Monash University
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The forgotten people: the Vietnamese asylum seekers in Hong Kong's detention centres 1988-1997

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posted on 2017-02-28, 04:14 authored by Stewart, Robert Hugh
This thesis deals with the treatment of Vietnamese asylum seekers in Hong Kong after 16 June 1988, when the colony unilaterally introduced a policy of screening new arrivals for refugee status. It argues that the vast majority of Vietnamese asylum seekers who arrived in Hong Kong after this date were treated unfairly and inhumanely during their detention in purpose-built centres. It shows they were deprived of a fair hearing of their refugee status because the screening process was flawed, and then were forcibly repatriated to Vietnam in contravention of the internationally accepted norm of non-refoulement. This thesis argues that the Hong Kong government condoned widespread corruption and hardship in the detention centres of Hong Kong in an effort to speed up the removal of those Vietnamese boat people who had reached its shores and to deter more from leaving Vietnam. Further, this thesis argues that the UNHCR, the Hong Kong government and the international community failed to adequately protect the human rights of this group of Vietnamese boat people because of the adoption of flawed processes to assess their refugee status, and detain and repatriate the asylum seekers. The thesis argues that the concern of the Hong Kong government to remove the boat people from its shores and deter more from coming was politically motivated and outweighed official UNHCR policy, international law and accepted thinking on refugees. At the same time, even though the UNHCR was mandated by the international community to protect the asylum seekers, it failed to serve as a protection agency for Vietnamese asylum seekers. The thesis argues that the UNHCR’s financial dependency on nation states, such as the United Kingdom and its colony Hong Kong, compromised the protection role of the refugee agency. The thesis also identifies the failings of the international governance system for human rights in Asia, and specifically highlights the absence of a regional Human Rights Commission and the consequent lack of enforcement of human rights treaties in the region. This thesis analyses an important and largely unscrutinized episode in refugee history. The reason it is important lies in the number of procedural precedents and human rights violations that occurred, resulting in tragic consequences for this group of individuals. This situation could have been avoided or handled in a more appropriate way that was in the best interests of the asylum seekers.


Principal supervisor

Joel Atkinson

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies

Additional Institution or Organisation

Asian Studies [old name]


Master of Arts

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Faculty of Arts

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