FYI: What happened to Hong Kong's Vietnamese refugee community?

Jon Gordon

From the 1970s, when the end of the Vietnam war first drove the country's citizens - fearful of the new Communist leadership - to flee for safer havens, through the 80s and the handover period, few issues ignited as much press coverage here as the massive flow of Vietnamese refugees, or 'boat people', to Hong Kong. Estimates vary but most sources agree that when migration peaked about 25 years ago, the city was playing home to 200,000 Vietnamese, with more than 300 arriving daily by 1989.

They were lured by Hong Kong's relative proximity and the city's decision to declare itself a 'port of first refuge', which in theory meant no one washing up on its shores would be turned away. The city also developed a reputation for its comparatively generous immigration policies. Refugees could take up to three months to organise resettlement with a third country. With Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand quickly moving to shut their doors to any refugee influx, Hong Kong became the only choice for Vietnamese determined to start a new life.

The pressures and controversies that the influx of migrants into Hong Kong produced have been well documented. From 1982, the government was forced to open purpose-built holding facilities, called 'closed' or 'transit' camps. Located in districts such as Sham Shui Po and Tuen Mun, the holding areas were rarely welcomed by local residents, who feared they could turn into breeding grounds for crime and disorder. These worries weren't misplaced; clan rivalries and overcrowding led to rioting and arson, resulting in fatalities.

These days, it's almost as if the Vietnamese refugee situation never occurred - the migrants stopped coming, the camps vanished and any high-profile residency debates nowadays usually have to do with western nationals or mainlanders.

The final fate of the Vietnamese asylum seekers was sealed by a 'comprehensive plan of action' unveiled by the colonial government in 1988, which stated all boat people turning up after the middle of that year would be evaluated and targeted for repatriation to Vietnam. The government's 'voluntary' repatriation programme sent about 60,000 Vietnamese back to their native land from the late 80s until the handover in 1997. The Chinese government made it clear to the British it didn't want to inherit a refugee crisis.

The lion's share of Vietnamese who landed in Hong Kong managed to make their way to new lands soon after the western world had a change of heart and laid out the welcome mat. Nearly half of those who came here ended up in the United States, which took in about 500,000 Vietnamese from 1980 until the close of the millennium. Australia, Canada, France and Britain were also welcoming.

This still left close to 2,000 boat people who remained in Hong Kong in a state of legal limbo. Officially, the problem was resolved in 2000, when the last of Hong Kong's refugee camps, Pillar Point, closed and its 1,400 inhabitants were issued identity cards. But the saga is far from finished - the government is still in the process of recovering from the United Nations the almost HK$2 billion tab for handling the migrants.