in 1979. And actually, there were quite a lot of people who had been displaced at the border area, which was the area of dispute. And sometimes, they would say, ‘these people are not our nationals. They are actually Chinese nationals’. They [the Vietnamese Government] would come back [to us] and say that, and we would have to do our verifications. Sometimes they have such responses. So it’s a very elaborate process that we have to make sure every part of it works smoothly.
I: So you say that the returnees, when they came back, because you already have their data? Their fingerprints? So you can easily spot them? Do they know that?
GL: Yes, they know. Some of them, I think this is a true story told to me jokingly, that some people who want to have their tooth refilled. So he or she came back. So after filling their tooth, flies back [to Vietnam].
I: I know that happened, but I hope the numbers are insignificant.
GL: I think not too great a number, I suspect. Giving birth to children was more prominent. But having said that, after all, giving birth is a [difficult] thing. So if the mother is pregnant, she is already there. For those of course, we would not be using repatriation because that was dangerous. So we would usually allow them to give birth, unless they voluntarily want to return early. Otherwise we will allow them to give birth first.