Interviewee: Peter ‘PT’ Choy (PT)
3:00 PM; Friday 4 January 2013
Cosway Bay, Taahan Road, ‘The Elegance’ Building, First Floor.
I: Could you please state your full name and birth date?
PC: I am Choy Ping Tai Peter. And I was born in 1945 on December 29th. And I joined the Immigration Department as an inspector in 1966. And I was finally promoted to Deputy Director when I was retired after some 34 years in the Government.
I: Where were you born?
PT: In Hong Kong.
I: What year did you start to get involved with the Vietnamese boat people?
PT: As far as I can remember, that was about 1986.
I firstly took up the post as an Assistant Director and my job was to, well, when people are suspected to be Vietnamese people, we determined their status, to see whether they were really genuinely people from Vietnam. Or some people maybe, we called – ‘ECVII’ – those who have been settled in China but found life difficult in China but they come to Hong Kong and have a strong knowledge of Vietnam and know the language, they can easily pretend to be from Vietnam. And they are also Chinese as well, posing as Vietnamese.
After their status is determined, we found them to be Vietnamese from Vietnam, we authorise a detention in the camp. And then they are in a cube, waiting to be screened. Their status is to be determined. Whether they are a refugee or non-refugee.
I: How do you determine if they are Vietnamese from Vietnam? What were your criteria?
PT: We have entry condition given to us by the UNHCR. Up-to-date information about Vietnam. Even news from a week ago, and we try to ask questions to determine their place of domicile to see whether they speak [the language]. We have Vietnamese interpreters who can even tell which part of Vietnam their language is from. And sometimes we make mistakes. People who have been to China for two-three years may easily pose themselves as a Vietnamese and pass our tests. And we put them in a camp and later, when we go through a more-lengthy interview, we discover he or she is from China and has not recently been in Vietnam. And the most important thing of our work is status determination. It’s to determine whether they are refugee or not.
I: So are you saying there are two different screening processes, the first one is whether they came from Vietnam or China?
I: And once they have been determined to come from Vietnam, you have to determine whether they have a refugee status?
PT: Yes. And then they are in a queue, and they wait for two to three years for their interview, or if their applications, or status is turned down, they may appeal to a Board. Let me remember the name of the Board… RSRB, the Refugee Status Review Board. It is a separate entity appointed by the Government, with a Judge to be the Chairman and Officers assisting the Chairman.
I: What was the longest time a refugee would stay until their status was determined?
PT: I would say it’s about 2 to 3 years, or slightly more than that.. At the beginning of the exercise, it took longer time. But towards the end, it comes quite fast. I mean, in a way you don’t have to wait for 2 to 3 years.
I: For those waiting for 2 to 3 years, they were in limbo right?
PT: Oh yes. As far as I remember, I faced one dilemma. Some of these boat people who had been in Hong Kong before this exercise of determining status was launched; they had been detained pending repatriation. And they lodged a case to the Court. Some of these Human Rights solicitors made up a case, and some representative cases, and they said they had been detained for too long a time. Because under Immigration Law, we have a particular section there that [states] we can detain a person, pending his or her repatriation. That took a very long time. Maybe sometimes, when the receiving country delays that he or she is a citizen, [for example] he or she is a citizen, we don’t know where to send them back.
They say they have been detained for too long and they lodged a case to the Court. At that point in time, there were thousands of people being detained in the camp. And the Court went through, finally, the initial Court, then Court of Appeals and Court of Final Appeals. The Court of Final Appeals ruled that it is not legal to detain people for so long a time, without providing work for the people, they don’t have proper education. The particular date when the Court ruled they should be free, it was chaos for the Department. We suddenly had to [include] a line that people detained for more than 2 years – I forgot exactly how long – were to be released from detention. At least to release about 4000 people.
I: What happened to them when you released them?
PT: I was the so-called Director of Office. The detention was authorised by me alone. Only myself have the authority and all of a sudden, they had to be released. We cannot just release some people. Take for instance, a family. The husband and wife and the daughter arrived four years ago, and recently about a year from now, and then, the aunty took a little girl claiming to be a daughter of this family. And then they have an aunt who is a sister of the, say, wife. And we have to determine when we draw a line three years, we have to release people who are similar, who are in a family group. So it took me a long time. I mean, overnight, people started ringing me, or attending the office to say – ‘this one should not come as part of the family to be released’. It was chaotic. And it took me overnight until early morning to clear.
