Boat children return bearing scars of exile

13th January 1995 at 00:00
Vietnamese children in Hong Kong's camps for boat people find they are as much as a year behind in their schooling when they return to Vietnam under the Hong Kong government's repatriation scheme.

More than 30,000 Vietnamese, almost a quarter of them school-age children, have returned home from Hong Kong camps in the past three years. Despite an education programme in the camps, run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and voluntary agencies for both primary and secondary pupils, the boat children are finding it difficult to keep up on their return to Vietnamese schools and the education authorities fear they could become an "underclass" of low achievers.

Primary education is compulsory and free in Vietnam and the country has a high literacy rate.

The Hong Kong government wants to empty the boat people's camps before 1997 when the colony reverts to Chinese rule. The protests against enforced repatriation by the Vietnamese by the boat people and frequent weapons searches by the Hong Kong authorities are disrupting the camp schools.

Pupils are getting only 15-20 hours of schooling a week, compared to around 28 in Vietnam.

"The problem is that the camps are not a normal environment. There is nowhere for children to do their homework.

"Parents are often depressed and unable to help with homework," said Adrielle Panares, co-ordinator of the voluntary agency International Social Services, one of the main education providers in the camps.

As voluntary repatriation dries up and more boat people have to return against their will, ISS believes the situation will become much worse for the 4, 500 school-age children still in the camps.

Although the UNHCR is able to provide a set of books for each child, these are often ripped apart by adults and the paper used in protests against repatriation. Parents also keep their children away from school during protests, forcing them to join hunger strikes, hold up placards and shout slogans. This not only disrupts classes, said Ms Panares, it is traumatic for the children.

"We need at least a week to counsel them in groups so that they can deal with the trauma and get their feelings out before they return to their books, " she said.

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