Vietnamese Refugees Riot in Hong Kong Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Vietnamese refugees, known popularly as “boat people,” had lived in Hong Kong refugee camps since their arrival from Vietnam in the 1970’s. Escaping political and social turmoil in their own country, they found an uneasy refuge in Hong Kong. In 1996, Vietnamese refugees, never considered full citizens, rioted in the Whitehead Refugee Camp in anticipation of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China.

Summary of Event

Hong Kong experienced a flood of immigration during the late twentieth century. Its population was due, in large part, to refugee movements. Beginning in the late 1950’s and continuing through the 1960’s, mainland China implemented various campaigns of social control, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. These campaigns caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to immigrate to Hong Kong. The emigration from mainland China represented an escape from economic hardship and an arrival to greater freedom and safety. Riots;Hong Kong Refugees;Vietnamese Boat people (Indo-Chinese) Hong Kong, return to China [kw]Vietnamese Refugees Riot in Hong Kong (May 10, 1996) [kw]Refugees Riot in Hong Kong, Vietnamese (May 10, 1996) [kw]Riot in Hong Kong, Vietnamese Refugees (May 10, 1996) [kw]Hong Kong, Vietnamese Refugees Riot in (May 10, 1996) Riots;Hong Kong Refugees;Vietnamese Boat people (Indo-Chinese) Hong Kong, return to China [g]East Asia;May 10, 1996: Vietnamese Refugees Riot in Hong Kong[09470] [g]Hong Kong;May 10, 1996: Vietnamese Refugees Riot in Hong Kong[09470] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 10, 1996: Vietnamese Refugees Riot in Hong Kong[09470] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;May 10, 1996: Vietnamese Refugees Riot in Hong Kong[09470] Patten, Christopher Chan, Anson

During the 1970’s, Hong Kong experienced an upsurge in its economy and, subsequently, liberalized its immigration policies. Social support policies were enacted to aid and rehabilitate refugees in Hong Kong. However, by the 1980’s, Hong Kong reported a strain on government services. Hong Kong politicians pushed for the repatriation of all illegal immigrants. A national immigration dialogue ensued; the debate addressed the difference in definition between immigrant and refugee, and questioned who could stay in the country and who must leave. After 1980, the Hong Kong government created an immigration tribunal that accepted appeals from political refugees and those seeking political asylum.

Responding to social and political pressures from Southeast Asian regimes, the Hong Kong government adopted the definition of “refugee” used by the United Nations. According to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, U.N. (1951) a refugee is a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Having adopted this definition, the Hong Kong government considered all other newcomers to be illegal immigrants. A distinct difference was established between those who fled a politically repressive regime and those who sought an economically better situation.

The brutality of, and the great suffering caused by, the Vietnam War served as the impetus for hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to flee their homeland and seek refuge in other countries around Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world. Because of its proximity to Vietnam and its economic stability, Hong Kong was a country that thousands of Vietnamese saw as a potential refuge.

In April, 1975, the government in Saigon announced its unconditional surrender to North Vietnamese forces. The new communist-controlled government imprisoned people who were thought to support the old regime. Thousands of citizens were also sent to reeducation camps. This was done without the benefit of formal trials. Masses of Vietnamese were desperate to flee their war-torn homeland and to escape the newly unified Vietnam. In 1980 alone, one hundred thousand Vietnamese refugees sought asylum in Hong Kong; many of the refugees traveled in small boats, thus earning the name “boat people.”

Throughout 1970’s and 1980’s, Hong Kong was one of the many Southeast Asian countries—including Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia—to absorb thousands of refugees. Hong Kong experienced a huge surge in population growth throughout this period, due to large numbers of immigrants coming from Vietnam and mainland China.

To deal with this massive influx of population, there were three refugee conferences held in July, 1979, in Geneva, Switzerland. Each conference was convened by a different international body: the International Council of Voluntary Agencies Consultation on the Indo-China Refugee Problem, the United Nations Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in Southeast Asia, and the World Council of Churches Consultation on Indochinese Refugees. The outcome of these international conferences was the establishment of many refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia—including several in Hong Kong—to house Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese refugees.

Vietnamese refugees protest on the rooftop of the Whitehead Refugee Camp in Hong Kong in May, 1996, in anticipation of the territory’s transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Under the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a system of camps was established that housed thousands of Vietnamese in Hong Kong. At the height of immigration, about 224,000 refugees arrived in Hong Kong. Many refugee camps became overcrowded quickly.