Some of the cases were straightforward; it may just be a husband and wife or a single person. And some are very complicated. There was an old man who claimed to be the mother of an aunt of … (laughs) of …but you have to take into consideration the human factors. And then, we called and released some of these people to the open camp. From the open camp they can go working, or go schooling in some of the aid schools.
I: When you say they stayed in the detention camp for too long so they appeal, how long was too long?
PT: Well I forgot because I have been retired for so long. They particularly drew a line at 3 years, maybe 2, years. There was a line given by the Court. Not to people that were freshly arrived. They can be detained. But these people waiting in the queue to have their status determined, some of them their status is determined and they are not refugees, but the Vietnamese Government refused. The refugees cannot find their census papers, their belongings, their place of abode in Vietnam. And they did not have the right to return. So we cannot repatriate them.
I: When you said there were 4000 of them to be released, how long did it take for you to clear them?
PT: Well that was overnight.
PT: Because the Court of Final Appeals ruled that these people should not be detained anymore. And after this judgement, they were to be released as soon as possible.
I: And when you say ‘as soon as possible’, you mean 24 hours?
PT: Well, we take it as we have to be most diligent. I mean, to work to release them.
I: So how long did it take you to clear 4000 of them?
PT: Well for the straightforward cases (a single, straightforward family who claim to be related), about 15-20% are more difficult cases.
PT: A family claiming they have a sister who is not mature, who is under the age of 10 or so to be the wife, who recently arrived with another family or so… Well, I had to sit there the whole day with people coming to me with their files. I was supposed to be the judge who determined who should be released.
And I said, ‘OK, the little girl should be released with this family’. But even if I make mistakes, the little girl was detained. It gave us a lot of work because they were not together, and some of them are released to a particular camp. Later on, some people claimed to be (close) relatives of people who had been released and appealed to us to also be released. So the whole week was chaotic?
I: So you are saying it took you a whole week to clear them?
PT: In fact it took us about 24 hours to release all these people. Because, before the judgement was handed out, we foresaw such a judgement, maybe, and we have done preparation work. But this preparation work is not always fool-proof, not water-proof, we have to be doubly careful when we actually release people.
I: When you say release people, do you organise spaces in other open camps for them?
PT: Oh yes. That is the job of the Security Bureau and the CSD (Correctional Services Department). They suddenly have to open some of the camps from closed camp to open camp. And the facilities are different.
I: So what was your Department?
PT: We determined who is to be released?
I: The name of the Department?
PT: The name given to the CSD, who tried to transfer them from closed camp to open camp.
I: No. The name of the Department where you were working? Were you Immigration Department?
PT: Yes. And, finally when we have finished off this status determination process, a lot of people appealed to the RSB. Our job was to present the cases before the Board, and provide a representative to the Board, as to why we judged this people as a non-refugee. And sometimes our decision was over-ruled, and sometimes they agreed. I was the person who approved who is a refugee [or non-refugee]. We had a lot of cases that were made-up cases. I can still remember, say, people claiming a father who was a policeman or soldier, or people who has applied fresh meat or vegetables to AMCAM or so, people who wrote long stories – 10 pages or so – I had to read up on their stories to see if they were qualified.
All of these cases, some of these were determined, you remember, ‘Oh this one is very deserving’. On a particular day, you see an identical case. How come? I have seen such a case about two weeks ago? Then I start asking my assistant for the file and I relook at the file. How come the two stories can be so identical? I tried to check up their location or place of detention. In fact the one who determined to be a refugee was transferred out of the camp, and before he was transferred, I realised it must be a made-up story. I re-interviewed him again, as he seems to be telling the same story as this one who was screened. The interviewee cried and said, he was coached by somebody who was screened and that’s why he told the same story. And in fact, he said he started to tell the truth and his own story. An officer was supposed to be very skilful said that ‘yes, we agree this story is true’. And this story was even more deserving. Finally, the one who told his own story passed the examination. A lot of these cases.
