Vietnamese refugee Vo Van Hung – who was jailed as a teenager for murder and spent 27 years behind bars – has said that he has abandoned his efforts to fight deportation.

A black and white photograph among the “Vietnamese Boat People Series” captured by Bobby Yip Ying-kit from 1985 to 1989. Photo: HK Gov.

When he was 12, Vo was brought to Hong Kong in 1991 by a man who claimed to be a relative. But he was abandoned at the Whitehead refugee detention centre in Ma On Shan. Three years later, at age 15, he was sentenced to life after being convicted of stabbing and killing another refugee at the camp.

However, in 1998, Hong Kong amended laws to prevent minors from being handed life sentences, so Vo’s sentence was replaced by a 29-year prison term. He was set to be released in 2016 but has been in immigration detention since. He sought legal challenges against his deportation orders, and was never given a release date.

See also: The never-ending sentence of Vo Van Hung, the Vietnamese refugee stuck behind bars in Hong Kong

Although Vo said he had no memory of the names and whereabouts of his parents or relatives in Vietnam, he said he will allow himself to be deported back to the country together with a fellow Vietnamese detainee, whom he met while in detention.

Tai Tam Gap Detention Centre. File Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“I yearn too much for freedom. I have never seen the world,” he told HKFP in Cantonese, from behind plexiglass at the Tai Tam Gap Correctional Institution’s visitor room on Thursday. After being released from prison, Vo was first housed at the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre but was later transferred to the city’s pilot Tai Tam Gap “smart prison” this summer.

His decision to submit to deportation was first announced in a letter to volunteers of the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre Concern Group assisting his case.

“All kinds of pain behind these iron bars are too hard to describe. The difficulty is unforgettable for life,” he wrote. “We have tried with everything we had, but this government has a heart made with stone.”

Vo Van Hung’s letter on November 29, 2021, announcing his decision to allow deportation. Photo: Supplied.

“I’m exhausted in my body and my soul. I’m already 42, 43 years old, and have been in prison ever since I arrived to Hong Kong. I long to be free one day, and see the colour of the sky. I am thankful for God’s blessing, as he has arranged a friend for me to help me leave this sorrowful place of despair, so that I can see the sky. Seeing the sky is the most significant thing in life. Although I don’t yet know where to go or what to do, with my friend’s help and with freedom, I believe I can assimilate quickly into society again. Freedom – this word represents something I most long for. I will cherish the remaining days in my life.”

Vo Van Hung

“Hong Kong doesn’t have democracy anymore, the same as in Vietnam. In this tumultuous era, I hope everyone will keep themselves safe and keep on living,” his letter read.

Vo told HKFP he planned to find a new life in Do Son, where his jail mate was from and has a residence. Do Son is a district in Haiphong, Vietnam’s third largest city on the northeast coast. Vo has no prior connections there.

Based on a previous court ruling, the Security Bureau said it adheres to the principal that Immigration should not seek further detention of a person, if it becomes apparent that the department is not able to deport the individual within a reasonable period. Despite such a promise, Vo has been detained for almost five years, with no expected date of release amid his ongoing legal challenge.

Conditions at the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre used to be more relaxed, as detainees are not prisoners serving time. But at the Tai Tam Gap facility, which is managed by Correctional Services instead of Immigration, life is much tougher, Vo told HKFP in September.

With TV being the only form of entertainment, no education or work opportunities, and rougher treatment by prison guards, detainees suffer psychologically under intense boredom and indefinite detention, he said.

A new home

Imagining his new life, Vo – who learnt Cantonese and English during his years behind bars – said he could perhaps work as a translator for foreign businesses in Vietnam. “I can’t speak English very well, as it was self-taught, but I can read fine,” he said. “I can also type. I learned how to use a computer when in prison.”

Auntie Fan (left) and Vu Va-leo (right), whom Vo Van-hung consider to be his family in Hong Kong. File Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

His current cellmate is a Vietnamese man in his 50s, with whom Vo said he practices speaking Vietnamese in preparation for life in a country foreign to him.

Vo said he has instructed the lawyer assisting his case to withdraw the legal challenge against the deportation order, as well as an application for legal aid. He is awaiting further instructions from the government, although it is unclear how long he will still have to wait before his deportation is final, he said.

In response to HKFP’s enquiry, a spokesperson for the Immigration Department said it would not comment on individual cases. “Immigration Department is committed to removing unsubstantiated non-refoulement claimants from Hong Kong as soon as practicable in accordance with prevailing laws and policy… Should the judicial review proceedings concerning the persons have not been completed, the Immigration Department will suspend the removal arrangements under the prevailing policy of the HKSAR Government,” their statement read.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.