Forced Back To Vietnam, A Boat Family Wonders Why

Posted: March 07, 1990

HAIPHONG, Vietnam — The trip to Hong Kong took 10 days on the high seas and cost Le Van Tuoy his simple wooden fishing boat. The trip back to Haiphong took an hour on an airplane and cost Tuoy his dreams.

Tuoy sees no justice in it.

The Hong Kong police came pounding on his door early one morning in

December, rousing Tuoy, his wife and their five children from bed.

"It was inhumane," Tuoy said during a recent interview. "All my children cried. The police were very well-armed with clubs and shields and tear gas."

There was no use protesting.

The police whisked them to the airport. The airplane was waiting.

Tuoy's family and 44 other Vietnamese refugees were forced back to their homeland, the first time that had happened since the Vietnamese exodus to Hong Kong began more than a decade ago.

Tuoy, 33, sat huddled with his family one recent morning in the cabin of his father's fishing boat, still wondering why the Hong Kong authorities chose to make an example of him.

His children sat around him in overcoats, their noses running and their knees bobbing to keep warm in the raw Haiphong winter.

Tuoy's wife, Le Thi Su, 32, served rice vodka and tea and biscuits and opened a pack of cigarettes.

Faced with the poverty of life as a Haiphong fisherman, a fisherman now without a boat, Tuoy warns his friends who think of leaving: Don't go to Hong Kong.

Whether thousands of Tuoy's countrymen are getting the message is far from clear.

With the start of the sailing season approaching, observers fear that the sea once again will fill with boats fleeing to Hong Kong. Already, more than 50,000 Vietnamese are packed into Hong Kong's squalid refugee camps.

Last year alone, 34,000 Vietnamese arrived in the British colony, more than 500 miles away. Another 34,000 this year - or any number even close to that - could easily push tensions in Hong Kong past the breaking point.

But the lure of even a slim chance of resettlement in the West remains a potent force for the Vietnamese, who live in one of the world's poorest nations.

Their overseas relatives live in luxury by comparison, no matter how menial their jobs may be in America, Western Europe or Australia.

And, ironically, Vietnam's dramatic shift to a market economy and individual free enterprise during the last three years is providing many Vietnamese with enough money to pay for the boat trip to Hong Kong.

The cost, by one estimate, exceeds $350, payable in gold to the owner of the boat - a small fortune in Vietnam.

One Western diplomat in Hanoi said he thought the Vietnamese government could be doing more to slow the expected exodus, but he added: "I don't think there's anything they can do to stop it."


A tall, bushy-haired man, Tuoy spent his life fishing the South China Sea for months at a time on a 40-foot boat. He never went to school, never learned to read or write, never made enough to pull himself from poverty.

Tuoy pulled up the canvas sails on his fishing boat and headed for Hong Kong in June 1988, hoping to follow brothers and a sister who had escaped to Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Mississippi.

"I wanted to be reunited with my brothers in the United States," he said. ''I only knew that Hong Kong had set up camps for the last 13 years for refugees, and I only hoped that, when I arrived, I would be reunited with my brothers."

Tuoy pulled out a little book with the addresses of his relatives abroad. His brother in Philadelphia, Le Van Phuong, lives on East Eleanor Street, though Tuoy said he had no idea where Philadelphia was.

He had never seen a map of the United States.

"My brother in Philadelphia has his own car, and he says life is good there," Tuoy said. "He was given a job. His children are going to school there."

Neither Tuoy nor his brothers and sister were classified "political refugees" - those fleeing political persecution.

"I left," Tuoy said, "because I wanted a better future abroad."

The difference between Tuoy and his brother Phuong, in the eyes of the Hong Kong authorities, was the date on which they arrived.

Phuong arrived in 1982, when all Vietnamese who landed in other countries were automatically presumed to be "political refugees." There were many bona-fide refugees leaving then, especially from the south, where they were persecuted for their ties to the Americans and the former South Vietnamese regime.

Tuoy had the misfortune of arriving in Hong Kong on June 20, 1988. Four days earlier, Hong Kong had revoked the automatic presumption of refugee status and started a process to screen political refugees from those deemed to be economic migrants - people in search of higher living standards, such as Tuoy.

Ninety percent of those screened in Hong Kong thus far have been judged economic migrants and ineligible for resettlement in the West.

Tuoy was still waiting to be screened - the backlog in Hong Kong is tremendous - when the police came in December.

"They told us we were going back to Vietnam. I didn't want to go back, but they forced me. I knew that, if I returned, I would be jobless and homeless. And nearly two months since I've come back here, I'm jobless and homeless."

The boat he turned over to the Hong Kong authorities was both his means of livelihood and his home. It cost $7,000 and took 10 years of saving to afford.

He received about $150 from the Vietnamese government upon his return, and the British government has promised $620 to each of the 51 boat people forced back to Vietnam.

International observers agree that the Vietnamese government has not punished any of the people who were forced to return or any of the more than 1,200 boat people who have voluntarily returned home since early 1989.

But Vietnamese officials make it clear that they have little money to resettle those who return - often, like Tuoy, with next to nothing.

So Tuoy, waiting for his British aid, now lives with his family and two brothers and his parents on his father's boat, docked on a branch of the murky Cam River.

Soon his father's boat and everyone aboard will put to sea for two months. If the fishing is good, they can earn as much as $50 a month. But if the fishing is bad, as it has been for the last three years, it may be all they can do to trade their fish for staples needed to survive.

"My father," Tuoy said, "with all his life and all his earnings, has only managed to buy this boat."

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