After all, they determined their status determination process was in fact taken simultaneously we organised this orderly repatriation scheme. We called it ‘ORP’. It was supposed to be orderly, no force was used, and they were supposed to walk on the plane themselves and walk off and to step out and walk down the staircase themselves.
I: But in reality they didn’t.
PT: In reality they didn’t. As far as we can remember, the Vietnamese Government is always objective to people being carried down the staircase. They said that it was disgraceful. When they returned to their own country, they would walk down by themselves. If they are carried down, they will not accept them at all.
I: So what did you do in that case?
PT: We have to wait and persuade. But you can never … you have to wait, sometimes 2 hours. I can still remember a funny situation. There was in the summer when outside temperatures in Hanoi were about 40 deg C, very hot day. But again, in the flight, the air conditioner was on and people were quite comfortable. Despite the waiting, they felt comfortable in the cool inside. But a police officer suddenly had a funny idea, ‘why don’t we turn off the air-conditioner? And let them feel the heat? So that they will go down the staircase themselves?’ And asked the captain to turn off the air-conditioner. And in 10 minutes, it’s beginning to become hot. And in half and hour it is getting very hot. And people who faint, who cannot bear the heat wasn’t the Vietnamese refugees. It was the Police Officers or the Immigration Officers. These officers always work in the air-conditioned office. People who fainted or felt uncomfortable was the Immigration Officers and the Police Officers who escorted them. These people when they were in the camps don’t have air-conditioners. So even in the heat, they feel ok. Half of the officers had fainted.
That was a joke for us. So it won’t work. And we had to go down both of the time.
Every time the receiving Officer from the Vietnamese Government wasn’t the same Officer. Not the Vietnamese Officials – we don’t have money. But we always have a schedule. Now the same crew, according to Regulations, people who fly a flight cannot work more than 12 hours. So if it takes more than 12 hours, they can’t fly the flight back. We have to overnight in Hanoi. So when it’s 10 hours from the time they are on duty, we’re getting very anxious. Very excited about people getting rid of these people. And we try to go down the staircase, try to negotiate with these officials, saying ‘next time when you come to Hong Kong to try to determine to give re-entry facilities to these people, these people are the same people who occasionally come to Hong Kong to interview the Vietnamese detainees. To see whether they have an abode in Hong Kong.
Say, ‘next time you are in Hong Kong, we’ll take you somewhere. Have you been to the Ocean Park? Or have you been to the peak? Or have you taken a good meal in Hong Kong, a buffet lunch? Next time we’ll try to buy you one’. The most we can bribe them is the Ocean Park because we have a free ticket to the Ocean Park. Because we have waited for two to three hours, we try to go inside a have a rest. In the meantime, we cannot see what has happened. And so we, in fact, the police and Immigration Officers have already identified who is the leader who is stopping people from going down. And the first one we carry by force, or use some force. Reasonable force is to take all these leaders – male, females – take these ‘Big Brothers’ from the flight downstairs. And then, after these ‘Big Brothers’ or leaders are gone, then they would quietly, cooperatively go down by themselves.
I: So every time you have a lot of people to repatriate, you have to go through the same scenario pretty much?
PT: Sometimes it’s very bad. Not very violent, but some force has to be used. Sometimes you have a flight that is very quiet, very peaceful. And you have good luck. So when we are in charge of a flight taking people to Vietnam, you can never know what time you come back.
I: And how often do you have to do this?
PT: We take turns. The Security Bureau may send someone (a BS), or we may send an AD or a Principal Immigration Officer, who heads a team. And the most is twice a week. But in the final stage, maybe one or two flights a month, towards the end of the whole exercise.
I: How many passengers in each trip?
PT: About slightly less than 200. About 150. We cannot take too many because… We take 100, the Security Officers need to be about 50. Some male, some female.
I: So pretty much one Officer for two refugees?
PT: Oh yes. Because there may be some people who are very passive, some may be very wild and aggressive.
I: So you described the scene of arriving in Hanoi when they get off the airplane. What about when they get on the airplane from the Hong Kong side?
