Hong Kong's refugee population appears in the news intermittently, generally when an application for leave to remain is denied, or when asylum-seekers encounter legal trouble of some kind. Refugees come here from all over the world, but increasing numbers are arriving from politically unstable parts of Africa and the Middle East. The situation is hardly surprising given the introduction of direct air services in the past few years from a number of African capitals.

While Hong Kong may not be the most welcoming of places for refugees, at least those who claim asylum here are allowed to land, be processed by the relevant authorities, and hopefully be resettled elsewhere in due course. But this was not always the case.

Following Kristallnacht - the destruction of Jewish property in Vienna after the Nazi takeover of Austria - on November 9, 1938, thousands of European Jews attempted to flee persecution. They required entry visas for other countries but these were not always given. One of the few places they could get to without a visa was the International Settlement in Shanghai.

From 1938 until 1940, when the European war put a halt to sailings, some 17,000 European Jews came to East Asia, mostly on Lloyd Triestino vessels. But while the shipping company took them, it was hardly an act of charity. First-class tickets had to be bought for steerage-class passage (sometimes at several times the usual price), and desperate families signed away valuable assets simply to afford it. The voyage out was described by one passenger, a child at the time, as being superbly comfortable; the vessels having "all the amenities one could ask for. It was the last taste of luxury before disembarkation and settlement in a war-torn and forlorn part of Shanghai."

While the amount of cash that Jewish refugees were permitted to take was minimal, household goods and personal effects could be transported, and many families initially survived by hawking porcelain, fur coats and luxury watches, or other heirlooms, door-to-door around the streets of suburban Shanghai.

They couldn't land in Hong Kong, though, when the ships stopped off here en route; visas were required by anyone wishing to disembark, and tragically few were issued to European Jews.

The 1970s saw an influx of international refugees following the end of the Vietnam war. Early "Vietnamese" boat people were mostly ethnic Chinese - or, more specifically, Cantonese. Cholon, across the river from Saigon, was one of Southeast Asia's major Chinatowns, and Cantonese entrepreneurs controlled much of the city's economic life, in particular the rice wholesale and export trade.

With close family and business connections in Hong Kong, the first Indochinese arrivals integrated well and were allowed to stay. But by the late 1970s, the Vietnamese situation had become increasingly desperate and hundreds continued to come to Hong Kong. The crunch came in December 1978, when a rusting cargo vessel, the Huey Fong, approached Hong Kong laden with more than 3,000 refugees. Mustering a response fell to the then political adviser, David Wilson (later governor of Hong Kong), who, in an attempt to make the problem go away, denied the refugees landing and refused them supplies. Eventually, after some weeks, they were allowed to land. Arrivals continued right through the 1980s.