Vietnamese people in Hong Kong

Many of the Vietnamese people in Hong Kong immigrated as a result of the war and persecution in Vietnam since the mid-1970s.

Backed by a humanitarian policy of the Hong Kong Government,[1] and under the auspices of the United Nations, some Vietnamese were permitted to settle in Hong Kong.

The illegal entry of Vietnamese refugees was a problem which plagued the Hong Kong government for 25 years. The problem was only resolved in 2000. Between 1975 and 1999, 143,700 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in other countries and more than 67,000 Vietnamese migrants were repatriated.[2]

The Vietnamese community in Hong Kong today falls into two major categories: those who came as refugees and ended up staying and integrating into the local community, and those who have arrived in Hong Kong via a third country due to either their work or personal circumstances. This second group, although small, is a growing community. Many of the Vietnamese living in Hong Kong have Chinese ancestry, making integration easier.

Vietnam War and refugee migration

1970s – from a trickle to a flood

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Vietcong forces reunited the northern and southern halves of the country, many people began to flee out of fear of the new Communist Government. Many refugees fled across the border into Thailand, whilst others headed by boat to nearby countries, initially Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong.[3]

Hong Kong received its first wave of Vietnamese refugees on 4 May 1975. A 3,743-strong refugee group was found arriving on board the Danish freighter Clara Mærsk and were accepted as refugees. Although the Hong Kong Government declared them "illegal immigrants",[4] this arrival marked the start of a wave of refugee migrations to Hong Kong.[5] Initially, Western governments shirked responsibility for resettling any refugees. In 1976, the Hong Kong Government applied to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for material aid and faster processing of resettlement requests.[6] One year later, this first group of refugees, who had been under the responsibility of the Civil Aid Service, were entirely resettled in the United States, France, Germany, Australia, and Hong Kong.[7]

In 1979, the Vietcong started ethnic cleansing in major cities in Vietnam, causing many ethnic Chinese from Vietnam to seek refugee status in Hong Kong. Hong Kong declared itself the "port of first asylum". Soon, the Thai government stopped accepting refugees. Singapore and Malaysia did not allow the refugees to land, effectively turning the refugees away.[3] Hong Kong, with the status of "safe haven", soon became the leading destination. The BBC World Service spurred the choice by making known Hong Kong's 3-month grace period in which to make resettlement applications to a third country.[8] Hong Kong was also known for its liberal policy of allowing landed refugees the right to work. It was the peak year of arrivals, when more than 68,700 people arrived in Hong Kong.[2]

1980s – stemming the tide

The tide of refugees continued to flow, and in 1980, more than 100,000 Vietnamese sought refugee rights in Hong Kong. At this time, these migrants usually succeeded in gaining refugee status, and were eventually accepted by Western countries.

To deter the influx of refugees, new arrivals from Vietnam were interned in "closed camps" from July 1982 as possibilities for resettlement to third countries dwindled.[9] These camps were criticised for keeping freedom-seeking people "behind barbed wire".[10]

The United States started imposing stricter entry requirements on refugees in 1982 in a bid to slow the numbers accepted.[11] The refugees were predominantly economic from the mid-1980s and onwards.[12] Most refugees from Vietnam from about 1984 were part of the "orderly departure scheme" sanctioned by the Vietnamese government.[13]

By 1987, many other Western countries had lowered their quotas for Vietnamese refugees whilst the influx into Hong Kong continued to increase, peaking at some 300 a day in 1989,[14] fed by rumours that Vietnamese migrants could gain amnesty simply by landing on Hong Kong soil. The government adopted a Comprehensive Plan of Action on 16 June 1988, separating political refugees (classified as refugees) from economic refugees (classified as "boat people"). Economic refugees were considered illegal immigrants; they were denied the right to be transferred to a third country and were all sent back to Vietnam.