PT: Oh yes. Formerly, because we had freedom of press, we allowed people – the reporters – to watch or to shoot [photographs]. And we have some monitors, or some people who are JP (in Hong Kong, these are permanent people in the community, Justice of Peace) to oversee the exercise. To see whether force has been used unnecessarily.
I: How did you get 200 people on the airplane that resisted return?
PT: Normally one or two days before, we locked them in a particular cell and we do a lot of, say, talking. You cannot get away when you are a non-refugee. If you are not on this flight, you are on the next one. It doesn’t make any difference. And the NGO’s would try to talk to them a lot before they come, and say ‘even if we send you back, we will try to visit them. See whether they have been well received, whether they have a place to live, if they are ok. And the UNHCR will give them an allowance for 28 days and the Security Bureau and Immigration Department will visit them occasionally to see whether they are rightly or properly received back in their place of origin.
I: When they go back, were they kept in a community area?
PT: Firstly they go to something like an open camp, a camp provided by the Government. If they don’t have a claimed address, claimed house or relative’s place to go, then what happens later on will be the Vietnamese Government will ask where they want to go, what friends or relatives they have that will take care of them.
I: When you or the UNHCR went to visit them, did you go to their houses or the camp?
PT: Go to the houses. We visit returnees not on the first day or first 28 days on their return. We probably visit them when they have returned back for over half a year, to a year or so. And most of them are ok to be fair. They are ok. Some of them… the return is so smooth, and things are not so bad in Vietnam we should have returned them earlier. Most of them say so.
I: But usually, when they left, they pretty much lost their homes and everything, so when they returned they must have relied on relatives to get started.
PT: Oh yes. Some of them may have relatives, most of them do.
I: So back to the previous subject. When you put them on the airplane, how did that work? You said sometimes you had to apply some force..?
PT: Yes, but you have to identify during the process of counselling, the NGO or CSD people or ourselves will know who are the people who are supposed to be the leader, who are supposed to be the most difficult person. And then we’ll try to lock them up separately to be the last lot. And then, if you have taken their wife and children upstairs onto the airflight, they probably will go out as well. Those people who walk by themselves. As for getting off the flight, we have to take these hard core people first. You have to demonstrate these hard-core people are down already, and they have to walk down themselves or are carried away?
PT: It takes a lot of time; surely, before they go you have to tell them the country condition now in Vietnam is not so bad. You have an allowance. The Vietnamese Government is reasonable now, not as cumbersome as before. You have to talk them through.
I: What were some of the incidents where people who self-harmed in protest?
PT: Oh yes. Some of them. But not on the day. Maybe some days before when they are targeted. When they know their name is on a particular flight for a particular date, say a week later. But during the counselling they may show signs of harming themselves. They try, they have no weapon but they can easily sharpen a toothbrush handle, handle of a brush to try and harm themselves.
I: Did anybody kill themselves.
PT: One or two maybe, I forgot. Maybe. But not for the reason of repatriation. But when they feel hopeless, maybe they were in Hong Kong for so long a time, some of them may have mental illness or so. People, even people in Hong Kong kill themselves. They work in the bank and jump down from a building or so, because of hard work, illness…
I: How long were you in this position? How many years did you work with the Vietnamese boat people?
PT: As Assistant Director, I worked for about 6 years or so. After this particular job, I was promoted to Deputy Director and I oversaw the work as well. Because that was my former job, I paid particular interest. Because at that time, we wanted to finish off by 1997, the return of the country to the Chinese Government.
I: When did it finish?
PT: The last camp was closed in 2000. But the majority, 97% of people should have gone by 1997.
I: But it lasted until 2000 right?
PT: Oh yes. The last camp was closed in 2000. But the majority, 97% of people should have gone by 1997.
I: But in 2000 were you still in the job?
PT: Yes, and other matters as well.
I: So you were pretty much with the Vietnamese boat people from the time you started until the time you finished working in this department. Did you work in other department besides Immigration?
PT: Yes. I think the Hong Kong Government and the Hong Kong people have done a lot. I must say I have been to US and I still can remember an incident when I was in Arizona. The daughter of my wife’s brother graduated from secondary school and was doing the pre-U (they called it), going to University. I went to visit them to attend the Graduation ceremony. I’ve seen a lot of her colleagues who are Vietnamese who have done very well, have come first, come second, and gone to very good Universities. I still can remember one or two who went to Berkeley, one to Princeton. Very seldom people can go to Princeton. Oh, not Princeton. One of the Ivy League Universities.
