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NOUMEA, New Caledonia (October 30, 1998 - Agence France-Presse)---As New Caledonia gears up for a crucial vote on its constitutional future, the French Pacific territory seems to have forgotten about 110 Chinese boat people who arrived here a year ago.

The arrival of the refugees after weeks at sea sparked furious debate and protests over plans to send them back to China, but now they are languishing as debate on the November 8 referendum heats up.

Six young men among the refugees this week began a hunger strike in protest at the perceived official indifference to their fate.

Having braved the high seas in rickety boats to make it here last November, the six now want to go home, but the authorities have yet to act on their demand or decide on the status.

The boat people, including about 20 children and babies, are scattered across New Caledonia in the homes of various families who took them in after authorities in March backed down on a plan to repatriate them.

Before then they were being kept in detention centers, with officials saying they were economic refugees and not entitled to stay.

A number of humanitarian aid groups rallied to support the boat people when they arrived here from China last November in two battered fishing boats having spent some 50 days at sea.

The refugees received widespread sympathy, particularly when they recounted tales of religious persecution in China, and earned the support of hundreds of locals during demonstrations in March.

Some 300 New Caledonians had gathered at the Noumea airport to protest the forced repatriation, and 60 of the boat people staged a 48-hour rooftop protest at their detention center before being dispersed by police firing rubber bullets.

But the sympathy has not been universal, with trades unions expressing concern that the Chinese could encourage other refugees to come to New Caledonia and supplant local workers by accepting low wages.

Some pro-independence groups, already hostile to French settlers arriving in recent years, regard the Chinese with suspicion as unemployment among indigenous Kanaks mounts.

The referendum will ask New Caledonians whether they accept an accord which calls for a progressive transfer of power from Paris ahead of further plebiscites on full independence in 15 to 20 years' time.

But while the debate on the referendum may have overshadowed the fate of the Chinese, that has not stopped them getting on with their lives. Their numbers have grown recently with the addition of three babies.

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: WWW:

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