1990s – orderly repatriations

A Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong

There were 54,341 Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong at the end of June 1990. About 20% of them were classified as refugees, 20% as not refugees, and 60% were waiting to be screened.[15] The first forced rapatriation took place on 12 December 1989, and involved 52 Vietnamese boat people. The poor public relation handling of the action led to an international outcry.[15] The number of Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong peaked at 64,300 in October 1991.[16] In the early 1990s, the Hong Kong government began an orderly repatriation programme. It began as a voluntary programme, but it was poorly received by the Vietnamese migrants, despite an agreement with the Vietnamese government that barred retributions against the migrants upon their return. Eventually, the Hong Kong government decided to forcibly repatriate the Vietnamese boat people.[17]

The Comprehensive Plan of Action was carried out by 1994. During the late 1980s and 1990s, the Hong Kong government began to broadcast a Vietnamese radio announcement in an attempt to deter Vietnamese migrants from making way to Hong Kong. This came to be known as the Bắt đầu từ nay broadcast.

As the situation in Vietnam improved, and the flow of boat people was stemmed, Hong Kong's status as a first port of asylum was revoked on 9 January 1998. By mid-1998, there were 2,160 Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong.[16] However, until 2000, Hong Kong still issued identity cards to the boat people in Hong Kong in an effort to allow them to assimilate into the society.

2000s – integration

In February 2000, the Hong Kong government announced that it would widen the Local Resettlement Scheme for Vietnamese refugees and migrants, allowing 1,400 refugees and migrants to settle in Hong Kong. The plan applied to 973 refugees that have been stranded in Hong Kong, and 327 migrants whom the Vietnamese government refused to accept. It did not apply to Vietnamese illegal immigrants. While stating that Hong Kong would continue to enforce the policy of repatriating illegal immigrants from Vietnam, then-Secretary for Security Regina Ip also commented that "the only effective and durable solution" for the refugees and migrants was "complete integration", and that "Integration is a humanitarian solution, especially for the children of the [refugees] and [migrants] who were born in Hong Kong."[18]


Whitehead camp in 2008.
The sinking Skyluck in 1979.
Site of the former High Island Detention Centre.


The first batch of 3,743 refugees in 1975 had been settled in a civilian refugee camp in Chatham Road pending their resettlement. This camp was to be demolished in 1977.[7]

Some 2,600 refugees aboard the vessel Skyluck which arrived on 7 February 1979 were refused landing due to a shortage of facilities, and were kept on board the vessel for over 4 months. The conditions were regarded as being superior to some terrestrial "transit camps".[19] On 29 June 1979, some refugees cut the anchor chain, causing the 3,500-ton ship to drift into rocks near Lamma Island, and sink.

In June 1979, a camp was set up on a site adjacent to the Police station at Sham Shui Po (closed March 1981),[20] another was opened at Jubilee (closed November 1980);[20] the Government opened the former army camp Argyle Street Camp to accommodate an estimated 20,000 refugees;[21] the Kai Tak East Camp was set up to house an estimated 10,000; a 23-storey factory building in Tuen Mun to house an additional 16,000 was set up,[22] temporary facilities were established at the Government Dockyard and Western Quarantine Anchorage.[21]

The Chi Ma Wan Detention Centre would become the first closed camp after the Government passed the Immigration (Amendment) Bill 1982,[9] set up on 2 July. Plans for a second camp, at Hei Ling Chau, were initiated at the end of July, shortly after the arrival of 1,523 refugees in the month.[23] Another closed camp was set up in Cape Collinson.[10]

The Whitehead camp was set up in Wu Kai Sha, Sha Tin District, to accommodate 28,000. Later, from June 1989, the runway of the former military airfield at Shek Kong was turned into a holding facility to house an estimated 7,000 refugees, amidst protests from local residents.[14] Prior to the 1997 handover, the facility reverted to as an airfield and is now used by the Chinese PLA Air Force.

List of facilities

Facilities included:

Financial cost

The Security Branch revealed that, as at January 1983, the total cash outlay due to feeding and accommodating refugees had amounted to HKD 270 million, of which HKD 110 million was borne by Hong Kong, HKD120 million by the UNHCR, and the remainder by international agencies.[30]

The United Nations owed Hong Kong HKD 1.61 billion for its handling of Vietnamese boat people.[31] The loan is still outstanding.[32]

Residents from Vietnam / Hong Kong Hoa

Immigrants prior to 1970s were mainly Hoas leaving Vietnam due to anti-Chinese feeling. A handful of notable Hong Kong residents came during this period including:

Actor brothers François Wong and Stefan Wong are born in Hong Kong, but they are Hoa in origin.