I go to ask them, have you been in Hong Kong, and how did you come to Arizona, USA? Only one said I was in Bangkok, my mother was there with me, and my father died in the war. And one particular young lady said I was in Hong Kong, in ‘Whitehead’ – I hadn’t seen her before. I was glad, I mean, because of such a program, people were educated, become very useful persons. I mean, in the States, in Australia. And your good self [speaks to Interviewer].
I: So for your whole career life you’ve been with the Immigration Department?
PT: For 34 years. Unlike Mr Lai, who is an Administrative Officer, they may serve in many Departments. But Immigration Officers or Police Officers, they are departmental staff of departmental offices. We serve the same department. We enter as Immigration Officers or we get promoted, or we spend our whole career with the same Department.
I: In your whole career, would the Vietnamese boat people experience be the most significant job?
PT: Yes. I would say that one of the most meaningful and troublesome [experiences], because so many of them, because we don’t have the [resources], the Immigration Department or the Government. Like in the corporate when you are revenue-earning, they will give you more resources. These Vietnamese, we are just doing a humanitarian job. It is sometimes difficult to get resources from the Central Government or the revenue.
We are always under-staffed, and the job is pressing because there is so many of them in detention, people keep arriving, and in between a lot of work, people get married, people who give birth, people who die – you have to register the births, marriages,. It’s a lot of work. You can never imagine. I mean, besides, our office is in Kowloon and these camps have so many of them scattered all over Hong Kong. We have to go from the office to the camp. It takes a long time. It took us a long time, for the staff I mean. For me it’s ok, because I always stayed in the same office. But fortunately, my assistants, my staff have to work hard. I mean, travelling a lot.
I: What did you mean by ‘difficult but also meaningful’?
PT: Yes. Particularly when you see some of the Vietnamese are successful in the States, Europe, UK – My son in fact graduated from a UK University in London U. He has a university mate who is also from a camp in Hong Kong. He did very well and they met in one of the top Universities. We call this the Imperial College of the University of London. A very good University. He got first-class Honours I think. He was also a Vietnamese refugee and admitted by the UK Government. And of all these jobs, even if they are determined as refugees, some of our work is to escort or to assist them, present them to the Consulate.
This was to take away their ‘offense’ in Vietnam [he committed some offense in Vietnam], to brush off the bad things and try to present his good things. He was intelligent and young and has two lovely daughters, and tries to present a case. And if they have a bad record, if they are involved with something on the side in the camp, some of the refugees may not be given an entry visa to a particular country and they are stuck in Hong Kong. Some of these refugees, so-called, have never been given a visa for a country. And now in Hong Kong they are doing quite good. Some of them may start a small business, like running a Vietnamese restaurant, or selling t-shirts (Vietnamese t-shirts).
I: When you look back in those years that you worked with the Vietnamese boat people, what did it mean to you?
PT: Well, to be an Immigration Officer, sometimes you feel bad trying to separate families, trying to say ‘no’ to people. Or, if they spend money, they take the boat to come to Hong Kong, they sometimes have to risk their lives on a boat, sailing for ten days, or twenty days to Hong Kong, they may encounter say, a storm, or pirates – anything. They open themselves up to a lot of dangers, coming to Hong Kong, and yet you have to say ‘no’ to them, is … the feeling is not so good. I mean, like before, a lot of China II, from China. Some of them, they are … and all of these people have to be returned to China. You feel bad, I mean, when you take them to the bridge, ordering them to return to China. And some of them, all of them, they have a very good story. I mean a touching story. And even for these Vietnamese people, all of them have touching stories. Even for the Northerners. All of them are very touching. When you see the file, sometimes, even for myself, sometimes, really, speaking, you have tears talking at some of the stories which are very touching.
I: Was that the difficult part of your job?
