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Liberty’s Guilded Door

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Hong Kong’s administration calls it a success to have finally deterred Vietnamese boat people from seeking asylum in the British Crown Colony. Hong Kong’s authorities announced proudly that for the first time in seven years, the number of new Vietnamese refugee arrivals in Hong Kong dropped to zero.

The reason is not that Communist Vietnam has suddenly become a realm of freedom and happiness, but that Vietnam’s people are finally getting the dirty message: Don’t come seeking liberty in the West. For most Vietnamese freedom-seekers these past few years, the golden door has been slammed and bolted shut.

It has taken awhile for this message to filter through to Vietnam’s people because the West hasn’t been able to bring itself to say, bluntly, that most refugees should get lost. Instead, the authorities in Hong Kong and in potential settlement countries such as the United States have been relying since the 1980s on a “screening” process by which officials can conveniently decide that most boat people am not “real” refugees but “economic migrants.” These economic migrants me then denied any chance of starting a new life in a free country. Their only options we to wait without serious employment, freedom of movement or hope of salvation in the bleak chicken-wire concentration camps of Hong Kong, or to “volunteer” to go back to Vietnam.

It is this squalid exercise in attrition that the U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs, Ambassador-at-Large Jewel Lafontant-Mankarious, was praising during a press conference in Hong Kong, when she said that America is “very much in favor of encouraging voluntary repatriation.” Ms. Lafontant-Mankarious added, “Mere is no chance of coming to the United States if they are screened out.”

To further encourage boat people to “volunteer” for repatriation, Hong Kong’s government has since 1989 sent back three batches of boat people against their will, most recently forcing back 36 boat people aboard a chartered freight plane last month.

The policy of President Bush’s administration has been to protest such forced repatriation, which is a twitch in the right direction. But Hong Kong is by no means the only place at fault. The obvious step for America would be to offer asylum in the U.S. for Hong Kong’s “screened-out” boat people. There is no motion in this direction visible anywhere within the U.S. government.

For Americans far removed from the more than 50,000 boat people still in Hong Kong’s camps, the fate of these freedom seekers may seem a minor issue. It is not. There is a perilous trend afoot when we find the politicians and civil servants of the Free World busy relabeling refugees, the better to bundle them back as unwanted cargo to one of the world’s few remaining Communist states. It is pathetic to see Hong Kong officials congratulating themselves that they have succeeded in broadcasting the message that Hong Kong will no longer serve as a haven of liberty in Asia.

For freedom-loving citizens of places such as Hong Kong and the U.S., it would at least be healthier to see some truth in advertising. A good start might be for America to start selling refugee-screening manuals along with all the other paeans to freedom at the bookstore outside the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. It’d be a little embarrassing, but at least it would get the word out that the message on the famous huddled-masses poem at the foot of the statue is history.

This is a Wall Street Journal editorial that appeared in the March 11, 1992, issue of the Journal . Copyright Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 1992. Reprinted by permission.

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