  1. Cheung, Donald (27 May 1981). "Humane refugee policy will continue says official" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. p. 1.
  2. 1 2 The influx of Vietnamese boat people Immigration Department, Hong Kong Government, Accessed 2 May 2007 Archived 26 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. 1 2 Chang, Harold (25 June 1977). "5,000 on way to HK in Vietnamese armada" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. p. 1.
  4. "Govt now calls them illegal immigrants" (PDF). The Standard. Hong Kong. 23 May 1975.
  5. "Drive to place 3,750 goes on" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. 7 May 1975. p. 1.
  6. Polin, Tom (26 May 1976). "Governor calls on UNHCR to do more" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. p. 1.
  7. 1 2 Choi, Barry (25 June 1979). "War's over at last for last 31" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. p. 1.
  8. Chang, Harold (26 June 1977). "Vietnam escape trail paved with gold" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. p. 1.
  9. 1 2 Cheung, Donald (16 June 1982). "Exco 'Yes' to closed camps" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong.
  10. 1 2 Chugani, Michael (7 December 1984). "Council raps refugee policy" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong.
  11. Cheung, Donald (10 February 1982). "Boat people intake slashed" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong.
  12. "A 'Catch-22' situation over refugees" (PDF). The Standard. Hong Kong. 10 June 1983.
  13. "Friendless shore" (PDF). The Economist. 28 January 1984.
  14. 1 2 3 Griffin, Kathy; Tam, Bonnie (18 June 1989). "Local march to show anger at Viet policy" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 April 2008.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Bale, Chris (1990). Wong, Richard Y.C.; Cheng, Joseph Y.S., eds. The Other Hong Kong Report 1990. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press. pp. 159–174. ISBN 9789622014947.
  16. 1 2 3 4 Clarke, Rachel (27 May 1998). "High Island camp closes after 9 years". South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  17. McKenzie, Scott (24 September 1989). "Return trip to reality" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong.
  18. "Plan to Integrate Vietnamese Refugees and Migrants Announced". Government of the Hong Kong SAR. 22 February 2000. Retrieved 21 December 2007.
  19. "2600 call off hunger strike" (PDF). The Standard. Hong Kong. 25 June 1979.
  20. 1 2 Cheung, Donald (12 February 1981). "Refugee camps continue to close" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong.
  21. 1 2 Wong, Eileen (31 May 1979). "$125,000 a day for us to feed refugees" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong.
  22. 1 2 3 "500 move to Tuen Mun" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. 5 June 1979. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 April 2008.
  23. "Rush job on closed camp" (PDF). South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. 29 July 1982. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 April 2008.
  24. "Detention Centres for Vietnamese Migrants", Hong Kong Yearbook 1997
  25. Brief Information on Proposed Grade II Items. Items #365, 367, 369 Archived 23 February 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
  26. "Pillar Point Vietnamese Refugees Centre to close at end of May". Government of the Hong Kong SAR. 29 May 2000. Retrieved 7 September 2014.
  27. 1 2 Islands District Council. Paper No. IDC 107/2008. Draft South Soko Island Outline Zoning Plan No. S/I-SSI/E
  28. Basler, Barbara (3 September 1989). "Vietnam Refugees Riot in Hong Kong". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  29. 1 2 Batha, Emma (12 September 1996). "Advance party on way to Whitehead". South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  30. Wong, David (3 February 1983). "Cost of housing Viet refugees expected to soar" (PDF). The Standard. Hong Kong.
  31. Cheung, Carmen (25 August 1998). "HK chasing $1.6b debt from UN". The Standard. Hong Kong.
  32. "How Europe can learn from the hard lessons of Hong Kong's Vietnamese refugee crisis". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 2016-06-06.
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