PT: Yes. I mean, you can see that it is a good part, because you take care of humanity. It is a good, hard job, saying ‘no’. I send slightly over half, as determined as non-refugees. Or more than that. Slightly more. So, a lot of people are sent back, are re-located. There may be people who are very successful overseas. There may become triad, nobody knows.
I: When you hear the words, ‘Vietnamese boat people’ what comes to your mind?
PT: I would say it was history, and a good job done by the Government. If you ask me, if there’s a war in any other country, which suffers, say nearby Hong Kong, or people who like to come to Hong Kong, as a taxpayer, do you support a Government doing such an exercise again? I would say ‘yes’. It’s worthwhile. I mean, despite, the UNHCR still owe Hong Kong Government money – running the camp etc. – $1 billion Hong Kong dollars. That’s a lot of money for our small budget. But still, I mean, we have been very cooperative with the UNHCR, they have been very helpful to us and without them, we would not have the successful… in fact, we would have no knowledge of Vietnam. People who were from particular areas of Vietnam, whether there was a military camp or so.
I: Given the history, would you do it again?
PT: Oh yes. Well, even as a taxpayer, say, the Government have to pay a lot of money. But we are talking about humanity. That is worth a lot. Even for a particular, say, life cannot be worth a dollar sign there.
I: Thank you very much, not just for the interview, but thank you for your kind heart.
PT: Well, without a kind heart (like others) involved in NGO’s, UNHCR, you can never finish such a big exercise in Hong Kong. Like Peter, when these people first come and look around places in Hong Kong – Hong Kong is such a small place unlike Australia. You have so many lands, so much … abundance. Well, in Hong Kong, it is difficult. You have open camp, closed camp. You have to think of providing medical, providing education, most important is this two areas. And also recreation. You can’t find these people… Northerners, Southerners. They don’t get on. And, without heart, I mean you can never do such a job.
I: I believe that. Anytime I talk to people like you, I know that if it wasn’t for your good heart, you wouldn’t last in this job. There is no need for you to work in this kind of environment.
PT: Now, even if, say, like for myself, I authorised detention and a lot of other things, I tried to determine the status, I spent half an hour (or more) despite I have a lot of work, even if I organise a lot of operations of going and taking people back or receiving people, I still will willing to spend a lot of time looking into a particular case. Seeing and trying to remember details. I try to remember, so that when you see other cases that are similar, or try to determine accurately whether they should be screened in or out.
I: Was there any particular cases that stood out for you that you never forget? Besides the one you already mentioned.
PT: I tried to identify two cases of the kind… well this case appears to be similar to such a case I approved two weeks ago. And then, they found the file. And it was the same story.
As a matter of fact, despite the fact I am retired and off the job, I understand that for the Immigration Department, they still have a problem, with Pakistani, or Southern part of India coming to Hong Kong. Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, not Afghans, coming to Hong Kong to be refugees. We have more than few hundred, if not a thousand people still in Hong Kong. And as soon as they arrive, they are given a paper to wait for a status determination, and then they can go out using this paper and can go out to look for a job. A part-time job or a full-time job. You still have a minor problem. The problem is far less than the Vietnamese boat people. It is still have a problem, but comparing with, well, in fact comparing with Australia; [Australian Immigration Department] is a good friend of ours. I can still remember a few years back when people would come to us and ask for us to help them out with one or two thousand Chinese boat people who have, say, sailed all the way from Jiangxi to Australia, passing through Indonesia to Port Hedland or to Darwin.
Because we have experience, they had in Immigration in Hong Kong, John Williams who came to me and said, ‘Oh PC, who should I contact in Beijing as to the re-entry of these people, and how to determine their status and how to get information from them. Can you assist us because we don’t have people who speak their language? A lot of dialects in China? And what is the country condition? They don’t tell us the name. They try to give us a lot of lies about their name, their place of domicile.’ These Australians don’t know what is right or lie. [They asked] to help them out, to provide authority to approve right of re-entry or so.
We sent a team of two-three Officers to Port Hedland, to their detention camp, to try and give those lessons on the map of China, the dialects, the census papers, the identity card etc. We tried to give them an idea of country conditions. We always stayed good friends, crossing the border. So, some of us have been to Port Hedland detention centre in Northern part of Australia. Or even to one of those islands… Christmas Islands, also for detention of people trying to go into Australia. John Williams was the state director for WA at DIMA (Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. He has since retired, and I just had dinner with him recently. He travels to Hong Kong from time to time, and his son works at Cathay Pacific as a first officer… we have become good friends.
