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HKFP History: A brief history of Hong Kong’s notorious Whitehead refugee detention centre

The Whitehead refugee detention centre in Wu Kai Sha, Ma On Shan was set up in response to the influx of Vietnamese refugees during the Vietnam War. The facility had an estimated capacity of 28,000.

hong kong vietnamese boat people whitehead

Vietnamese boat people from the Whitehead detention center are crowded into a police truck for relocation to another detention center in Hong Kong, 7 April 1994. Guards fired tear gas at defiant Vietnamese inside the camp in an attempt to end weeks of protests against forced repatriation. Photo: AFP/Thomas Cheng.

In April 1994, 1,200 Correctional Services Department officers and police fired over 500 canisters of tear gas at Vietnamese asylum seekers as the authorities tried to move them from Whitehead refugee detention centre to High Island Detention Centre.

hong kong vietnamese boat people whitehead

Save our Souls (SOS) flags dot the Whitehead detention center as riot policemen assemble on building tops during a removal operation in Hong Kong 07 April 1994. Photo: AFP/Tommy Cheng.

The controversial transfer of 1,500 refugees resulted in over a hundred complaints of assault by the authorities.

An inquiry into the incident was ordered by governor Chris Patten and a report concluded that excessive force had indeed been used, the Hong Kong Human Rights Commission said.

However, a similar incident occurred again in 1995, when around 1,500 canisters of tear gas were deployed to move the Vietnamese asylum seekers.

hong kong vietnamese boat people whitehead

Vietnamese boat people climb down from the roof of their barracks at Whitehead Detention Center 13 April, 1996 during a transfer of inmates due to the closure of a section at the camp. Some 88 Vietnamese protesters earlier refused to be moved but were rounded up and transferred with little resistance. A total of 554 Vietnamese were transferred 13 April to another camp ahead of their repatriation to Vietnam. Photo: AFP/Thomas Cheng.

A year later, hundreds of refugees facing forced repatriation staged a riot at the camp. Hundreds of rounds of tear gas were fired by the police and about 200 escaped.

hong kong vietnamese boat people whitehead

Vietnamese boat people (at right) take refuge in open ground while others set fire to the center’s facilities on 10 May, 1996 at Hong Kong’s Whitehead Detention Center. One of the worst camp riots in Hong Kong’s history, 43 police, prison officers and firefighters were injured, and 26 buildings were gutted or damaged during the breakout. Secretary for Security Peter Lai said it would not deter the government from forcing the asylum seekers back to Vietnam, if necessary. Photo: AFP/Thomas Cheng.

According to a Human Rights Watch 1997 report, “Whitehead and High Island Detention Centers, two of the largest camps to accommodate boat people in Hong Kong, exemplified the prison-like regime employed by the Hong Kong government in its management of the Vietnamese.”

“The problems found in these camps raise serious questions about this type of management and the Hong Kong government’s administration of the closed camp policy.”

hong kong vietnamese boat people whitehead

On 11 May, 1996, teargas drifts over Whitehead detention center as police fire some 60 volleys in an attempt to get inmates protesting forced repatriation to Vietnam off the roofs. Authorities moved 334 boat people to High Island detention center to join the 938 they moved 10 May for forced return to Vietnam. Photo: AFP/Thomas Cheng.

hong kong vietnamese boat people whitehead

Vietnamese boatpeople stage a rooftop protest at the Whitehead detention centre on 11 March, 1997 as 102 asylum seekers were forced home. The protest started only hours after the departure of UN Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata left the territory following a two-day visit. Photo: Apple Daily/AFP/Stringer.

hong kong vietnamese boat people whitehead

Photo dated 05 December 1997 shows barbed wire fencing that once surrounded the closed refugee camp at Whitehead Detention center in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP/Thomas Cheng.

With more and more refugees being forced to return to Vietnam, Whitehead was finally closed in 1997.

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HKFP History: A brief history of Hong Kong's notorious Whitehead refugee detention centre