From 1975 to 1985, Vietnam embarked on an economic campaign to nationalize business and collectivize agriculture. These measures were disastrous for Vietnam and its citizens—particularly as the country had disappointing harvests and food deficits. In addition to suffering a repressive political regime, Vietnamese citizens languished under a failing economy. Thus a second wave of economic refugees—as opposed to political refugees—predominantly from northern Vietnam, began to arrive in Hong Kong in the 1980’s. Hong Kong, because of its increasingly limited resources, wanted to stop this sort of immigration.

A surge in Vietnamese boat arrivals to Hong Kong began in 1987. In response, in 1989, the government of Hong Kong began to separate economic immigrants from political refugees. The U.N. Steering Committee of the International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees met in Geneva in June, 1989, and created the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) that sought to stem the influx of Vietnamese refugees.

Through the CPA, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees began to systematically interview all camp residents to discern if they were refugees or if they were economic immigrants. Economic immigrants were sent back to Vietnam for repatriation.

The CPA was a seven-year plan scheduled to end on March 6, 1996. By that time, all the refugee camps for Vietnamese immigrants throughout Southeast Asia were to be closed. The United Nations agreed to finance all refugee camps until June of 1996. Hong Kong camps had to be closed before the country reverted to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997; China insisted that the Vietnamese immigrants be returned to Vietnam by this time. Vietnam agreed to cooperate with Hong Kong to speed up the repatriation. The United Nations chartered more than three hundred flights back to Vietnam, returning more than 57,500 people who agreed to make the trip. The government of Hong Kong repatriated an additional 94,700 people to Vietnam.

Hong Kong’s efforts to complete this process were sidetracked when, in April, 1996, a Hong Kong high court ruled that some refugees were illegally detained. In May, the Vietnamese living in the Whitehead Refugee Camp exploded in violence. The refugees threw fire balls off the roof of the camp’s residential barracks. An estimated two hundred Whitehead residents escaped the camp. Escapees torched the camp’s administration building. Sixteen other buildings and more than forty vehicles were destroyed by fire.

Police clad in riot gear fought residents of the camp with tear gas. The Vietnamese fought back with improvised weapons, including clubs and knives. By the late afternoon, sixty-one Vietnamese had been recaptured, and twenty-two Hong Kong police, firefighters, and camp workers had been injured.

At the time of the 1996 uprising, Whitehead had 8,600 remaining Vietnamese. The government sought to liberalize its refugee policies after the 1996 Whitehead Refugee Camp uprising. It changed its policy of enclosed camps to encourage refugees to find employment outside the camps. Finally, Hong Kong imposed a deadline of May 31, 2000, for the remaining, approximately one thousand, refugees of Pillar Point, the last operational Vietnamese refugee camp, to move out. Pillar Point Camp closed in June of that year.


The conditions of the Vietnamese refugee camps in Hong Kong were deplorable. The refugees in the camps were victims of human rights violations. In reaction to these conditions and in anticipation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration—the transfer of sovereignty from British rule to the People’s Republic of China in 1997—Vietnamese refugees rioted in the Whitehead Refugee Camp in May of 1996. There was extensive damage to the camp’s property, and two hundred refugees escaped into Hong Kong’s northern New Territories. While there were no reported deaths, a number of people on both sides were injured. Riots;Hong Kong Refugees;Vietnamese Boat people (Indo-Chinese) Hong Kong, return to China

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erlanger, Steven. “U.S. and Hanoi Agree to Give Boat People One Last Chance.” The New York Times, May 15, 1996, p. A13. Describes how thousands of Vietnamese were allowed to move from Hong Kong to the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman, James M. Voices from the Camps: Vietnamese Children Seeking Asylum. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003. Accounts by Vietnamese refugee children detailing their experiences in Hong Kong refugee camps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gargan, Edward A. “Two Hundred Vietnamese Refugees Flee Detention Camp in Hong Kong; Barracks Are Set Afire in the Chaos of an Uprising.” The New York Times, May 11, 1996, p. 4. A contemporaneous report of the refugee conflict in Hong Kong.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hein, Jeremy. From Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia: A Refugee Experience in the United States. New York: Twayne, 1995. Looks at the refugee experience in the United States and the sociological impact of the displacement of Indochinese.

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Categories: History