Well, we are always proud of what we have gone through [in] this Vietnamese chapter in the Government.
I: Any regrets?
PT: No. I mean it was a lot of hard work. I was the one who organised a lot of chartered flights. It was a lot of money… $1.35 million Hong Kong dollars from one flight from Hong Kong and Hanoi and back. And we always travelled on the First Class because other people are in the cabin. The leaders tried to help the operation; we’ll sit next to the Captain in his cabin.
I: I guess there were a lot of lessons learned, especially not to turn off the air-conditioning on the airplane [laughs].
PT: [PT’s boss says to him] ‘PT, if you or your assistant go on one of those old flights – people taking people back, the first thing is that if we have a satellite phone, despite you have low-roaming – the last passenger has gone down the flight, you are the first one to ring me up and tell me’.
I: So you had to make that call every time?
PT: Yes. To Brian Bressley. Saying it is ok, we will be flying back in 15 minutes, and it will take 3 hours or so before we land.
I: Obviously, over here they were anxious to hear the answer?
PT: And sometimes, it rained. The Vietnamese Officials are still downstairs, looking, so we cannot take people down. So we had to wait here, it was very hot here. Say, we have to wait, to be patient. To wait for another half an hour. To try and talk. I would try to take them inside and buy them a cake, or buy them a coffee, and in the meantime the Police Officer would take the bad people down.
I: So you tried to steer them away so you could do your job?
PT: Otherwise, it would be difficult. But even for the UNHCR people, they didn’t want to see people being carried down. But they tried to ‘open and close’ one eye. We always say, the first thing we tell them is, ‘The Captain and his crew report his duty at 8:00 today. So we have to be back’.
I: Did you ever have to work overnight?
PT: Well, fortunately, there hasn’t been a overnight flight who in fact spent overnight in Hanoi airport. It is very expensive. You have to pay for the whole crew. It’s very troublesome. You have to pay more for chartering the flight. You have to fly in another set of crew. The present set of crew has to rest for at least 12 hours. And you have to fly in another party of crew. We try to always explain to the Vietnamese Officials… but they say that it is their instruction from the very top. You cannot disgrace our country.
PT: Because of a riot, people burned down a camp, including the deposit box which you were supposed to deposit the valuables of the refugees. Including say, jewellery, or gold bars. All these deposits are given a receipt with the top of the CSD. And this deposit box was burned down, including all these valuables inside. Some of the gold bars turned into gold balls, sheets. And you cannot identify rings, pearls, watches etc. Mostly, the claims later on were for gold bars, such a weight of gold. Some of them they claimed, they relied on the register of the camp. Because they didn’t have a good locker and had their valuables stolen [at the camp]. A lot of false claims made. Maybe some of them were false?
CH : So when the lock box burned down, how did you settle it?
PT: I forgot how, because I was then retired. And people made a lot of claims, with volunteer solicitors, and the Government settlement with these solicitors tried to collect their claims and say, ‘now no more claims by such a date. Will try to settle. After this date, I will not entertain further claims’.
I: So the Government had to set a date?
PT: At that point in time, I was asked to give a procedure, saying refugees will get a receipt, some people came, stating there was a fire etc. I was supposed to make an affirmation to the Court to explain the procedure then. But finally, then, my ex-colleague rang me and said, it seems that the Government has now agreed to settle the case outside Court. And pay these people back. A civil claim.
I: Approximately how many claims?
PT: Slightly less, about 50. I can’t remember exactly, the correct number after so many years. But the claim dragged on for only about three-four years. They settled the case.
I: So these people have technically re-settled somewhere else in the world, and they will go back to re-claim, because they have a receipt?
PT: Yes. Some of them have a receipt. Most of them don’t have receipts.
I: If they don’t have receipts can they claim?
PT: Some say, their receipt has been stolen. They say [many things].
I: Wow. It’s complicated. More and more stories unfold. It’s like peeling an onion.
PT: It’s people. And people are complicated.