Britain urged United States to help over Vietnamese refugee influx to Hong Kong, papers reveal

National Archives papers reveal Margaret Thatcher appealed for help from George H. W. Bush over boat people in the wake of Tiananmen crackdown

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 11:21pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 December, 2016, 11:57am

Margaret Thatcher appealed to US President George H. W. Bush for help over the Vietnamese boat people issue in Hong Kong days after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, telling him that the colony, shaken by the event, was hardly able to cope with the influx of refugees.

The former British prime minister’s reluctance to resettle the refugees in her country was also shown in a declassified file from her office released by the National Archives in London this month.

The file focussed on the UK government’s deliberations between 1988 and 1989 on how to tackle the problem in Hong Kong, which became a destination of first asylum for those fleeing Vietnam after the communist victory there in 1975.

More than 230,000 boat people arrived in the city from the 1970s to the 1990s and were held in camps to await resettlement overseas or repatriation. There were increasing calls to turn away the refugees and for Britain to resettle them as soon as possible.

But in the file, Thatcher repeatedly expressed unwillingness to take them in, arguing they would become a “burden” on social services and housing.

In a memo to the foreign office dated December 20, 1988, the prime minister’s private secretary wrote that Thatcher thought an offer should be “conditional” on other countries agreeing to take substantially more refugees.

Her appeal for international help would be made at an international conference in Geneva the following year.

She wrote a letter to Bush a few days ahead of the conference. “Since we met, the appalling events in China have added to the political, psychological and emotional pressures on Hong Kong,” a draft of her letter reads, referring to the Tiananmen crackdown on June 4. “I have to tell you that the ability of the Hong Kong authorities to cope is now seriously in doubt.”

How the Post reported the story at the time (click to enlarge)

She told Bush the colony would “simply be unable to go on honouring the policy of first asylum”. But in reality, Britain would continue to let Hong Kong perform that role.

She went on to say Britain would be prepared to introduce mandatory repatriation of those denied refugee status, asking Bush for understanding and support.

“If the United States continues to have reservations about mandatory repatriation, I would hope at the very least that you could avoid giving that any prominence at the conference and thus avoid giving Vietnam the opportunity to procrastinate further,” she wrote.

The National Archives withheld the final letter from public inspection. The file did not contain a response from Bush.

In the end, the US did object to the measure, but Britain secured a bilateral agreement with Vietnam on forced repatriation, financing it at US$1,000 per head. The US and other countries made resettlement pledges totalling 57,600, but Britain pledged to accept just 1,000.

How the Post reported the story at the time (click to enlarge)

Resettlement and repatriation would continue throughout the 1990s and the last camp was closed in 2000.

Democratic Party founder Martin Lee Chu-ming said Hongkongers were unaware of Britain’s dealings with other countries over the issue, except that it was anxious for Australia and Canada to help.

He recalled mainstream opinion in Hong Kong at the time was that Britain should stop making Hong Kong the port of first asylum, but his party of the time was in support of it for humanitarian reasons.

How the Post reported the story at the time (click to enlarge)

“But we agreed with the mainstream view that Britain should shoulder the cost for accommodating the refugees in Hong Kong,” he said.